How the 1979 Blizzard Altered Chicago’s History Forever

In the afternoon of Friday, January 12th in 1979, flurries began. By the late afternoon, more than 5 inches of new snow had fallen.

Two days later when the blizzard finally stopped, more than 20 inches of snow had descended upon Chicago, and for the next week, the city didn’t move.

The Chicago blizzard of 1979 is still one of the worst winter storms the city has ever experienced. It shut down streets, public transportation, and airports. It caved in roofs, and left people stranded for days. But what made the ’79 blizzard truly remarkable wasn’t its record snowfall, it was the fact that the ’79 blizzard changed the political future of Chicago.

No plows = no re-election

The blizzard of ’79 began in the late afternoon of Friday, January 12th. Every local newscast that evening talked exclusively about the storm. If you watched CBS Chicago (as most Chicagoans did back then), you saw legendary newscaster Bill Kurtis warn Chicagoans to stay at home and only venture out if it was an absolute emergency.

The other thing people tuning into the evening news saw was Chicago Mayor Anthony Bilandic live, in studio, delivering information about the snow removal process and the precautions city residents should take to stay safe.

But as the snow piled up, so did the problems for Mayor Bilandic.

Whether it was the city’s poor planning, poor execution, or simply too much snow, Chicago streets soon became covered in over 20 inches of snow, and stayed that way. A week after the first snowflakes fell, many residential streets still remained unplowed. People were stranded in their homes, firetrucks and ambulances had trouble getting to emergencies, and city residents quickly started asking why city hall wasn’t doing more. The mayor’s office began taking the heat.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Up until the blizzard of ’79 Jane Byrne was a mid-to-high ranking official in the Chicago city government. She served in a number of different city offices until being appointed head of Chicago’s consumer affairs department. Byrne was an ally of Mayor Richard J. Daley but when he died, she was quickly fired from her position when Mayor Bilandic took over and began installing his chosen people in city leadership.

Not one to be cast aside on the political ash heap, Byrne announced her candidacy for Mayor in 1977. By all measures, she was an underdog—an extreme underdog. Chicago politics is cutthroat, and since Byrne was relatively unknown with little money or influence, most Chicago politicos expected Bilandic to defeat Byrne easily and coast to a second term.

But after being trapped under snow for a week, Chicagoans were having second thoughts about Mayor Bilandic.

The mayoral primary (which is the most significant city election since Chicago is overwhelmingly Democratic) was February 27th, 1979. And even though the snow was cleared by then, Jane Byrne didn’t let Chicagoans forget who they should blame for the abysmal storm response. She filmed political ads with snowflakes falling in the background, she posed for newspaper photos in front of massive snow drifts and unplowed streets, and she rarely let a press conference go by without talking about the city’s snow removal.

Byrn’s snow job paid off.

Chicago voters booted Bilandic from office and elected Jane Byrne as the first female mayor of the City of Chicago.

And no one was confused about why Bilandic lost.

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