Josh Kurtz: Snow Job

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A successful politician knows a thing or two about snow jobs. So the politics of a blizzard is always something to behold, as promises — and disappointments — are piled high, much like the gray icebergs now everywhere on our streets.

The name Michael Bilandic may not be too familiar in these parts, but most pols probably have nightmares about his experience, whether they know of him or not. Bilandic was the acting mayor of Chicago — having succeeded the legendary Richard J. Daley after he died — when a crippling blizzard hit the city in early 1979, just weeks before he was up for a full term. The city’s response to the storm was so inept that voters booted Bilandic in the Democratic primary. (But in one of those only-in-Illinois tales of political redemption, Bilandic was elected to the Illinois Appellate Court in 1984 and to the state Supreme Court in 1990, where he even served a stint as chief justice.)

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) injected a healthy dose of realism into the public discussion last week when, hours after the second gigantic snowstorm, he said, “Stop already with the ‘scrape my street down to the pavement’” demands.

It’s good occasionally to be totally honest with your constituents. But is it smart politics? Will a single voter even remember the statement come Election Day?

It’s certainly hard to imagine some of O’Malley’s predecessors and rivals uttering such a line. William Donald Schaefer would have publicly brow-beaten the people who worked for him until the streets were plowed, and he no doubt would have jumped on and driven a snow plow for the benefit of the TV cameras. It’s easy to imagine Doug Duncan before the cameras, too — if not on a plow, then looking authoritative in some kind of emergency command center. Whether these photo ops actually help in an emergency is highly debatable — but they do help burnish the politician’s image.

It seemed like publicity-hungry pols were mercifully in short supply during the height of the storms. But now, in the storm’s aftermath, there will be a political aftermath, and the measured response may change.

A quick tour of the e-mail inbox revealed the following: Rushern Baker (D), the frontrunner in the race for Prince George’s County executive, sent out a couple of e-mails urging his supporters to check in on their elderly neighbors, to make sure everything was all right, and to dig them out if necessary. Businesswoman Joanna Conti, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the race for Anne Arundel County executive, praised the emergency, utility company and transportation workers for their heroic efforts — but also set up a place on her campaign Web site for residents to critique the county government’s performance during the storm. That’s the county government run by John Leopold (R), the man she is hoping to unseat in November. And the Montgomery County government, in its earnest fashion, sent out periodic updates assuring residents that help was on the way.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments — an officious sounding body with very little real power — is organizing a forum next month to assess the area governments’ response to the storm. It will be very interesting to see whether there’s hand-clapping, hand-wringing or hand-holding — or a combination of the three.

One place where the governments failed badly — at least in the D.C. region — is on the public transportation front. The meltdown of the Metro system in particular has been well documented over the past few days in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Friday’s commute — on the only day last week when the federal government was open — was an unmitigated disaster. And the region is bracing for another tough transit day on Tuesday, when schools finally reopen and more people will be returning to work.

Finding solutions to the D.C. area’s public transit problems is complicated, but the explanation for them is absurdly simple: no one is in charge. In Baltimore, the buses and subway and light rail are run by the Maryland Transit Administration. Its administrator is Ralign Wells, who reports to state Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley, who answers to Gov. O’Malley. Its budget is set by the governor and the legislature.

But Metro — or the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, as it is known? It has no general manager at the moment. It is governed by a board whose members are appointed by the federal government and political leaders in Maryland, Virginia and D.C., who usually reflect the parochial interests of their jurisdictions. It has no reliable funding stream — its budget is hostage to the whims (and the ability to pay) of the feds, the two states and D.C. The wonder isn’t that the Metro system broke down during stormageddon. The wonder is that it functions at all.

Mother Nature will do her thing — and our politicians and government workers need to be credited for dealing adequately (and often admirably) with what may have been the storm of the century. But a real political miracle would be if someone figured out how to fix Metro. The GM’s job is open right now: Any miracle workers out there?

Josh Kurtz is senior editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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