A weather disaster can devastate political careers

Jan 6, 2014

If you haven’t noticed that much of our state has been semi-paralyzed by the snowstorm, then I assume you are reading from Florida. That actually happened yesterday. Someone called while I was shoveling to ask if we had any snow. When I sputtered with amazement, it turned out my caller was in Naples, where it was 82 degrees.

He had once been in politics, and while my hands froze, we talked briefly about politics and the weather and a man few remember today, Michael Bilandic. He had been elected mayor of Chicago in 1977, after the legendary first Mayor Daley dropped dead.

He was at first very popular, and his political future seemed assured. But exactly 35 years ago this month, Chicago was hit by a record blizzard. Think what we’ve got is bad?

Chicago was hit with more than 20 inches in less than two days, and the city wasn’t up for the challenge. Snow wasn’t cleared, people couldn’t get to work, and the mayor couldn’t keep his promises to clear parking lots and keep the airports open. Unfortunately for him, he had to face an election that spring, and with the weather disaster as the main issue, he lost.

I thought of him because Gov. Rick Snyder also mishandled a weather situation last month, when hundreds of thousands of people lost power, light and heat. The governor was nowhere to be seen.

Last week, after I criticized him for this, I got a call from the governor’s deputy press secretary, who said complaints that Snyder was invisible during the crisis were untrue. In fact, his aide said, the governor had “put out a couple of press releases.”

It was all I could do not to break out laughing. He could have put out a thousand press releases, and those freezing Christmas morning would neither have known, nor cared.

But the governor was lucky. His Democratic challenger missed a chance to show up, comfort people, and proclaim that if he was governor, more would be done. And media attention soon turned to the head of the Lansing Board of Water & Light, who had responded to the crisis by going to New York City on vacation.

One of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s better remembered and stupider quotes is that there are “no second acts in American lives.” Well, there are both second acts and second chances.

The governor responded much better to the current snow emergency, reaching out to the media more than once yesterday. Last night, he announced he was activating the state’s Emergency Operations Center, so state and local officials could coordinate handling of the crisis in areas that were heavily affected. The governor urged people to put caution first, stay off the roads if possible, and said, “let’s all work together to make safety our top priority.”

That’s a good start. If I worked for him, I would urge him to take to the airwaves to reinforce that message today. Plus, show your face where they are shoveling and make sure the state is indeed ready to help where needed.

That may all sound too elementary to mention, but it is not. Ask anyone from Chicago old enough to remember Michael Bilandic.      

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.