77° Good Evening
77° Good Evening

Blizzards and political fortunes

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post.

It was not hype. Everything you heard about the severity of the Great Blizzard that hit New York and New Jersey is true. The response to big storms of this sort by governors and mayors can break (and, occasionally make) political careers. We'll see if this one has that sort of impact.

First, the storm itself: On Sunday night, driving from a Manhattan birthday party into Queens, my family and I had a harrowing ride up the Belt Parkway and across the Gil Hodges Bridge, buffeted by 30-mile-an-hour gusts and snow falling at the rate of a couple of inches an hour. (Kudos to my wife, Mary Boyle, for getting us home safely.) By morning, drifting snow half covered the windows at the side of the house, and nothing was moving on the streets. It was quite beautiful when the sun broke through, but it was a dangerous sort of beauty if you were thinking of driving.

Which we were. We headed back to Washington shortly before 1 p.m., and the Rockaway side streets were an abominable mess. We got stuck behind stranded cars five times on the way out. Once we got on the highway, though, all was clear: The Verrazano Bridge was amazingly quick, and the crews that worked Staten Island and the Jersey Turnpike have our gratitude.

I offer our little personal travelogue to underscore the obvious: In the middle of something like this, big philosophical debates about government don't mean much. You just want government to do its job getting the streets and highways clear, the transit running, and emergency services responding quickly.

There are a number of classic cases of politicians not getting it done and suffering accordingly.

Perhaps most famously, the late John V. Lindsay, who had been elected as a charismatic and reforming mayor of New York City in 1965, became a public enemy in Queens after the blizzard of February 1969, when the city found itself near paralysis for three days. As Sewall Chan noted in an excellent recounting of Lindsay's experience in The New York Times, "The city's environmental protection administrator was upstate and unreachable, and nearly 40 percent of the city's snow removal equipment was defective because of poor maintenance, both factors that hampered the city's response." The outer boroughs (i.e., the non-Manhattan majority of the city) felt abandoned, a sentiment especially strong in middle-class Queens, which, as Chan noted, "was relegated to the status of a neglected stepchild. For days, the streets were impassable, and residents were all but barricaded inside their homes."

Lindsay survived to win the next election, largely because conservative opponents split, but also because he ran one of the great apology ads in American history. Vincent Cannato recounts the ad in his highly critical biography of Lindsay, "The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York." Cannato wrote: "The ad featured a relaxed Lindsay standing on the porch of Gracie Mansion, dressed in shirt sleeves with the top button open. The mayor looked earnestly into the camera and told voters: 'I guessed wrong on the weather before the city's biggest snowfall last winter. And that was a mistake. But I put 6,000 more cops on the streets. And that was no mistake. The school strike went on too long and we all made some mistakes. But I brought 225,000 more jobs to this town. And that was no mistake. ... And we did not have a Detroit, a Watts or Newark. And those were no mistakes. The things that go wrong are what make this the second toughest job in America. But the things that go right are those things that make me want it."'

Then there was the storm that made Jane Byrne the mayor of Chicago. This account, courtesy of Northern Illinois University, explains why snow and ice ended the political career of Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic:

"Without minimizing the strengths of Byrne as a candidate or the brilliant campaign she ran in the weeks preceding the Feb. 27 primary, Bilandic would still be mayor of Chicago if the city had not suffered an onslaught of ice, snow and bitter cold during January that was without precedent. The snow covered the city, and the divisive race issue was buried along with everything else.

"The 'city that works' stopped working and as snow-clogged streets remained impassable and uncollected garbage piled up in alleys, Bilandic seemed unable to cope with the problem. Byrne's television commercials, in which the grim-faced challenger huddled in heavy winter clothes against a background of snow, spoke to the frustration of Chicagoans with the terrible winter.

And so what of this year's storm? The early reviews of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's performance were mixed. Tuesday morning's account in the New York Post was especially tough -- and the New York tabloids are usually the best places to look for responses to events of this sort. Under the headline, "Fury as city is paralyzed by blizzard," the Post wrote:

"New Yorkers endured a crippled transit system, completely overwhelmed emergency responders and unpassable roadways yesterday after one of the city's worst blizzards ever dumped a staggering 20 inches of snow.

"Abandoned vehicles and buses littered highways and main drags -- and ambulances couldn't make it out to calls that stacked up well past 1,000 at one point. Virtually all modes of transportation -- from air travel to the subways -- left people stranded.

" 'A lot of snow everyplace. It was a very heavy snowfall, and, as you know, it was accompanied by intense winds,' Mayor Bloomberg said.

"Still, he tried to convince the public all was well, despite the city's $20 million snow-removal bill.

" 'This city is going on. It's a day like every other day,' Bloomberg said, suggesting people go out and shop or take in a Broadway show. 'There's no reason everybody to panic.'

"Anyone who spent time outside would disagree.''

Bloomberg has made his mark as a manager, and a good one, so it will be important to watch how he comes out of Day Two and Day Three of this.

In New Jersey, the interesting story is that Gov. Chris Christie and his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, were both out of state. Worse, Christie's actual vacation location allowed Ben Smith of Politico to run his item under the headline: "Christie at Disney World." As Smith wrote: "Political lore holds that snow storms are iconic tests for executives, and one famously helped turn John Lindsay's mayoralty sour. So it is, at least, notable that Chris Christie didn't fly back from his Disney World vacation for this week's blizzard. He's thrived on the image of a take-charge executive; natural disasters are the sort of moment when an executive is supposed to take charge." Christie is now a big deal in national Republican politics, and the fact that Smith took notice of Christie's absence for his national audience of political junkies is significant.

The local coverage, so far as I can tell, is a bit more charitable because only some Democrats have jumped on Christie and because a lot of the attacks are hitting Guadagno for being out of state at the same time Chritie was. Here is part of Matt Friedman's account in the Newark Star-Ledger:

"A Democratic lawmaker is questioning why both Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno are out of state at the same time, leaving Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) as the state's acting governor during a blizzard that paralyzed the state.

" 'We clearly made a mistake if we created the office lieutenant governor and wasted money if the lieutenant governor is not going to be here when the governor is out of state,' said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). 'It's being handled very well by Sen. Sweeney, but you have to really question the purpose of the office.'

"Christie in on vacation with his family at Disney World in Florida, while Guadagno is with her family in Mexico, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said. Sunday, hours after taking the oath to become acting governor, Sweeney declared a state of emergency.....

"Sweeney, for his part, would not criticize the Republicans either.

" 'It's easy to criticize. I'm not going to do that. It happened. There was a scheduling conflict,' said Sweeney, who noted he won't use any of his temporary executive powers to do anything Christie would not have done. 'I am sure for the governor, this was not the ideal situation for him, me being a Democrat him being a Republican.' "

New Jersey seems to have done pretty well with the snow, and Sweeney has now lifted the state of emergency. Maybe this is the beginning of Stephen Sweeney's political rise. He's probably grateful that Christie is in Disney World.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.