Even Snow Has Politics

Some major East Coast cities are still struggling to recover from snowstorms that battered the region on Sunday and Monday. In New York, many streets remain unplowed and angry residents have criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the city's slow response. Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker has, meanwhile, been praised nationally for his personal handling of the blizzard. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving about the politics of snow.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a tribute to jazz legend Billy Taylor. The musician educator and NPR contributor died Tuesday night at the age of 89. We'll have more on his life and legacy in a few minutes. With the incomparable Dee Dee Bridgewater, and one of his biggest fans, Washington Post Columnist, Mark Fisher.

But first, there's a saying that while everybody talks about the weather, nobody does anything about it. Well, many on the east coast are complaining that their leaders have not done enough to respond to the weather after massive snow storms battered the region several days ago.

The blizzard effectively paralyzed New York City. Five days after the storm, many streets remain unplowed and backed up emergency calls and ambulances stuck in the snow have been implicated in at least two deaths in the city.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg who initially defended the city's blizzard response accepted responsibility for the slow reaction in a press conference on Wednesday.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Mayor, New York City): I'm extremely dissatisfied with the way our emergency response systems performed, and as I announced yesterday, we're going to take a look at everything we did to see if it could be done better.

MARTIN: Now, he isn't the only political leader who might have to dig himself out of a storm of criticism. New Jersey governor Chris Christie has been in Florida during the storm on a family vacation at Disneyland - Disneyworld, rather. His lieutenant governor is in Mexico.

There might be one new snow star among the region's politicians, and that's Newark, New Jersey mayor, Cory Booker, who has personally responded to several calls for help, even showing up with a shovel to help some motorists who have been stuck in the snow, and bringing diapers to others.

Joining us now to talk about the politics of snow is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, who actually covered a massive snow storm in Chicago that had political implications.

So Ron, I wanted to ask you, is there a through line to the politicians that people get outraged at? I mean, because the fact is, snow does happen. Are there certain circumstances in which people are willing to shrug it off, or at least be forgiving in certain circumstances in which they are not?

RON ELVING: It's easier to think of the circumstances in which they're not, Michel. If people have ever really been terribly understanding of a situation of this kind, I don't have that memory immediately. Although sometimes people just are a little more tolerant, and a lot of is style, and a lot of it is the circumstance of that given politician's career at that particular moment.

Also the unexpected. The aspect of this particular storm that just now hit the northeast, it was a nor'easter - it kind of comes up the coast, it comes from the ocean, it doesn't come across the country. You don't have two or three days of watching it bury Chicago and then Cleveland and then Pittsburgh, and you see it coming.

It's not like that. It suddenly comes up. People say it might snow this weekend, it might get heavy, no one pays too much attention. It's a holiday weekend, everybody's focused on Christmas or whatever, and suddenly they get buried under all this snow. In some parts of New Jersey it was over 30 inches. That's an extraordinary amount of snow in that part of the country.

And so the unexpected part of it also contributes to people's anger.

MARTIN: What about Michael Bloomberg's response? He at least was there. I mean, I think he was out of town prior to the storm hitting, but he was in place during the storm. But he doesn't seem to be getting any points for that.

ELVING: He's done a lot of things right, especially in the last 24 hours, but he made one big mistake, and that was that early on in this storm, after they had successfully kept services going, particularly on the island of Manhattan, which is clearly the focus for Mayor Bloomberg and a lot of people in New York. They essentially went on the air crowing that they were doing a good job. That is a fatal error.

Any time any political leader goes on the air, goes public claiming credit for doing a good job with the storm, everyone who otherwise might have been patient with their street not being plowed is enraged. That's when it really gets bad.

MARTIN: You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie. Remember those famous words by President George W. Bush in the response to Hurricane Katrina which lives to haunt him.

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