Navigating the politics of snowstorms can be tricky for officials

After two recent snowstorms closed the federal government and schools across the region, people began digging out. The season's snow tally in D.C. reached 55.6 inches Wednesday -- more than the last record of 54.4 inches, set in 1898-99.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty spoke in the shadow of the District's towering salt dome. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley urged patience from the same control center where emergency workers tracked the impact of this week's dual storms. And Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell conducted phone conferences with reporters while largely following his regular schedule.

The latest snowstorm to blast through the region has thrust local leaders into a particularly tight spot. Their snow budgets are bursting, if not blown, at a time of unprecedented fiscal pressures. Plows, salt trucks and the crews that drive them have been exhausted. And residents who had been patient with the pace of snow-clearing are growing weary of being trapped in their homes, in some cases without power.

Few events underscore the role of government in everyday life so acutely as a crippling blizzard, and each new snowstorm presents a new demand for elected officials to prove themselves.

"A snowfall done well has very little political upside," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who knows a little something about inclement weather. "A snowfall done poorly can be the worst thing for a mayor."

'A hard battle'

Some Washington area residents have been understanding of the difficulties officials face as they try to clear ice-clogged residential streets and keep up with Wednesday's whiteout conditions. Jay Caplan, 66, a retired government lawyer who was shoveling the steps of his Capitol Hill apartment, said Fenty (D) has done a "very credible, very competent job" considering the unusual severity of the storms.

"It's a hard battle, but they did all right for such a gigantic quantity of snow," he said.

But homeowners in Annandale's Camelot subdivision in Fairfax County have lost patience. After several personal vehicles, a mail truck and two Verizon trucks became stuck on secondary roads this week amid downed power lines, some residents gave the official response a scathing review. "This is ridiculous!" one woman wrote on the neighborhood Internet board. "We pay enough in our taxes NOT to be ignored."

Some residents of Montgomery County have been similarly displeased with the pace of plowing. "My question to somebody who was in a position of power is, 'What the hell happened to suburban Maryland?' " said Alan Kraut, an American University history professor who lives on Sonoma Road in Bethesda.

He did not think the storm would have long-term political repercussions, however. "One of the advantages that politicians always have is that most constituents have short memories, and by the time spring comes and flowers are blooming, an awful lot of people will have forgotten about the lousy service we got during the blizzard."

Fenty, who is running for reelection this year, has tried to show he is conducting business as usual while overseeing the city's snow-removal operations. He has shuttled between news conferences, driving himself in a Smart Car on some of the District's (ostensibly cleared) streets, to announce a new government Web site or use the city's municipal salt dome as a backdrop.

He got generally good reviews for his handling of the December snowstorm. But he faced fierce criticism from parents Sunday when he initially announced that schools would open two hours late on Monday despite the blizzard, which smacked the region with two feet of snow over the weekend. He later changed course and closed school doors Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Wednesday, O'Malley (D) asked residents to lower their expectations for road-clearing. "We are all accustomed and desire to see our county and city crews . . . being able to scrape the snow down to the pavement. That will not be a possibility over the next 72 hours," he said.

McDonnell (R), who was sworn in last month, canceled some of his regular activities but has largely kept to his schedule. On Wednesday, he unveiled an education initiative in Richmond, which escaped the brunt of that day's storm. He has held fewer media briefings than O'Malley and held conference calls with the media Saturday and Sunday from the Emergency Operations Center in Richmond.

The politics of snow

Navigating the politics of snow can make for some treacherous winter driving. If officials overreact, their communities could become a national laughingstock, as Washington did last year when President Obama accused his new home town of lacking a certain "flinty Chicago toughness" in the face of winter. If they act too nonchalantly, they risk alienating voters, as former D.C. mayor Marion Barry did when he sat out a pair of snowstorms in 1987, choosing not to interrupt his Southern California vacation. If they handle it with aplomb, hardly anyone will notice because they will have done what is expected of them.

They must keep an eye on the budget. State and local officials were already contending with one of the worst financial pictures in recent history, battered by the recession. The situation will be exacerbated by this year's extraordinary winter weather, which is approaching record levels and will probably have repercussions for government coffers.

"It's very tricky for a city like Washington or New York, large cities that get these infrequent but potentially large snowfalls," said James Campbell, a professor of management science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who has researched urban snow removal. "It would be extremely expensive for a city like Washington to have on call the equipment and manpower you need every 20 years. I'm not sure it would be wise to devote that much of your public works budget to such an event."

Staff writers Aaron C. Davis, Rosalind S. Helderman, Derek Kravitz, Anita Kumar, Michael Laris, Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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