Bracing for the first snow emergency of his administration last week, Mayor Vince Gray said he had made one thing clear to the heads of the District Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works.
“If we mess up with the snow,” Gray said, “don’t call me for a recommendation for your next job.”
DDOT head Terry Bellamy and DPW boss William Howland probably didn’t need the reminder. Like any other big city that gets the white stuff, the District is filled with tales of mayoral hubris during cold weather. The snow could be doubly dangerous in an election year, with the potential for angry voters stuck at home on a snow day with their kids remembering less than two months later at the Democratic primary that Gray couldn’t clear the streets quickly. Gray would be out of the mayor’s suite, with Bellamy and Howland along with him.
The import of the snow wasn’t lost on Gray’s mayoral rivals, either. On the eve of the storm, LL asked the candidates for their predictions about how the incumbent would handle the weather. While Ward 2 councilmember and Gray pal Jack Evans stayed on message and predicted (rightly) that the city could manage the precipitation, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells wasn’t so sure. Wells planned to stay up late Wednesday watching the storm response. If the District got bogged down in the snow, Wells said, it would prove once again that Gray is too distracted by U.S. Attorney’s Ron Machen’s investigation into the mayor’s 2010 campaign to run the city properly. (Though LL presumes Gray himself wouldn’t have been driving any snow plows, with or without Machen on his mind.)
A week later, Bellamy and Howland won’t have to be printing new resumes any time soon, and Wells has one less piece of evidence for his speeches. While some side streets are still reduced to one lane by the plowed snow as LL writes this, the major roads were cleared by the morning after the snow, thanks in part to warmer temperatures (which Gray hasn’t taken credit for quite yet). The snow emergency was lifted just 24 hours after it went into effect.
But if Gray is waiting for a poll bump from the storm, he’ll be looking for it long after the snow has melted. Gray’s street clearing hasn’t earned him positive editorials or praise on the stump. Effective snow removal, it turns out, is just something voters expect.
A heavy snowfall, like power outages or garbage collection, can pose an existential threat to an incumbent because it affects the whole city. Everyone knows if they can’t buy groceries because DPW didn’t have enough snow plows.
Of course, a blizzard can go much worse for a District mayor. Then-Mayor Marion Barry jetted across the country for the Super Bowl in 1987, even as a storm was headed for the District. Instead of flying back to D.C. to manage the response, Barry opted to stay for the big game (which featured the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos, not the Washington Pigskins).
Adrian Fenty provided another cautionary winter’s tale for his successor. Despite dealing with record snowfalls in the Snowmaggedon winter of 2009-2010, Fenty’s decision to keep the District government open through the blizzards made him look as heartless as his opponents claimed he was. When the streets weren’t cleared fast enough for his liking, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews took to the air to complain that the District “had the weather of Buffalo and the snowplowing capability of Miami.” In the Washington Post, a resident of Fenty’s home Ward 4 complained that the once-hard-driving councilmember had turned into the kind of person who laughed when he was asked why he couldn’t say when the snow would be cleared.
So Gray hasn’t put himself in Fenty’s position this winter. But he’s also not earning the opposite reaction. The Post isn’t writing laudatory editorials, and Matthews isn’t grabbing the mic to call for Gray’s re-election. Gray, like Fenty before him, is learning that there’s no way to win a snowstorm.
If the storm response didn’t swell Gray’s popularity, the mayor did enjoy one side benefit of an uneventful storm: It denied his rivals an attempt to challenge his fundamental assertion that, if you put aside the federal investigation, Gray’s District is doing pretty well.
Not that they didn’t get something out of it. Ward 4 Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Muriel Bowser managed to canvass in Bloomingdale Thursday afternoon in between flurries. Bowser emerged from one rowhouse, only to be quickly invited into another. Bowser had managed to find one advantage to the snow—when it’s cold, people are more likely to invite you in.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery