There’s nothing like a blizzard to put a damper on politics in Chicago – or supercharge it. First things first, let’s get the snow out of here. Then we can argue about how to make hay out of it.
Ever since Jane Byrne rode the Blizzard of ’79 into office, snow removal has been considered one of those essential city services that can make or break a mayor (or, for that matter, an alderman.)
During that storm, incumbent Mayor Michael Bilandic pretty much made every mistake in the book: ordering CTA trains to bypass inner city stops, failing to plow side streets, sending motorists to emergency school yard lots already being used as snow dumping grounds. The helplessness citizens felt during the storm was confirmed only a few days later. Although Bilandic spent $90,000 on an outside consultant to draw up an emergency snow plan, there was no plan. And soon enough, there was no Mayor Bilandic either.
The current Mayor Richard M. Daley tells the story of riding through that storm in a limo with Bilandic and seeing people waiting for buses and el trains that never arrived. “Those people out there hate you,” Daley said, and Bilandic could only nod silently. That lesson stuck with Daley throughout his 21 years in office and infused his energetic response to every snow emergency thereafter, including this one.
A Modern Day Response
The Blizzard of 2011 is not all that different from the 1979 version, although the response is. For starters, we are living in a whole new world of weather forecasting. Computer maps trace wind patterns and precipitation hundreds of miles out, and local TV weathermen boast of the ability to predict storms with 90 percent accuracy 21 hours in advance of their arrival (versus 10 hours only 10 years ago).
This means the city departments have more time to prepare. They also have more resources to respond with, including street cameras and first responder equipment supplied by the Department of Homeland Security, and Daley is happy to use them. When O’Hare closed this week in preparation for the storm, for instance, Daley quickly commandeered runway plows for a day to help with the city snow removal effort.
Lessons from Jane Byrne
Every crisis is an opportunity, as Rahm Emanuel famously reminded us. It won’t be long before at least one of the candidates will find something in Mayor Daley’s handling of the snow to make an issue of. (And which of the candidates will come to his defense?)
A whiteout of this magnitude leaves plenty of room for anecdotal evidence of city decisions that compounded instead of solving problems. The 300 cars still stranded on Lake Shore Drive is a good place to start looking. But Byrne’s TV message in 1979 – “No one can stop the snow, but good management and planning could clean this city up fast” – isn’t going to fly this time. Nor does it have to.
The brilliance of Byrne’s commercials didn’t lie so much in the words as the images: Byrne out on the streets suffering through the winter along with the rest of us. They came about through a combination of luck and instincts, mostly those of political consultant Don Rose.
Byrne had no budget for TV ads. She had to be convinced to spend $3,000 for a day of shooting and she fretted over what she should wear. Rose chose to shoot the spots on a blustery day with six more inches in the forecast. In the end, Byrne wound up wearing a blue cloth coat and white wig (to blunt her propensity for changing hairstyles every week) and Rose shot her on every street corner, el stop and unplowed side street where he thought he could find an angry voter.
Bilandic, meanwhile, had raised over a million dollars and clung tenaciously to a series of glossy political spots featuring his graceful wife Heather in her living room talking about his contribution to the arts. The contrast was striking, especially to a snowbound TV audience watching back-to-back versions during the evening newscasts.
No one should ever underestimate how many people sit at home in February in Chicago watching television. Bilandic’s TV advertising ran unchallenged (and largely unnoticed) in January. Although Byrne had put together three spots (in one day), she came to the end of January without enough money to air them. That’s when she made the fateful decision to borrow $75,000 against her mortgage and book a three-week block of ad time in the run-up to the election.
By today’s standards, her $75,000 is less than half what candidates spend in a single week. But Byrne bunched the commercials around the news programs, flooded late night TV with inexpensive repetitions, and deftly played to the news station’s hunger for controversy. By Election Day, her feisty TV personality was better known (and better liked) than Bilandic’s.
There were other political moves in the later stages of the campaign that influenced the outcome. Mike Royko and other newspaper columnists had an inordinate sway on voter opinion in those days. But it was on television that Byrne shaped her image, and it didn’t take much money to do it.
No Place for Pretty
A snowstorm like the one that dumped 20 inches on Chicago this week has the capacity to wipe out months of work producing political commercials in advance of a campaign. Pictures of candidates listening to teachers in outdoor playlots, walking leafy green sidewalks in the neighborhoods or wearing hardhats at a construction site won’t cut it. Even the well-crafted images of Bill Clinton endorsing Rahm Emanuel in the cozy confines of the Cultural Center are suspect. If ever there were a time to snip the pretty from the pictures, this is it. In the winter, nothing is green in Chicago – and we like it that way.
For an underdog in the mayoral race – and if your name is not Rahm Emanuel, that’s you – this is the time to get out the camera and make a whole new set of campaign spots, the grittier the better. Even if the message hasn’t changed, wrap it in the overcoat of people toughing it out in a tough city.
Gery Chico gets it. There’s a viral video going around the Internet showing him pushing out a friend’s car during the storm. (Unfortunately, it’s so grainy you can hardly make him out.) And the point isn’t lost on Emanuel either. His campaign put him out on the side streets in Roscoe Village for photo ops Wednesday that showed him helping dig out a car. Too bad he looked like he stopped by REI to pick up outerwear for the occasion.
But where’s Carol? And Miguel DeValle? Hopefully, out shooting new TV commercials in the snow and getting their house re-financed – because if you’re an underdog in this race, this snowstorm is the best shot you’ve got. So bet the ranch. Take your shot. Otherwise, why are you in this race?