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

History shows poor handling of snowstorms can dishevel political careers.

ByABC News
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.