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How Bad Weather Can Bury a Politician’s Career

Posted on Dec 31, 2010

By Eugene Robinson

If you’re a politician, beware of snow. It can bury a career.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are learning that lesson the hard way, as their angry constituents dig out of last weekend’s blizzard. Bloomberg is being hammered for the city’s slow and incompetent response, especially in the outer boroughs; Christie, for jetting off to Walt Disney World just before the storm dumped nearly 3 feet of snow in parts of his state.

The two beleaguered officials—both of whom are rumored to have national ambitions—should have had a consultation with Marion Barry.

In January 1987, Barry kicked off his third term as mayor of Washington with a trip to Southern California for the Super Bowl. While he was getting a manicure and playing tennis at the posh Beverly Hilton, the voters who had elected him were being buried under 20 inches of snow. The city was utterly paralyzed—streets unplowed, buses immobilized, subway barely running. The mayor continued to frolic in the sun.

Are you getting any of this, Gov. Christie?


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Finally, Barry came home. He wanted to survey the situation, so he had to tour the city by helicopter; his limousine, he explained, would have gotten stuck in the snow. His aerial assessment: “We’re not a snow town.”

Unbelievably, that wasn’t Barry’s first unfortunate encounter with winter weather. In 1979, barely into his first term, he was vacationing in Miami when an 18-inch snowfall shut down the city. When he got home, a reporter asked how people were supposed to get to work. “Take a bus,” Barry said. Informed that the buses weren’t running, Barry modified his advice: “They can walk.”

It’s unlikely that anyone will top Barry for grossly mishandling the aftermath of a snowstorm—and anyway, it was white powder of a different kind that led to his downfall. But his is hardly the only example.

In 1979, Michael Bilandic was expected to cruise to re-election as mayor of Chicago. He had the support of the Democratic machine, which usually guaranteed victory. But a series of big snowstorms that winter turned “the city that works” into “the city that couldn’t get to work,” with some neighborhoods left unplowed for weeks. Minorities and working-class whites felt particularly neglected.

Jane Byrne, an unlikely challenger in the Democratic mayoral primary, took advantage of Bilandic’s missteps by filming campaign ads on snowbound streets. She won narrowly—and went on to become the first woman to serve as Chicago’s mayor. Bilandic spent the rest of his career in the worthy obscurity of the state appellate bench.

Paying attention, Mayor Bloomberg?

Snow can make voters forget all the good things you’ve done. Bill McNichols, who served as mayor of Denver for 14 years, is generally given credit for the city’s cosmopolitan growth. But a blizzard deposited 2 feet of snow on Christmas Eve, 1982—when city workers were at home with their families, not out clearing impassible streets and airport runways. How many Denver residents had their holiday travel plans ruined? Enough to get McNichols bounced out of office a few months later.

Snow eventually melts, but hardened hearts may not.

Bloomberg’s inept handling of the snowstorm traced a familiar arc. First he acted as if everything was fine when clearly that was not the case. Then he seemed to judge the city’s progress against the snow by what was happening in Manhattan, much of which was quickly plowed—as opposed to parts of Brooklyn and Queens, which remained buried. Finally, by Wednesday, Bloomberg was paying attention to the other boroughs and acknowledging that the city had done a lousy job.

At least the mayor, who rides the subway to work, was in town to experience the blizzard in solidarity with his fellow New Yorkers. It’s one thing to make mistakes. It’s quite another to vacation merrily in Florida, the home of sunshine and orange juice, while the state you govern is being lashed by frigid gales and crippled by once-in-a-generation snow totals. Which is what Christie did.

The Republican governor had been getting good press for his tough-minded budget cuts. Now some of those cuts are being blamed for the slow response to the storm.

What’s the right way to handle snow? Look at Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who’s been going around the city with his shovel, helping constituents dig out—and telling the world about it via Twitter.

Be there. Do something. Is that so hard?

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, January 3, 2011 at 11:39 am Link to this comment

Talk about a “shovel ready” project!

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, January 1, 2011 at 10:55 pm Link to this comment

ITW—I see I have written, and been understood, with the usual degree of clarity.

