When the snow falls, the pols declare war How an elected official handles a winter storm reflects his or her ability: BLIZZARD OF 1996

January 10, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

To state and local politicians, cleaning up snowstorms like the Blizzard of '96 is the practical, if not the moral, equivalent of war.

For Gov. Parris N. Glendening and chief executives of the Baltimore-area jurisdictions, the worry is whether the war will be more like the one the United States fought in the Persian Gulf (that is, quick, decisive and successful) or in Vietnam (protracted, messy and marked by ultimate defeat).

"Snow is a very important symbolic element for elected officials," said Lenneal Henderson, a professor in the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs. "It demonstrates in short order how they can respond in an emergency.

"It's something visible, tangible and immediate."

Since the beginning of the storm, it has been clear that Governor Glendening, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties' executives, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and John G. Gary, understand the symbolism.

Like presidents in time of war, they have appeared regularly on television, dressed in battle fatigues of sweaters and parkas, praising their troops of snow-clearers, citing individual acts of heroism and calling for public sacrifice.

They have even called out some real, if part-time, soldiers for their war -- members of the Maryland National Guard.

Unlike other problems, where solutions are often affected by what is euphemistically called "budget constraints," all have pledged to spend whatever it takes to fight the storm -- and to find the money later.

And why not? State and local officials may not have put the snow on everybody's street.

But unlike issues such as jobs and education, what they do about it is totally up to them.

Whether jobs are created or destroyed may depend as much on national or international economic trends as much as the actions of state and local officials; whether children learn may depend as much on such factors as the dissolution of the family as on the schools' curriculum.

Whether streets get plowed, and when, depends on how the plows are deployed.

Officials seeking an example of what can happen to an executive who can't cope with the weather need look no further than former Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, whose poor handling of snow removal contributed to his defeat in 1994 by Mr. Ruppersberger.

In between pronouncements of progress, officials have sought to dampen expectations, saying they hope citizens realize the difference between a near-historic 22-inch blizzard and a routine 3- to 5-inch snowfall.

Some officials think they do.

"People have been quite patient," said Anne Arundel County Councilman Bert L. Rice. "They know everybody's working just hard as they can."

But that hasn't stopped a lot of them from calling the first-term Republican at his Odenton home.

"I have lots of roads in my district, I've found out," he said.

Baltimore County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz was poised to take another constituent complaint about an unplowed street when the phone rang in his home yesterday morning.

"I had pen and pencil in hand when you called," the Pikesville Democrat told a reporter.

"The phone keeps ringing," he said. "People remind me that they voted for me and that they're taxpayers."

Mr. Kamenetz said he periodically passes on the complaints to the county's snow center, but said he doesn't ask for special treatment.

"I'm trying not to add to the pressure," he said.

In Baltimore City, an aide to Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said the feeling that streets get plowed based partly on political considerations is "pretty universal."

But Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, a former councilman, said that the practice is probably "not as frequent as people think."

When he was a councilman, Mr. Landers said, people thought that his Northeast Baltimore street was plowed early because of his political influence.

In fact, he said, "it was plowed because it was an access road to an elementary school."

City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon said one of the complaints she has received during this storm came from her mother, who pointed out that she was still snowbound while the street of a prominent neighbor had been plowed.

"My mother lives around the corner from the mayor," said Ms. Dixon, a West Baltimore Democrat.

Public Works Director George G. Balog, coordinating the city's snow effort, admitted that among the first streets to get plowed are those of "essential personnel," including the mayor, the police commissioner, the fire chief and Mr. Balog himself.

"Neighbors said they loved it when I moved into the neighborhood," said Mr. Balog, who lives in Northeast Baltimore.

But he denied that any special consideration was given to the streets of prominent citizens and political contributors.

"I'm just trying to get the job done," he said.

Indeed, among eight neighborhoods whose narrow streets were initially targeted for snow removal by special front-end loaders are the Schmoke political strongholds of West Arlington and Sandtown but also Hampden and Highlandtown -- two areas that voted against the mayor in last year's election.

Meanwhile, a councilman who represents Highlandtown is bracing for a new round of complaints from residents there and elsewhere in a city so consumed with snow removal that it hasn't collected garbage since last week.

"Starting [today], they're going to start complaining about the trash pickup," said Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr.

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