December 2008 proved that snowstorms can have high political stakes for mayors. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn was monitoring this week's storm from the city's Emergency Operations Center.
That chill in Mayor Mike McGinn’s office this week may have been the somewhat recent memory of his predecessor’s famous bungling of a 2008 snowstorm.
But as snow turned to slush Wednesday afternoon with no major problems, McGinn was doing what he does best: chatting it up with a team of staffers.
“I really like the collaborative spirit today, and the spirit of service that is going on here,” McGinn said from his post at the city’s Emergency Operations Center.
Former Mayor Greg Nickels’ declaration that the city deserved a “B” for its response to a December 2008 storm became a symbol of critics’ claims that Nickels was out of touch, more focused on his national role as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors than on day-to-day concerns at home.
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Investigations into the storm showed Nickels was unaware of major problems with storm response, including records kept on white boards and poor communication between the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Metro bus system.
Nickels failed to win a third term less than a year later.
Reached Wednesday at home in West Seattle, the former mayor sighed and declined to comment.
“You know,” he said, “I’d just as soon you talk to some other folks.”
McGinn said he actually likes overseeing a snowstorm, for the sense of teamwork and the chance to interact with the city’s rank-and-file employees. A storm is a test, he said — when people in the city are relying on a lot of direct services.
“I think it’s important to be here doing my job, to make sure we’re delivering the best services,” he said. “I mean, that’s kind of my job, right?”
The mayor was booked Wednesday afternoon with media interviews, and he resisted giving the city a score for its response. To manage expectations, he repeated this talking point: “It’s not a snow-prevention plan. It’s a snow-removal plan.”
Former City Councilmember Jan Drago, who oversaw the council’s transportation committee during the 2008 storm and ran for mayor in 2009, said a snowstorm would make her nervous if she were mayor. “It’s always a critical time when there’s a big snowstorm, because it’s somewhat unpredictable in terms of what happens next.”
McGinn canceled a planned trip to Washington, D.C., Tuesday afternoon for a Conference of Mayors meeting, opting to stay home and monitor the forecast storm. He personally delivered doughnuts to snowplow drivers at 7 a.m. Wednesday and then spent most of the day at the city’s operations center with his iPad and a telephone, doing media interviews, holding Cabinet meetings and listening in on the National Weather Service’s forecast.
Later Wednesday afternoon, he was briefed about Thursday morning, when ice could make for another tricky commute.
Former Mayor Charles Royer said mayors get blamed for all sorts of things and that Nickels’ political downfall after the 2008 storm revealed he was disconnected with constituents.
After a string of political losses, he said, McGinn might be “trying very hard to mend some fences that were pretty badly damaged in the first couple of years. So maybe he’s more aware that he needs to step up and be a leader and act like he’s in charge.”
The list of people considering running against McGinn in 2013 is long.
At City Hall, the mayor’s political foes weren’t ready to give McGinn all the credit.
City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said McGinn was being more hands-on than Nickels during the storm. But he added:
“The city learned a lot from the snowstorm that many people think was the downfall of Greg Nickels,” he said. “It’s hard to know how much to attribute to the mayor.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.