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Politicians' reputations can be buried by snowstorms

The storm systems that dumped snow up and down the East Coast over the Christmas weekend provided a different experience for everyone.

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Friday, December 31, 2010

If you're a politician, beware of snow. It can bury a career.

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are learning that lesson the hard way, as their angry constituents dig out of last weekend's blizzard. Bloomberg is being hammered for the city's slow and incompetent response, especially in the outer boroughs; Christie, for jetting off to Walt Disney World just before the storm dumped nearly three feet of snow in parts of his state.

The two beleaguered officials - both of whom are rumored to have national ambitions - should have had a consultation with Marion Barry.

In January 1987, Barry kicked off his third term as mayor of Washington with a trip to Southern California for the Super Bowl. While he was getting a manicure and playing tennis at the posh Beverly Hilton, the voters who had elected him were being buried under 20 inches of snow. The city was utterly paralyzed - streets unplowed, buses immobilized, subway barely running. The mayor continued to frolic in the sun.

Are you getting any of this, Gov. Christie?

Finally, Barry came home. He wanted to survey the situation, so he had to tour the city by helicopter; his limousine, he explained, would have gotten stuck in the snow. His aerial assessment: "We're not a snow town."

Unbelievably, that wasn't Barry's first unfortunate encounter with winter weather. In 1979, barely into his first term, he was vacationing in Miami when an 18-inch snowfall shut down the city. When he got home, a reporter asked how people were supposed to get to work. "Take a bus," Barry said. Informed that the buses weren't running, Barry modified his advice: "They can walk."

It's unlikely that anyone will top Barry for grossly mishandling the aftermath of a snowstorm - and anyway, it was white powder of a different kind that led to his downfall. But his is hardly the only example.

In 1979, Michael Bilandic was expected to cruise to reelection as mayor of Chicago. He had the support of the Democratic machine, which usually guaranteed victory. But a series of big snowstorms that winter turned "the city that works" into "the city that couldn't get to work," with some neighborhoods left unplowed for weeks. Minorities and working-class whites felt particularly neglected.

Jane Byrne, an unlikely challenger in the Democratic mayoral primary, took advantage of Bilandic's missteps by filming campaign ads on snowbound streets. She won narrowly - and went on to become the first woman to serve as Chicago's mayor. Bilandic spent the rest of his career in the worthy obscurity of the state appellate bench.

Paying attention, Mayor Bloom-berg?

Snow can make voters forget all the good things you've done. Bill McNichols, who served as mayor of Denver for 14 years, is generally given credit for the city's cosmopolitan growth. But a blizzard deposited two feet of snow on Christmas Eve 1982 - when city workers were at home with their families, not out clearing impassible streets and airport runways. How many Denver residents had their holiday travel plans ruined? Enough to get McNichols bounced out of office a few months later.

Snow eventually melts, but hardened hearts may not.

Bloomberg's inept handling of the snowstorm traced a familiar arc. First he acted as if everything was fine when clearly that was not the case. Then he seemed to judge the city's progress against the snow by what was happening in Manhattan, much of which was quickly plowed - as opposed to parts of Brooklyn and Queens, which remained buried. Finally, by Wednesday, Bloomberg was paying attention to the other boroughs and acknowledging that the city had done a lousy job.

At least the mayor, who rides the subway to work, was in town to experience the blizzard with his fellow New Yorkers. It's one thing to make mistakes. It's quite another to vacation merrily in Florida, the home of sunshine and orange juice, while the state you govern is being lashed by frigid gales and crippled by once-in-a-generation snow totals. Which is what Christie did.

The Republican governor had been getting good press for his tough- minded budget cuts. Now some of those cuts are being blamed for the slow response to the storm.

What's the right way to handle snow? Look at Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who's been going around the city with his shovel, helping constituents dig out - and telling the world about it via Twitter.

Be there. Do something. Is that so hard?

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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