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Dawidziak: Steve Bellone's trial by fire

Suffolk County Executive, Steve Bellone, and Suffolk County

Suffolk County Executive, Steve Bellone, and Suffolk County police department chief, James Burke, near command post on Wading River Manor Road in Manorville. (April 10, 2012) Photo Credit: James Carbone

Emergencies and disasters make for trying times for elected officials. They have to coordinate response services, keep the public and the media informed, and actually deal with the situation . . . all at the same time. These demands fall squarely on the shoulders of the executives, be they presidents, governors, mayors or county executives. Such has been the case with the wildfires in Suffolk County.

County Executive Steve Bellone was thrust into the glare of public scrutiny last week, and again yesterday when a large fire broke out in Manorville. This major test of his county leadership skills comes just four months into his tenure. He seemed to be everywhere last week: at the scene of the fire, briefing the media and visiting an injured firefighter.

In this kind of situation, an executive has to look informed, cool-headed and in command. That's no mean trick when being peppered with questions while the cameras are continually on you. But Bellone has certainly risen to the occasion. (In the interest of full disclosure, my wife is employed by Suffolk County, though she was not hired by Bellone.) No elected official ever wishes for disaster, but the truth is that these are the times when leaders get the chance to shine. Voters get to see the qualities of their executives and feel reassured by their command presence.

This is reminiscent of then-Suffolk Executive Robert Gaffney's handling of the 1995 pine barrens fire, as well as the crash of TWA Flight 800 the following year. Gaffney's ex-FBI, man-in-charge persona served him well, and he became a reassuring figure to a concerned citizenry. I served as his campaign manager that year, and it showed in his poll numbers, which skyrocketed after the pine barrens fire and led to a landslide re-election, with over 65 percent of the vote.

Nationally, there are many examples of grace in the face of adversity by executives, who were then rewarded with burgeoning approval ratings. In the difficult days after the 9 / 11 terrorist attack, the leadership of Rudy Giuliani, another former client, took him from sagging poll numbers to "America's Mayor."

On the flip side, mishandling a crisis can have a devastating effect on a leader's public image. Then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused her poll numbers to plummet. It didn't matter that the blunders weren't all her fault; the inability to direct an effective response can kill a political career. Indeed, facing greatly reduced approval ratings, Blanco opted not to run for re-election two years later.

Such was also the case for Mayor Tom Bradley after the Los Angeles Police Department failed to adequately respond to the race riots that erupted after the acquittal of police in the Rodney King beating trial in 1992. Bradley decided not to seek a sixth term in 1993.

President George W. Bush, of course, has seen both sides of this crisis management coin. His poll numbers rose dramatically as he pulled the American people together in the days after the 9 / 11 attacks. Four years later, he took the blame for the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and his approval rating took a hit.

Bellone gets a well-deserved "good job" for his handling of Suffolk's fires. Hopefully, the disasters can be kept at bay. But if they aren't, Suffolk residents can be confident their executive was literally tested by fire.

Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.


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