Thousands of vehicles and drivers were left stranded overnight on frigid highways. Two people died. Some 3,000 children ended up sleeping at their schools. And everyone in metro Atlanta has a neighbor or two with a scary story of a drive home that took longer than 12 hours.
Will Gov. Nathan Deal suffer political backlash for the state of Georgia’s failure to prepare for yesterday’s 2-inch snow “storm”? Is this a meaningful opportunity for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter to build on his theme that Deal’s administration isn’t tending to the needs of everyday Georgians?
The classic example of a snowstorm that presumably cost an incumbent re-election was Chicago’s January 1979 blizzard. The blizzard — actually a series of storms accumulating more than 20 inches — was much bigger than the piddling snow that hit metro Atlanta on Tuesday. It paralyzed Chicago barely a month before challenger Jane Byrne swamped Mayor Michael Bilandic in the Democratic primary. And having inherited the city’s teetering machine from Mayor-for-Life Richard Daley just two years earlier, Bilandic was on thin political ice to start with.
So, no. Georgia’s lack of preparedness isn’t likely to “cost” Deal the election in the same way that the Blizzard of ’79 upended Chicago politics. But it could be one piece of a narrative that helps to redraw the political lines that have given Republicans a lock on statewide contests since 2002.
The central theme of that narrative is that years of partisan orthodoxy — where the all-purpose answer is “cut taxes and government” — have starved state agencies of the competence required to provide basic services. As state grants to public schools come up short each year by the billions, families have felt those cutbacks in the form of fewer school days and larger classes. Other big, cross-partisan groups — college students, state employees, commuters, licensed professional and seniors — are intimately familiar with the reductions, although they many are agnostic on who to blame for them.
But there’s nothing like a crisis to cement nagging unease into a broadly held belief. Ten months from now, thousands of voters — for the most part, suburban Republican and independent voters — will remember the scary chaos they experienced firsthand. Even if that anger doesn’t metastasize into mass rage rippling through the voting populace, the right steps by Carter and the wrong steps by Deal and company could provide some staying power.
Deal at first protested that he couldn’t have prepared better because it was “unexpected winter storm.” That just incensed anyone who’d watched weather forecast one or even two days earlier, or who’d simply looked at the smartphone weather app that morning. There was plenty of warning that this storm would hit parts of the metro area, and might blanket all of it. And by making that claim, he was implicitly arguing that the state could have made things better had it but known the storm was coming.
Will the people who are outraged today blame Deal at the polls in November? Will they help to lock in the narrative of a state government that no longer delivers basic services?
Despite that initial “unexpected storm” misstep, the governor has deflected blame effectively. He’s pointed out, for example, that surface roads, which are maintained by local governments, were just as clogged as expressways, which are the state’s responsibility. Kasim Reed has obligingly appeared onstage with Deal, welcoming cameras to view the Atlanta mayor as the face of what’s been dubbed nationally as an “Atlanta” fiasco (never mind that most of the mess was outside the city). Reed, a Democrat, has even run a bit of interference for the Republican governor: He lambasted the national media for making fun of Georgia, and he directed some of his own ire toward school districts that released kids in an uncoordinated fashion.
But fact remains that this was the state’s mess. The city holds less than a tenth of the metro population and incorporates far less of its geography. Only the state could be in a position to coordinate the emergency responses of some 50 local governments and school systems. For that matter, it’s the state’s poor planning that has created the road-dependent sprawl that responds with such brittle sensitivity to anything out of the ordinary. More to the immediate point, most of those drivers who were stranded overnight were stuck along the state maintained expressways.
One caution: Georgia may lack the civic infrastructure to process even an obvious lapse in ethics or competence in a rational fashion We seem incapable of assigning fault in such a crisis, or of choosing a fresh course, or a new leader, to avert a repeat. While metro Atlanta still employs some courageous journalists, none has the platform of, say, a Mike Royko, who hammered away at Bilandic’s failure until there could be no mistaking it. It’s an open question whether such a voice even would be listened to at a time that many voters view everything through strictly partisan filters.
One recurring truth in political transitions is that they’re difficult to see in the windshield but look obvious through the rearview mirror. Georgia had Democratic governors form more than 120 straight years, until it began electing Republicans — supposedly forever. Byrne, who beat Belandic in ’79, confessed years later that, even before the storm:
the usual smooth, seamless functioning of the Machine was breaking down, and City Hall was becoming a helter-skelter. The snow just proved what everyone had already come to know and see with their own eyes: that the system wasn’t working anymore and that people—a lot of people—wanted a change.
Short of Deal’s deepening ethics problems, Carter’s opportunity lies in the hammering home the point that Georgia’s government isn’t delivering necessary services. The storm of 2014 simply gives him a pristine, powdery opportunity.