Political Lessons From Old Chicago Blizzard Still Linger

Snowstorms and the response to them have had political implications for city mayors in the past. In 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic was voted out of office amid public outrage at his handling of a massive blizzard. Host Michel Martin speaks with Bilandic's successor, former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, about lessons learned from the historic storm.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now you mention that history is full of political leaders whose reputations and careers have been damaged because of those failed reactions to the storm. That list includes Michael Bilandic, the mayor of Chicago in 1979, when a massive blizzard shut down the city. You actually covered that storm.

ELVING: I did, as a boy reporter.

MARTIN: You were a boy reporter. You were a little baby. Less than two months later, he was ousted in the Democratic Primary by Jane Byrne who went onto become Chicago's first woman mayor, and she is with us now.

I understand...

Ms. JANE BYRNE (Former Mayor, Chicago): Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning, madam mayor. I understand you're a little bit under the weather, so we appreciate your joining us despite that.

Ms. BYRNE: Right.

MARTIN: So I'd like to ask you, do you think it's true that you were elected in part because people were so furious about the storm?

Ms. BYRNE: To a degree, but I'm not sure of that. My reason for saying that is Mayor Bilandic - the late Mayor Bilandic, really didn't handle it correctly. And he handled it very much the same way as Ron was saying, you know. He was saying everything's fine, and people were going around like what does he mean everything's fine? I can't get my car out, I can't, you know, go here, go there.

I think it was more arrogance that irritated the people even more than the snow, and they were angry about the snow.

MARTIN: What do you make of the criticism that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is getting right now?

Ms. BYRNE: Well, if in fact he did the same thing that Bilandic did, told everybody well, it's under control, we're handling it, you know, don't worry about it, etc., etc., it does infuriate people. It would infuriate me.

I didn't like that at all about Bilandic. He was saying, take your cars to a certain parking lot at a school, and he said you could put your cars there. Now, you couldn't even get your cars away from the curb, much less, you know, go to a school parking lot. But those that went got there and found out, forget it. Nobody's plowed this whole big area at all.

And so the press who went there reported, again, you know, poor governing, to advise people that they had cleared it and it wasn't cleared. It isn't just the snow, it's the way you are perceived as to how you are handling it.

MARTIN: So he seemed out of touch - being perceived as out of touch is a no-no.

Ms. BYRNE: Exactly. Exactly. It was so bad, I lived on the 43rd floor, and I could look out and see, you know, the different trucks and things that were being assembled to handle it, and you'd see a truck sitting there for two, three hours, because the snow blower couldn't get there.

MARTIN: What about the idea of Governor Chris Christie being out of town. I mean, just in - just playing devil's advocate here, you could see where some might say well, he has a director of public works whose job is to handle these matters. He does have three little kids who probably haven't seen a lot of their dad over the course of the year and, you know, he couldn't have anticipated that he would be as bad as it was.

Do you think that any of those are legitimate arguments?

Ms. BYRNE: I went in there because of what we had been through. I told all the commissioners and those who were in, you know, top-notch jobs that would have to handle the snow, there were no vacations allowed between the end of November and a certain day. I forget what it was, at the end of March.

MARTIN: So no vacations for your top people between November and April.

Ms. BYRNE: Right.

MARTIN: Including you?

Ms. BYRNE: Yes.

MARTIN: No Bahamas for you?

Ms. BYRNE: No way.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking about the politics of snow, with the former mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne, and NPR editor, Ron Elving.

You know, Ron Elving, one of the other issues that's emerged here, state senator in New York, Carl Kruger, talked to CNN yesterday about one of the reasons he's so upset, and this is what he had to say. Here it is.

Senator CARL KRUGER (Democrat, New York): We're supposed to be prepared for any kind of an attack, and any kind of an emergency. What kind of message are we sending to my folks here in southern Brooklyn when we can't even get ourselves through a snow storm?

MARTIN: What about Ron Elving? Does that make sense to you?

ELVING: It's not an exact comparison because the kinds of government actions that are mobilized to try to stop terrorist attacks, or respond to them, are somewhat different from trying to respond to Mother Nature.

But I do think that there is a common thread, and that the legislature has a point here, which is that if the city cannot anticipate a somewhat predicted snow storm - they had some hours or even a day or two of some warning that this might get heavy. If they can't respond to something like that quickly, and once they see that it is a disaster, if they can't mobilize better to deal with it, it does raise questions about what they would do with another 9/11.

MARTIN: Ms. BYRNE, what do you think about that?

Mayor. BYRNE: I agree. What we also did was set up an office with snow command, and it was, like, in advance of a blizzard or another bad catastrophe, and it was there. And it would call in whoever they needed, you know, sewers, the water mains, all of them. And, I mean, we knew what it was like to have this disaster, and we weren't going to have it happen again.

And I'll tell you, we were all geared up for it, and it was disappointing in a sense, we didn't get snow. In the whole four years, just an inch-and-a-half.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, you know what they say, if you don't have a plan, you have a plan to fail.

Finally, Madam Mayor, if I could ask you, what would be your advice to these two political leaders in the northeast who are dealing with the political fallout right now. Is there anything you think they can do to redeem themselves?

Ms. BYRNE: Well, I think, you know, the record of the mayor of New York has been exceptional, but I do think he has to - if he doesn't mind, I think he should apologize. I really believe that. And not try to explain if he can't, but he surely could say he was very sorry that his team let him down, and then take action with the team. Whoever was in charge blew it, and would have to go.

MARTIN: And what about Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who has been on vacation in Florida?

Ms. BYRNE: Well, I think the people will handle that better than I can bring out. They're not going to like it, and you can't blame them. They're suffering, he's sunny, and that's the way they're going to feel. And I don't know his record, and I can't speak for the man, but it was not the time to be going off to the Bahamas or any of those places.

MARTIN: Okay. Jane Byrne is the former mayor of Chicago. She was the first woman mayor of that city. That's a seat she held from 1979 to 1983, and she was kind enough to join us from her home in Chicago. Madam Mayor, thank you so much for joining us, and we hope you feel better soon.

Ms. BYRNE: Well, thank you very much.

MARTIN: Ron Elving is also with us. He's NPR's senior Washington editor. He was here with us in our Washington D.C. studio. Thank you also, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel.

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