Snowstorms can predict fortunes of U.S. mayors

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; B01

Take a look around. Are you at your desk? How is your blood pressure? Did you narrowly escape a circle of hell on the roads this morning?

Or are you still trapped at home, cowering in the corner as your kids refine the world's biggest popsicle-stick structure because schools are still closed and you are in Day 12 of your captivity?

The way you answer these questions might decide how you vote the rest of the year.

Patience is wearing thin. Rage is bubbling. The grace period granted for the sheer magnitude of the biggest snowstorm in our region's recent history is set to expire about today. And if our area is still struggling to return to normalcy, it could be the breaking point for faith in many of our local leaders.

Plenty of sentiment has been building against D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in the past two weeks, for sure.

The snowpack of a century couldn't have been more poorly timed for the once-popular mayor. He'd already been getting the cold shoulder from voters, even though they are generally happy with city services.

Make that were happy.

Making fun of the District and Fenty became a national sport this past weekend, as jokes about the $100-million-a-day government shutdown because of snow became part of the American conversation.

On his MSNBC show, "Hardball," Chris Matthews threw snowballs at Fenty and predicted that this might signal the end of his political ascent. Even the Weather Channel was running sound bites from people disgruntled with the city's snow-removal performance.

The Weather Channel.

And ordinarily, I'd be right there with them.

I grew up in the snow. My brother was a city snowplow operator, and my dad's two snowblowers are the pride of the neighborhood. Over the years, I've sent pictures of our two-inch-deep panic to my folks, and we all have a good laugh.

But this time, even I cut us some slack for Snowmageddon. Instead of complaining, we shoveled and salted and stockpiled and sledded.

The snowplow operators worked around the clock. (I wonder if they figured out the trick my brother always used: He knew exactly where on the engine block to put the frozen burrito so it would be hot when he finished his shift.)

But after 11 days, most of us expect our local governments to have figured things out.

When we tried to sputter back to life Friday, it was a catastrophe.

AAA called it the worst commuting day in the region's history. Some folks were stuck in traffic so long they ran out of gas.

People were angry at the federal government for opening too soon, unions were peeved at Fenty for restarting operations while many of them were snowed in, and parents were going out of their minds because kids were still out of school.

Okay, so, nevermind. Let's hit the reset button and call Tuesday the real first day back to business after the storm. But not everywhere.

Howard, Anne Arundel, Frederick, Prince George's and Alexandria schools kept their schools shut yet another day, exasperating many parents. Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery announced they would open with a two-hour delay.

Leaders in Arlington and Fairfax counties asked citizens to dig, dig, dig over the weekend to help clear the snow so life could go on.

Over the weekend, when some residents of Prince George's had yet to see a snowplow on their streets, County Executive Jack B. Johnson explained that there was no more salt and that large numbers of snow-removal vehicles were idle and in need of repair.

Really? Winter was such a crazy, wacky surprise this year?

The problem with letting any leaders in our region off the hook because this was such a huge storm is that snow itself is not unheard of here. To be prepared for terrorist attacks, earthquakes and floods, we've encircled our buildings with thousands of bollards, created skyscrapers that bend in the wind or roll on ball bearings, constructed elaborate floodgates and are willing to strip nearly to our skivvies every time we get on a plane.

Our culture of fear has made our preparation for such events acceptable and thorough.

But we can't buy some extra salt? And make sure the snowplows are working?

Most years, snow falls in the Washington area. We're below the Mason-Dixon line, yes, and we generally don't get a lot of it. But we're no Miami. Snow is a part of life here.

Most of us buy snow boots and even invest in snow pants for the kids because we're pretty sure we'll be glad to have them when the time comes. Elected officials who ignore the possibility of big snowstorms do so at their peril.

Marion Barry was pilloried after the former mayor was caught lounging in California on a Super Bowl trip when a big snowstorm paralyzed Washington in 1987.

Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic was found wanting in 1979 when a monster snowstorm crippled the city. He was voted out of office while the memory of snowdrifts was still on voters' minds.

The same thing nearly happened to New York Mayor John Lindsay after a big 1969 snowstorm.

The lesson: Voters can forgive all sorts of bad behavior. But they will not be snowed.

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