THAT'S THE GIST of the media coverage Jane Byrne received after she beat the Democratic machine to become the first-and only-woman mayor in Chicago history. Reporters and editors didn't know quite what to make of her. She wasn't like Mayor Richard J. Daley. She wasn't a ward boss. She wasn't . . . a man.
That was a long 25 years ago. Now there's an entire generation of Chicago voters who, if they've heard of Byrne at all, think of her as an oddity, a quaint historical footnote.
These voters weren't around that electric primary election night in 1979 when Byrne trounced the vaunted Democratic machine. It wasn't just a 10 on the political Richter scale. It was as if the earth had opened up and swallowed the Picasso sculpture in one gulp.
For a town where politics has always been entertainment, it was a rollicking time. It seemed as though you couldn't turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without being smacked by another wild tale from the Byrne administration.
One day it might be a controversy over her expensive office redecoration, another day her surprise decision to move into an apartment in Cabrini-Green, one of the city's most notorious public housing developments.
Now, a quarter century since Byrne took office, is an opportune moment to assess how fairly she was treated by a political establishment that, for the first time, had to answer to a woman in the city's most powerful job.
Byrne says she knew she would win in her very first try for elected office. If so, she had to be the only one who thought so. To City Hall, she was no threat-"only Jane Byrne," in the words of a memo from her rival's files. At the time, women were still something of a novelty in public office and there were few female business executives.
The mostly male crowd of reporters who jammed into the small room at her Gold Coast apartment building on April 24, 1978, to hear her announce her candidacy were-to put it mildly-unimpressed.
In overheated rhetoric that became a Byrne trademark, she promised to take on the Democratic machine candidate and the "cabal of evil men" who were running the city.
She was good TV, agreed the journalists, who had known no mayors except Daley and his colorless successor, Michael Bilandic. And they agreed on one other thing: She didn't stand a chance.
Byrne today is as outspoken, candid and unforgiving of her critics as she was back then. Yes, let history record she's still tiny, feisty-and blond.
She's 70 years old ("Don't remind me!") and most of her time is devoted to being a grandmother to 7-year-old Willy. He is the precocious only child of Byrne's only child, Kathy, a personal-injury lawyer with the Loop firm Cooney and Conway. Kathy was a college student when Byrne was elected mayor and now, at 46, is two years older than her mother was on Election Day 1979.
Byrne still has the occasional speaking engagement-at $5,000 to $10,000 per, she says-which she works around Willy's schedule. Her 1992 book, "My Chicago," was reissued this year, and she recently filmed a commercial for the Weather Channel, a pitch about how the weather can change your life.
She, of all people, should know.
On New Year's Eve, 1978, Byrne knelt, as was her custom, to say a prayer for the coming year. When 1979 dawned, there were 22 inches of fresh snow. For most people, it was just another wicked Chicago blizzard. For Byrne, it turned out to be an answered prayer.
The series of snowstorms that began that night is the first thing most people bring up when recalling Byrne's defeat of Daley's heir, Bilandic. A record total of 90 inches of snow, falling in just a few weeks, paralyzed the city. Trains and buses, those that could move, were hours late. Side streets were impassable for months. Fights broke out over parking spots, and the unplowed snow-mounds of filthy gray, frozen misery-turned voters from inconvenienced, to angry, to outraged.
Chicagoans could overlook many of the Democratic machine's sins as long as it delivered the basic services. Now that fragile pact was kaput.