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By samosamo, January 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment


ITW, I agree on neen006 needing policing. Every
time I see ‘it’ I click on ‘report this’, as well as
another ‘marketer’ who occasionally appears. I
would have thought TD would spot that right off
and act on it, but maybe they are getting a cut.

But on the snow thing, maybe eugene is doing
them a service by alerting them to the hazards of
not efficiently dealing with the huge snow dumps
that could terminate their political careers while
closing the door on a way of getting rid of those
thoughtless and suffer inducing public officials in
a rather ‘efficient’ way.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm Link to this comment

No, Anarcissie, a foot and a half of snow should NOT have paralyzed the city the way it did. Cutting back on drivers and equipment, betting that “global warming” means less snow is what did it.

I grew up just north of the City, and I remember FAR bigger snow falls that were cleaned up much faster.  I now live just west of it, and in the last 20 years we’ve had FAR bigger falls as well, that got cleaned up faster and safer, too.

Snow removal comes down to labor and equipment, plus, of course, advance planning.  If you cut spending on all 3, you have what happened in New York City and in New Jersey.

The results of the Reagan Republican creed for the last 30 years blatantly showed its intrinsic contradictions and failures yet again with the Dec 26 blizzard.

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By AronBlue, December 31, 2010 at 4:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the granddaddy of all snow/mayor
disasters:  Mayor John Lindsay and the storm of 1969.  From wikipedia:

On February 10, 1969, New York City was hit with 15 inches of snow, the worst in 8 years. On the first day, 14 people died and 68 were injured. Within a day, the mayor was criticized for giving favored treatment to Manhattan at the expense of some areas of The Bronx, Staten Island and Queens. Over a week later, streets in eastern Queens remained unplowed, enraging residents. ... The blizzard, dubbed the “Lindsay Snowstorm”, prompted a political crisis that became “legendary in the annals of municipal politics"as the scenes, captured on national television, conveyed a message that the mayor of New York was indifferent to the middle class.

Of course, Lindsay was eventually re-elected on The Liberal Party ballot, even though he was primaried out of his own (republican) party.  But after a disastrous term he never served in public office again.

Talk about the ghost of christmas past, eh, Emperor Bloomie?

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, December 31, 2010 at 2:09 pm Link to this comment

Curiously, about a quarter of the electorate seem to vote based on their feelings about events and situations with which political leadership has little or no connection, like the weather or the success of athletic teams.  In New York City, it’s true that much has been allowed to decay under Bloomberg.  Bloomberg’s main interest seems to be in advancing gentrification, which means a lot of attention must be paid to the glitz that sells real estate to the fatuous, at the cost of taking care of such dreary institutions as the schools, public health, and the poor old Department of Sanitation.  Who among the wealthy wants to think about garbage?

However, the main problem is that a foot and a half of snow fell on the city, and given budget constraints, no one wants to pay for the equipment and personnel to take care of the emergency before it’s too late.  Same deal as Katrina, basically.

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By glogrrl, December 31, 2010 at 11:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Governor Cory Booker….has a nice ring to it.

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By Inherit The Wind, December 31, 2010 at 9:44 am Link to this comment

“Snow can make voters forget all the good things you’ve done.”

It’s as simple as that. Snow is at your door. That shovel and those un-plowed streets are right there in front of you, right here, right now. If you can’t get to the store or the hospital, it’s a real danger.

Making sure the budget deficit will be reduced by 10% a year through 2015 is nice, but its effects aren’t as obvious and blatant as failure to remove snow.

It’s just that fundamental. Politicians who cannot get this basic service to function don’t deserve to retain their office.

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By Inherit The Wind, December 31, 2010 at 9:34 am Link to this comment

This asshole neen006 persists in spamming us with his counterfeit name brands.  TD, please police the threads more!

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By Bob Friend, December 31, 2010 at 9:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You forgot to mention the most famous politician whose
career was stopped short by a snowstorm: John Lindsey. 
He had presidential ambitions, and he never went
anywhere after he failed to get Queens plowed for three

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