Unplowed snow can bury a political career

February 06, 2010|By Jill Rosen

A new mayor is sworn in, palm on the Bible. Mere hours later, that hand is stuffed into a snow glove as a snowstorm bears down on Baltimore. It happened to Clarence H. Du Burns in 1987, and it is happening now to Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake who, fresh off her swearing-in, is getting a crash course in the politics of a snowstorm.

A big-city leader can have the money, the contacts and the savvy, but if she leaves snow to pile up on side streets, her career could melt before the drifts do.

Just ask New York Mayor John Lindsay. Or Chicago's Michael Bilandic. Or D.C.'s Marion Barry. They messed up, and they paid for it dearly.

For an elected official, snow removal is non-negotiable, as daunting as it is critical. Burns knew this, even as the weather gods surprised Baltimore with a foot of snow a day after he took office. Barely comfortable in his City Hall seat of power, he was hustling over to the city's storm center, a place he had never visited.

"I thought I was just going to bask in the glory," joked Burns at the time, who was dressed not in a parka but in a gray suit with a jaunty silk pocket square. "But now I have to go to work."

The mayor earned praise for his cool handling of the crisis. Plows moved, salt was dispensed, buses ran.

That's the model Rawlings-Blake hopes to emulate, with a modern twist.

On her brand-new, mayoral Twitter account, shortly before 1 p.m. Friday with light flakes falling, she bravely announced: "Baltimore City Snow team is ready."

"I am committed to ensuring that Baltimore's streets are safe and accessible no matter how much snow falls over the weekend," she said.

She also outlined the city's snow plan, detailing the thousands of pounds of salt at the ready, the hundreds of people prepared to work overtime.

There's no shortage of examples of mayors who have mishandled snow. The same storm that Burns managed tripped up another mayor just a few miles to the south, who couldn't have handled things worse.

While snow hit the nation's capital in 1987, Barry was sunning himself in California on a Super Bowl trip. As D.C.'s streets iced over, he was getting a manicure. When the Metro system broke down, he was with his mistress.

When he finally got back into town - a town still buried under snow - he flew over it in a helicopter, a final tone-deaf insult to his city. "We're not a snow town," he told reporters by way of explanation.

Chicago Mayor Michael Anthony Bilandic famously lost in the 1979 Democratic primary after he failed miserably at a snow cleanup that winter, leaving the city all but paralyzed. What really did him in was appearing on TV saying the roads were clear, when a split screen flashed footage of one snowed-over street after another.

In New York, Lindsay was challenged by a huge snowstorm in 1969. His administration's inefficient response, particularly in the far-flung districts, was proof, voters said, that he cared only about Manhattan.

"It wasn't so much his not removing the snow; it became a stand-in for people's larger complaints about government," says Vincent J. Cannato, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, who wrote "The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and his Struggle to Save New York."

"Taking care of snow is something people can see immediately. If you can't handle that, they'll begin to doubt whether other city functions are being done well," Cannato says.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. had something of a trial by snow when he took office in 2002. At least he knew the storm was coming. Before his inauguration, he went to see his director of public works.

"I said, 'OK, how much salt do we have? What's the condition of our equipment? Are we ready for a big snow?' " Smith recalls. "I was assured that we were. I remembered the mayor of Chicago. I remembered the mayor of New York. I wasn't going to let that happen."

Smith also knew of a frozen foul-up closer to home. In 1994, then-Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden took the blame for January snow- removal problems that were a result of staff layoffs. Hayden lost his re-election bid later that year to a candidate - C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger - who made it a point to ride along in snowplows and tour salt stockpiles.

Snow removal is a do-or-die proposition, Smith says, adding that it's critical for Rawlings-Blake "to come out of the gate strong" on this.

"It's the No. 1 gauge by which the public determines whether you are being successful," he says. "I don't know if it's fair, and I don't think it matters. It's the way it is."

Of course, county executives and mayors aren't shoveling things out themselves. Rather, they are the reassurers, the calm voices that let everyone know it's going to be OK.

"What you really need to do," Smith says, "is let people know you care."

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