Do Mayors' Political Fates Hang in the Outcome of Snowstorms?

History shows poor handling of snowstorms can dishevel political careers.

February 11, 2010, 2:32 PM

Feb. 11, 2010— -- Mother Nature is an unlikely opponent for politicians. But history has shown that mayoral responses to a snowstorm can determine the fate of their political careers.

"A mayor is expected to do this [efficient snow removal] and see that it's done, and if he doesn't, it's expected that he will be in real political trouble in the next election," said Andrew McFarland, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who witnessed the unraveling of Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic's political career after the February 1979 blizzard.

As the Mid-Atlantic recovers from a severe battering of snowstorms, some residents are emerging angry with the way their elected officials have dealt with the aftermath.

"The thing about snow, it is symbolic," said Vincent Cannato, a professor of American history at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, recalling the fate of New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay for his poor handling of the 1969 storm. "It's symbolic about other problems. It's symbolic about the way people see the whole city functioning."

Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has especially taken heat this week for his response to the record snowfall in the nation's capital. Critics charge that the mayor didn't move quickly enough to prepare for a storm that was predicted days in advance. He also faced criticism for his first announcement Sunday that schools would be open the next day, only to retract that statement later on.

The outrage has spread to the national arena, with MSNBC's Chris Matthews taking up the criticism against the young mayor.

"Why can't a government town do a government job?" he said on "Hardball With Chris Matthews" Wednesday. "It looked like Siberia without the Siberian discipline. We had the weather of Buffalo with the snowplowing capability of Miami.

"We've got a very sophisticated mayor this time, everybody liked him for a while," he added. "And I'm telling you, it's time for a competition in the next primary round here. I think somebody's got to run. This city needs a little better effort right now. I'd like to see some action."

Fenty said his team is trying to do what it can to expedite the clean-up process. After all, Washington, D.C., saw the most snow ever in recorded times.

"I'll tell you this," Fenty said at a news conference today. "There's been a tremendous amount of work done just since last night and there is no piece of equipment, there is no manpower, there is no other resource that we have not availed ourselves of to clean up this snow storm."

Fenty faces a tough election fight in November. And if the anger over the recent "snowmageddon" does not end soon, the race could get even tougher for the incumbent.

Another East Coast city mayor who is being bombarded with criticism is Pittsburgh's Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who was out of town celebrating his 30th birthday at a mountain resort when a record snow storm hit the city over the weekend. He took even more heat when the street in front of his and his brother's house was salted and cleared while the rest of the city remained buried underneath snow.

On being out of town, Ravenstahl said, "No one could have anticipated this."

He said his street needed to be cleaned because he has to be out and about.

On the other hand, however, too much preparation can be seen as a sign of an over-response, also a potential strike against politicians.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared a snow emergency Wednesday, 18 hours before the storm was predicted to arrive. Some say he jumped too quickly to mobilize efforts that cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

His supporters say it would have been foolish for the mayor not to respond to what was expected to be a massive snowstorm that had the potential to create havoc.

Menino didn't declare an emergency until a day after the 2007 storm hit and he, along with Massachusetts Gov. Patrick Deval, got panned for their handling of the situation.

The Politics of Snow

Mayors and city officials are all too aware of the politics of snow and the public perception of the way they deal with such situations.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker garnered much praise earlier this year when he personally went to the house of a 65-year-old resident who couldn't leave his home because of the snow blocking his driveway and walkway. Booker, along with several volunteers, shoveled the snow himself. In return, he received positive press and accolades.

New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was faced with record snowfalls in 1994 and not enough snow-removal equipment. As a result, he put scrapper blades on the front of municipal garbage trucks to clean the streets. Giuliani's unconventional method of handling a conventional storm earned him a huge boost among New Yorkers.

There are also plenty of examples of snow gone wrong for mayors.

Bilandic, who served as Chicago's mayor from 1976 to 1979, is a prime example.

"To the extent that you can point to one cause for a candidate losing, that would have been the one cause," McFarland said.

Bilandic was handed most of the blame for the mishandling of the blizzard that struck the windy city in February 1979, right before the Democratic mayoral primary in March. Bilandic had long been expected to win, McFarland said, but the negative press and discontent among residents shot down his chances and resulted in a surprise win for his opponent.

"Since this happened, it's common conventional wisdom, everybody in politics in Chicago knows that the mayor has to give No. 1 priority to snow clearance because everybody in Chicago assumes -- and I would say correctly -- that Bilandic lost on that issue," McFarland said. "That's the 'Chicago Rule,' so to speak."

Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Jr., suffered a massive political blow when he failed to respond quickly to a storm that hit the nation's capital in January 1987. While residents in the district hunkered down, Barry was attending the Super Bowl. When he finally returned to the city in a helicopter, he declared, "We're not a snow town," much to the chagrin of city officials and residents.

Lindsay, who served as New York City's mayor from 1966 to 1973, faced major backlash for giving Manhattan the preferred treatment and abandoning Queens in the snow-removal process during a storm that hit the city in February 1969.

"I think the snowstorm for Lindsay kind of capsulated a lot of people's belief that the city in general wasn't working," said Cannato, who penned a book on the former mayor, titled "The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay's New York and the Crisis of Liberalism."

Lindsay was re-elected but his legacy continues to be defined in part by the 1969 snow crisis.

"Just the snowstorm, I think people would have forgotten by the summertime, but the snowstorm symbolized all their other complaints about the city," Cannato said.

While how officials deal with snowstorms can have a significant impact on their political careers, many have come out of it unfazed.

Kevin White, who served as Boston's mayor when a powerful blizzard hit the city in 1978, was vacationing in Florida with his family when the snow storm came. He hastily made his way back to Washington and, despite not being in front of the cameras, a majority of Bostonians approved of the way he handled the situation.

On the other hand, Gov. Michael Dukakis, who became the face of response to residents of Massachusetts, lost his bid for re-election.

As for Fenty, his political opponents are likely to seize on the public discontent this week, but how it affects his political career remains to be seen.

Cannato said Fenty faced a historic storm the likes of which the city had never seen before.

"I just don't think they've [D.C.] ever dealt with this before, this just doesn't happen," he said.