There are just a few hard and fast rules in politics.
These come quickly to mind:
Pay all nanny taxes.
Don’t pad your resume with phony tales of war heroism.
Take a “hands-off” policy toward baby sitters.
Then there’s the winter storm rule, which is as immutable as the law of gravity. These emergencies test the character and survival skills of voters. Left without heat or electricity, or trapped in their homes for long periods by a blizzard, the last thing a constituent wants to see is a photograph of one of their elected officials soaking up the rays in sunny Florida, or taking a congressional junket to Gay Paree.
Political careers have been ruined by such circumstances.
John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York, never fully recovered after the media ran stories about city crews clearing the streets and sidewalks around his upscale Manhattan brownstone, while the working-class borough of Queens and much of the rest of the city was passed over by municipal snowplows. When Lindsay ventured into the cleanup combat zone, he was pelted by snowballs.
Mayor Michael Biladic held a huge polling lead going into Chicago’s 1979 mayoral election when a snowstorm crippled the city. Challenger Jane Byrne rode charges that Biladic mishandled the storm cleanup to an upset victory.
Allegations of debauchery and drug use put hardly a dent in Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry’s popularity, but a winter storm nearly did him in. During one of the Redskins’ Super Bowl appearances, Barry chose to stay behind in California for several post-game parties while the District of Columbia was being buried in a snowstorm. The Super Bowl incident played a role in Sharon Pratt Dixon’s upset of Barry several years later, although Barry later bounced back to reclaim his old job.
By any measure last week’s ice storm, which left nearly a half-million Mainers without power or heat, is one of the state’s greatest natural disasters. For Maine political figures, it was not a week to be AWOL from the cruel ordeals bequeathed to state residents by Mother Nature.
Nobody realized that more than Gov. Angus King, who coincidentally comes up for re-election next fall. King was a whirling dervish of crisis management, using the state’s media outlets like an emergency broadcast network to keep Mainers up-to-date on storm conditions. He was on the road with emergency crews, at one point cleaning out a Dunkin’ Donuts shop to bring snack food to line repairmen. Then, matter-of-factly, the governor disclosed he had been sleeping on his neighbor’s sofa throughout the storm because his home in Brunswick was one of those without power.
By just about everybody’s estimation, King scored political re-election points from the storm. But he’s not the only politician who worked overtime to make sure the voters were left with no negative memories of their storm actions. The first rule of storm management is making voters know, as Bill Clinton puts it, “I feel your pain.”
According to aides, Sen. Susan Collins was at her home in Bangor recovering from oral surgery when the lights and heat went out. Still feeling the aftereffects, Collins launched herself on a cross-state tour of shelters and emergency centers.
Sen. Olympia Snowe and Rep. Tom Allen were vacationing — separately — in Florida when the storm hit. Both hotfooted it back to Maine posthaste, aides said. As luck would have it, Allen’s Portland house and Snowe’s Falmouth residence did not lose power, even though neighbors just down the road went without heat or lights for several days.
Snowe turned in one of the better media moments of the storm. Dave Lackey, her press secretary, said that during a tour of a medical facility in Portland doctors informed Snowe their stocks of blood were dangerously low. I’ll give some, said Maine’s senior U.S. senator, reclining on a table for a plasma extraction, to the delight of accompanying reporters.
Rep. John Baldacci, the Bangor restaurant owner, suffered intermittent power outages at his home and business, according to Doug Dunbar, the congressman’s communications director. A charity spaghetti dinner that Baldacci catered to benefit a local cancer victim was expanded to provide meals for those left homeless by the storm, Dunbar said.
One only had to monitor the fax machines to see how seriously congressional delegation members regarded the storm. Around-the-clock advisories were dispatched informing the media about members touring power-outage regions or appealing to President Clinton to designate Maine a disaster area. On many Washington matters the delegation coordinates its press releases, submitting drafts to each office for revision before jointly releasing them.
Those rules went out the window for the ice storm.
As some said on the deck of the Titanic, “It’s every man for himself.”
Vice President Al Gore, who’s gearing up to run for president in the year 2000, certainly knows the value of bringing good news to disaster victims. Gore is scheduled to tour parts of Maine on Thursday.
Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, figures to be Gore’s toughest Democratic rival. Asked if Gephardt was planning a trip to storm-ravaged New England, press spokesman Eric Smith said, “We’re not into that kind of stuff, yet.”
Give them time.
A pat on the shoulder or encouraging word by a politician to a voter who is cold and homeless is the kind of warm and cuddly memory that lingers until the next election. — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is email@example.com