12.29.10

How Blizzards Break Politicians

As Bloomberg takes heat for NYC's icy roads and NJ's Chris Christie was missing at Disney World, Newark's Cory Booker was shoveling. Shushannah Walshe on the snow's electoral fallout.

Weather has always proven a political make-or-break—go back five years to Hurricane Katrina and the effective end of George W. Bush's administration for a visceral reminder. Boiled down, shoveling snow and helping the stranded epitomize governing. And that's why the political fortunes of various northeast political stars are in flux following this week's surprisingly harsh blizzard.

"Modern American politics is replete with politicians that have suffered permanently because they had slow reactions to snow, and other weather events," says Rogan Kersh, professor of public policy and associate dean at New York University's Wagner School. "And there are examples when their reputations improved or soared in how they responded to emergencies. It can be really politically profound how they respond to snow."

Count in the suffering department two of the nation's brightest political stars. Until last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's name was hitting the national press exclusively in connection with whether he would mount an independent campaign for president. His brand: nonpartisan competence.

And thus, the city's fairly incompetent response to the snowstorm—as of Wednesday night, much of the city still hadn't been plowed—was a direct shot to his national prospects. Initially, the mayor took a relatively casual approach to the storm, which left ambulances stuck and subway riders stranded. He admonished his constituents: "The world has not come to an end."

"Modern American politics is replete with politicians that have suffered permanently because they had slow reactions to snow and other weather events."

"Appearing to seem cavalier...This can really color people's perception of a mayor or a governor," says Kersh. By Wednesday, Bloomberg accepted responsibility for the inadequate response.

At least Bloomberg was manning the decks. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a rising star among national conservatives, was sitting at Disney World. Compounding that, his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, was also in sunnier climes, leaving snowplows and clearing under the authority of the state Senate president—and the perception of poor leadership and planning.

"It's very surprising to learn that the lieutenant governor is out of the state the same time as the governor," says Rutgers political professor John Weingart. "It is a very visible misstep by the Christie administration in an administration with very few missteps."

But crises, for better or worse, present political opportunities (just ask Rudy Giuliani). Stepping into the New York area void: Newark Mayor Cory Booker. With constant updates to his twitter account, the Newark mayor showed himself responding to the pleas of city residents; chronicling the streets he personally had shoveled all the while calming and assuring residents that help was on its way.

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"Responding to Tweets, delivering diapers—these are almost all symbolic acts showing this politician is with me, he understands my troubles," says Kersh. "Bloomberg seems detached, removed—and these images stick." (Booker even tweeted a snow-support, shout-out to his New York peer. "People far 2 rough on @ mikebloomberg - still fighting 2 clear snow in NWK & we are 1/29th size of NYC.")

Such images do stick. If Christie runs for re-election in 2013, he may face either Booker or Stephen Sweeney, the state Senate president now running the plows in his absence. "If I'm making ads for Booker, I am leading with one candidate who is organized, involved, engaged [while] the other stays in Florida, and works on his tan," Kersh says.

Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic was well-positioned to win the 1979 Democratic primary, effectively sealing his reelection, but when a storm hit the city, effectively shutting it down, an angry member of his own cabinet tossed him out. More recently, Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his reelection this fall, in part after a much-criticized response to massive snowstorms that blanketed the city.

Most famously New York City Mayor John Lindsay lost his Republican primary for reelection because of poor response to the snowstorm of 1969 that dumped 15 inches of snow on the city, killing 14 people. But Lindsay also offers hope for Bloomberg and Christie. He subsequently ran in the general election as a Liberal Party candidate—and won.

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.