Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) had just returned from a morning run. He was at breakfast with his wife at a hotel in San Juan's historic district when he decided to interrupt his Puerto Rico vacation and rush back to the District.
"We knew that there was going to be an event, but we didn't learn of its severity" until the snowstorm started, Williams said in explaining how he came to be out of town during the start of a historic blizzard. "Obviously, things had deteriorated and I just said, 'I've got to go.' "
But, he said, "It took ingenuity coming here.
"It was hard to find tickets ,and I had to move extremely quickly to get on the plane. I decided it was better to go north of the storm than to head into the storm by air." Williams flew from San Juan to Newark, N.J., then hopped an Amtrak train to Washington.
Memories of past District snowstorms -- and the political peril facing the big-city mayors who fail to respond to them -- were surely on Williams's mind.
Few longtime Washingtonians have forgotten the infamous January 1987 episode, when former mayor Marion Barry stayed in Southern California to watch the Super Bowl while twin storms blanketed the city with more than 20 inches of snow. City roads were choked with drifts for days. Barry later publicly apologized.
Nine years later, in the winter after municipal oversight was handed over to the now-defunct financial control board, the city had only 50 plows to deploy as a major blizzard struck Washington.
"We called the Army to see if they could lend some snow equipment, and they said they were sorry but the equipment was in Bosnia," recalled Alice M. Rivlin, who directed the federal Office of Management and Budget at the time and later chaired the control board. In the end, she said, the National Park Service loaned some vehicles to the city.
Rivlin, speaking by telephone from a vacation in Hawaii, applauded Williams's speedy return from Puerto Rico. "Good for him," she said.
As the city struggled this week to clean up from the blizzard, some criticized the city's time frame for snow removal as being insufficiently ambitious. According to the city's Snow Plan, under Storm Level VIII (18 or more inches of snow), residents should expect to see major routes cleared within 36 hours and residential streets cleared within 60 hours of the end of snowfall.
"Sixty hours is a bit much -- that's three days almost," grumbled Leonard L. Watson Sr., an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 8, who said Monday that his Skyland neighborhood was nearly impassable. "Twenty-four hours should be good enough."
Low Capital, High Profile
A political action committee created in 2001 to elect federal candidates who support full voting rights for the District in Congress may not be raising much money, but it is raising a ruckus.
The D.C. Democracy Fund, headed by Executive Director Sean Tenner, suggested the idea of the city holding the first-in-the-nation presidential primary to Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
The District's Democratic State Committee rejected the idea, 21-20, last week. An aide to Evans said he expected the council to approve the Jan. 13, 2004, primary at a March meeting. Tenner said supporters would seek to return the idea before the state committee, proposing a nonbinding public primary followed by a caucus by party activists who would actually choose the national convention delegates.
The PAC also plans to promote District voting rights at the summer national political party conventions.
Still, the fund fell far short of the $100,000 goal set by former executive director Ronald T.T. Nelson for the 2002 election cycle. The PAC wound up raising $15,000, about half of it in amounts smaller than $200, Tenner said. He said he hopes to raise $30,000 for 2004.
"We are planning on doing some things with the presidential candidates, but we are waiting to see how the primary shakes out first," said Tenner, 25, a former aide to the Illinois House speaker, and for liberal groups including People for the American Way.
Although Tenner said the PAC is nonpartisan, it gave exclusively last year to Democrats, 10 in all, including $1,000 to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and defeated senators Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) and Max Cleland (D-Ga.). The PAC also sent $1,000 to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who defeated former representative Constance A. Morella (R-Md.). Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) got $250 from the PAC.
Landrieu chaired the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District last year. Carnahan, Cleland and Durbin sat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which voted in favor of legislation backed by presidential candidate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) to grant the District two votes in the Senate and one in the House, a bill that then died. GOP senators boycotted the committee vote for an unrelated reason.
Staff writer Justin Blum contributed to this report.