David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
As history shows, failing to deal with post-storm clean-up can doom city leaders.
American voters are a forgiving lot. As they demonstrated frequently in 2016, when truly intent on “sending a message,” the electorate will marshal its resentments, grit its teeth, and vote for truly appalling political figures, no matter what horrible thing they said, did, claimed to do, or promised never to do again. But woe betide the big-city mayor who fumbles the fundamental test of municipal governance: snow plowing. For that, there will be no forgiveness.
From the mayors’ perspectives, it may be frustrating to be judged so harshly on an uncontrollable weather event, but the bottom line is that constituents want their streets cleared. The snowplow is the mightiest tool in the mayoral arsenal; in many voters’ minds, freeing their cars is perhaps the clearest evidence that City Hall can accomplish anything at all. Failing to wield it properly is a quick way to lose your job.
Ask John V. Lindsay, the matinee-idol New York City mayor whose political ascendance was flattened by 15 inches of frozen precipitation on February 9, 1969. The Nor’easter storm hit on a Sunday but somehow managed to kill 42 people, mostly because forecasters were fooled (it was supposed to rain) and the city was spectacularly unprepared, with almost half of its snow-fighting equipment idled by lax maintenance. Come Monday, the city was completely immobilized; even the New York Stock Exchange failed to open.
Lindsay, a patrician type who frequently battled with labor unions and what used to be called “white ethnic” voters, took the brunt of the blame when, three days after the storm, streets remained impassible in working-class Queens even as Manhattan children returned to school. When the mayor tried to make his way to the borough to inspect the situation, his limo got stuck and residents harassed him mercilessly. The moment would be “a watershed in the history of municipal services,” the New York Daily News reported in 1998. Lindsay, elected as a Republican in ’65, lost his party’s nomination later that year but eked out reelection as his two opponents split the vote; still, his political fortunes took a turn for the worse, thanks to what is still known as “Lindsay’s Snowstorm.”
Many a City Hall career has been cut short by snowflakes, including that of Chicago’s Michael A. Bilandic, who insisted on aggressively ticketing cars buried in the unplowed streets after a series of blizzards in January 1979. “The city's snow removal was so terrible that people guessed Mayor [Richard] Daley must have taken the snowplows with him,” Bildanic’s New York Times obituary recalled. “A former deputy mayor was found to have received a $90,000 consultant's contract for snow removal.”
A month later, “an avalanche of snow protest votes” ushered him out of office, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Denver Mayor Bill McNichols met a similar fate after a big Christmas Eve storm hit while officials were in holiday mode in 1982. The Office of Emergency Preparedness didn’t even open until 33 hours after the blizzard stopped. Voters remembered this come spring, ending McNichols’s 15-year run in City Hall.
More recently, the eco-friendly Seattle mayor Greg Nickels faced fierce criticism for failing to salt the streets because of environmental concerns in 2009; the city’s bungled and ineffective snow removal later launched investigations, and Nickels was gone by summer. Marveling at his swift fall, Governing observed that “snowstorms have a unique way of undermining the political standing of mayors …. First and foremost, citizens want their mayors to do the basics well.”
The key lesson: Don’t screw up the optics—Lindsay might have powered through the controversy if his limo didn’t get stuck in Queens. And never underestimate the power of the aggrieved voter-motorist. Even in relatively transit-friendly cities like New York or Chicago, Americans get tetchy when they can’t get their cars out. The robust political power of car owners is seen not only in highway funding and gas taxes, but in the urgency city leaders devote to this chore.
In snow-intensive cities, that plow-or-perish compact between citizens and elected officials must be taken seriously. The expectations seem to get lower the farther south you go. After a feeble response to an Atlanta ice storm in 2014, pundits predicted political doom for Kasim Reed, the city’s charismatic mayor. He’s still there, with a healthy approval rating. And Washington, D.C., has a long history of ineffective snow remediation. It would be hard to do the basics as poorly as Mayor Marion Barry did in 1987, when a blizzard struck the city while the mayor was attending the Super Bowl in Pasadena. Instead of flying back to man the podium for the usual obligatory photo-ops with plow drivers, Barry stayed in L.A. for a week, disappearing on what turned out to be a cocaine binge.
Despite the public outrage, Barry ruled on. His explanation: “We’re not a snow town.”