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.