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Mayor Adrian M. Fenty loves referring to himself as a “big-city mayor,” placing himself in the same league as the Bloombergs, Daleys, and Villaraigosas of the world. Has he ever faced as classic a big-city-mayor test as the Great Blizzard of ’09 (aka SnOMG, Thurdersnow, Snopocaylpse Now)?
Certainly the inauguration was a massive ordeal that Fenty faced with flying colors, but massive snowfall has laid low many a metropolitan executive over the years.
The classic case of political failure, the one Fenty would have learned on the first day of big-city-mayor school, involves the 1979 Chicago blizzards oft-credited with ending the mayoral career of Michael Bilandic, and propelling Jane Byrne to the Windy City mayoralty in a landslide. Then there’s the February 1969 blizzard that vexed New York Mayor John Lindsay. Closer to home, in January 1987, Marion Barry spent six days on a Super Bowl vacay while a pair of storms dumped 20 inches of snow.
“The day after the game, as Barry’s public works crews badly fumbled the city’s road clearing effort,” the Washington Port writes, “the mayor partied…played tennis and enjoyed a manicure at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Then he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. The mayor’s absence from the city, and his collapse, would loom large for years in the city’s consciousness.”
To be sure, the standards for snow removal in the District of Columbia are not quite so demanding as those in Chicago or most other places north of the Mason-Dixon line. D.C. simply doesn’t get enough snow often enough to justify the snow-clearing investments that more northerly cities make. But snow-clearing operations still test a mayor’s political mettle in unique ways. Rather than obscure them, snow can reveal race, class, and political divisions—-reflecting in citizens’ eyes just who and where their mayor cares about most. How long does it take for side streets to get plowed? Which parts of the city get the most plows and salt trucks? How fast can the city’s business return to normal?
So what is Hizzoner up to today? “He is out and about,” says mayoral spokesperson Mafara Hobson. So he’s already doing a hell of a lot better than Barry in ’87.
And the Fenty administration deserves kudos thus far for its communications efforts. Fenty has held a number of press conferences already on the storm, and has provided constant updates to the press—-including admonitions for drivers to stay off the roads and pedestrians to stay off the sidewalks. The city even has a nifty map showing where its snow equipment is located.
Hobson says Department of Public Works snow crews spent much of the early day clearing major thoroughfares, before moving to residential streets later in the morning. But the snowfall intensified, to whiteout conditions, and now those crews have been pulled off the side streets. “We’re going back hard, hitting the major thoroughfares,” she says. “The snow is still coming, and the snow’s heavier.”
Right now, LL can speak only to a three-block radius from his current location on Capitol Hill. Plows have been rare thus far on side streets, and even Pennsylvania Avenue SE, just west of Eastern Market (pictured), is only marginally passable. LL watched as a police cruiser spun its wheels trying to make its way down the 300 block.
It’s unfair to judge the response while the snow is still falling as hard as it is. And, for the biggest snowfall of his mayoral tenure, Fenty certainly lucked out in that it’s on a weekend. But once the flakes fade and the weekend ends, residents’ patience will be quick to recede. If forecasts hold, and the snow stops this evening, the expectation will be that commuter routes are cleared for the Monday rush hour. And if residential streets remain impassable much past Monday, Fenty may have some splainin’ to do.
Please share your own plow status in the comments….