As winter sets in, mayors in northern climes may want to reflect on something that David Axelrod, one of the masterminds of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, once said about snow. "Any mayor in any administration who doesn't feel an absolute sense of urgency when there's a major winter storm," Axelrod said, "is someone planning for his next career."
He's right. Snowstorms -- or, rather, botched responses to them -- have a way of burying the political lives of big-city mayors. The most famous case is that of Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic, who was cruising to reelection in 1978 when a series of winter storms dumped almost three feet of snow on the Windy City. "Bilandic and his minions not only were unprepared to deal with it but also with how to explain it," says Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green.
Streets in some neighborhoods went unplowed for weeks. But what hurt Bilandic most was what happened on the frozen tracks of the city's transit system. Trains skipped stops in minority neighborhoods, sparking outrage on station platforms as black residents watched white commuters speed by.
Bilandic's snow woe was all the media talked about leading up to the primary election in February. Jane Byrne, Bilandic's underdog challenger, made sure to film her TV ads while standing in snowdrifts. The ploy worked. Byrne won by 19,000 votes.
For some mayors, a paralyzing blizzard or ice storm is the most serious crisis they ever face. So it's not surprising that when winter storms hit, the level of efficiency in clearing the streets becomes a proxy for municipal competence.
In 1969, it was New York City's mayor, John Lindsay, who got burned by a blizzard. A February storm caught the city by surprise with 15 inches of snow. Maintenance problems rendered 40 percent of the snow-removal equipment unusable. Three days passed before the roads, rails and airports were operating in any way close to normal. Some 42 people died in the storm, half of them in Queens, where lingering doubts about Lindsay turned into resentment.
As Lindsay biographer Vincent Cannato sees it, the storm response was symbolic of everything the Outer Boroughs disliked about the mayor. "He was always seen as Manhattan-centric -- interested in poverty and racism, but less interested in the middle class," Cannato says. "When the snowstorm hit, people said, 'What good is all that other stuff when he can't clean our streets?'"
What doesn't work for any mayor is insisting he doesn't deserve the blame. Detroit's Dennis Archer tried that tack after a New Year's blizzard in 1999. "I do not accept responsibility for what the good Lord has put on us by way of snow," the mayor said. Archer stuck with a longstanding city policy of not plowing residential streets, only to declare a snow emergency and ask the suburbs for plowing help five painful days later. Luckily for Archer, he had already been reelected the previous fall.
Denver's Bill McNichols, like Bilandic, didn't have such good fortune. A 1982 blizzard dumped two feet of snow on Denver on Christmas Eve. City employees were home with their families, at a time when impassable roads and a shuttered airport were crippling holiday travel. McNichols had been very popular over 14 years as mayor, but when he stood for reelection the following spring, voters remembered the snow and dumped him.
Denver's mayors, in fact, may have more trouble with the white stuff than anyone else. McNichols' successor, Federico Peña, got in trouble for dispatching trash trucks to pack down a snowfall, leaving ice ruts in the streets for weeks. Two winters ago, current Mayor John Hickenlooper took some heat for responding slowly to a pair of storms while he was campaigning for reelection. Hickenlooper, however, took responsibility for the troubles, earned positive media coverage by personally shoveling walkways for the elderly and disabled, and made the right jokes at the right times. "It seems like these storms are politically motivated," he told the Rocky Mountain News. "We only get them about every eight years."