How Snow Sacks Mayors Again and Again

It actually makes sense for some people to obsess over Northeast snow storms.

Visitors enjoy the snow on Broadway January 2, 2014 on Times Square in New York. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Jan. 3, 2014, 5:07 a.m.

It’s a “po­ten­tially de­fin­ing mo­ment in the in­fancy” of Bill de Bla­sio’s New York may­or­alty, says The New York Times. It’s the kind of thing that can cause a massive swing in ap­prov­al rat­ings. It’s taken down may­ors. It’s already com­plic­at­ing a polit­ic­al trans­ition in Bo­ston. And it’s cre­ated a so­cial-me­dia whiteout that’s made Twit­ter all but use­less.

What is it, you ask? It’s snow, and if for some reas­on you haven’t already heard, it’s cur­rently blanket­ing much of the North­east. For some may­ors’ polit­ic­al fu­tures, this ac­tu­ally mat­ters.

The cur­rent half-foot of snow in Cent­ral Park may sound like no big deal for any­one from the Mid­w­est. But New York City has a habit of turn­ing on its may­ors when snow sticks around for too long. Take the Christ­mas bliz­zard in 2010, which brought more than 20 inches of snow. When plows were slow to clean up the mess, city politi­cians were among the first to re­volt. “New York today looks like a Third World coun­try,” City Coun­cil mem­ber Dav­id Green­field said two days after the storm hit. May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg should have de­clared a snow emer­gency be­fore the storm, said the then-pub­lic ad­voc­ate, Bill de Bla­sio. “This is not busi­ness as usu­al,” de Bla­sio said in the days fol­low­ing the storm, “and frus­tra­tion is mount­ing.”

Politi­cians wer­en’t alone in turn­ing on Bloomberg; the people did, too. It didn’t help that Bloomberg was con­spicu­ously ab­sent from New York dur­ing the early hours of the storm, in­stead likely re­lax­ing in the warmth of Ber­muda. A Mar­ist/NY1 poll in the Janu­ary fol­low­ing the storm found that Bloomberg’s ap­prov­al rat­ing had dropped to a near-re­cord low, with just 37 per­cent of the city’s re­gistered voters say­ing they thought the may­or was do­ing a “good” or “ex­cel­lent” job. That was down from 50 per­cent as re­cently as two months be­fore the storm. The whole ex­per­i­ence scarred Bloomberg’s third term.

Fri­day morn­ing, the new may­or is tak­ing at least one cue from his pre­de­cessor: He’s out shov­el­ing snow him­self.

In Bo­ston, a polit­ic­al trans­ition is rid­ing on snow. Long­time May­or Tom Men­ino hasn’t yet handed his city’s reins over to May­or-elect Marty Walsh; that will hap­pen of­fi­cially on Monday. But one of the first things Walsh said to Men­ino after his vic­tory “was ‘we gotta talk about snow.’ ” The two par­ti­cip­ated in a mock snowstorm drill in early Decem­ber. And on Thursday, Walsh named an act­ing snow czar for the start of his ad­min­is­tra­tion. With more than a foot of snow cur­rently cov­er­ing Bo­ston, that looks to have been a pretty sage move.

Snow has cre­ated many not­able polit­ic­al cas­u­al­ties. Wil­li­am Mc­Nich­ols, who was then Den­ver’s second-longest serving may­or, lost his job fol­low­ing a 1982 bliz­zard that shut down the city for two days, leav­ing him with the brunt of the blame. New York City May­or John Lind­say’s ad­min­is­tra­tion al­most fell apart fol­low­ing a 15-inch snow­fall in 1969. A 1979 bliz­zard was enough to cost Chica­go May­or Mi­chael Bil­and­ic a primary elec­tion.

And Wash­ing­ton, as any res­id­ent knows, has a par­tic­u­larly odd re­la­tion­ship with snow. It doesn’t come much, but when it comes, even in small bursts, it dis­rupts nearly everything. The cur­rent storm may not have been enough to shut­ter the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, but it took only an ex­pec­ted-but-nev­er-real­ized storm in Decem­ber to shut the whole thing down.

The city’s may­ors have also had some rough en­coun­ters with powder. Take Mari­on Barry. In 1987, soon after win­ning his third term as may­or, Barry was in sunny south­ern Cali­for­nia for the Su­per Bowl while D.C. was fa­cing a multistorm on­slaught. Wash­ing­ton got 26 inches of snow, and Barry even­tu­ally turned up in the city six days after the first storm hit, to in­tense cri­ti­cism. Of course, it took a very dif­fer­ent kind of powder to truly dis­rupt Barry’s third term in of­fice.

More re­cently, D.C. May­or Ad­ri­an Fenty took a beat­ing for his hand­ling of the Feb­ru­ary 2010 “snow­po­ca­lypse,” which came dur­ing an elec­tion year. While The New York Times and oth­ers cred­ited the storm with doom­ing Fenty’s reelec­tion, the storm was nev­er really much of an is­sue in the cam­paign against even­tu­al win­ner Vin­cent Gray. And while polling after the 2010 storm showed that Fenty took a hit, it wasn’t any­thing life-al­ter­ing, or even Bloombergesque. In any event, in an elec­tion year, it def­in­itely be­hooves Gray to be on his best be­ha­vi­or with the cur­rent bit of D.C. snow. At the mo­ment, his team seems quite pre­pared.

Ob­sess­ing over snow in the North­east of­ten seems ab­surd. A near-live stream of cable news cor­res­pond­ents out in in­clement weath­er of­ten seems ex­cess­ive. But for big-city may­ors, sweat­ing every de­tail of every snowstorm cer­tainly seems like the way to go.

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