BOSTON (AP) — Governors and mayors face a host of thorny problems — from budget shortfalls to rising unemployment — but few are as immediate or compelling as convincing millions trapped in their homes during a blizzard that everything is under control.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh faced just such a challenge during the region’s latest punch of winter weather.
“So far, so good,” said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor. “What’s important for a governor or a mayor is to appear to be in charge and to have a plan to finish up the job and to get the city and the state back to work.”
How Massachusetts fares throughout the storm and its aftermath will be the first big test for Baker, in office less than a month. For many, it will be the first time they see the Republican dealing with a major, statewide challenge.
Early on, Baker made a key decision, ordering a driving ban to give crews a chance to clear the mounting snow. The MBTA was also shut down Tuesday.
“Assuming this goes well, it’s going to be a big plus for him,” Berry said. “Of course, if things don’t go so well, it’s the ultimate case for the buck stops on your desk.”
Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College, agreed that Baker won points simply by showing up in the state’s emergency management bunker. The worst scenario for a governor would be to be out of town or otherwise disengaged during a crisis, he said.
“The governor cannot control Mother Nature but he has to be seen to be in charge of commanding the resources of the state,” Ubertaccio said.
Walsh, Ubertaccio said, has also displayed a “very calming, reassuring presence” during the storm. He ordered city schools closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn knows firsthand the challenges facing political leaders.
“A governor and mayor’s job during a snowstorm or crisis is to inspire and encourage people and that’s exactly what the governor and the mayor did,” Flynn said in an email.
Part of the leadership challenge even includes selecting the proper blizzard attire.
Former Gov. Michael Dukakis famously donned a sweater during the blizzard of 1978, while Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, opted for a vest with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency logo during big storms.
On Monday, reporters teased Baker when he appeared at storm briefings in his trademark suit and tie. He quickly responded that he was wearing his work clothes and that Monday was a work day.
On Tuesday, Baker was clad in a fleece sweater.
“Today is a snow day,” he joked. “I’m dressed for a snow day.”
Berry said clear roads and ice-free sidewalks will always trump political fashion statements.
“A picture of you in a sweater at MEMA headquarters is relatively trivial compared to whether the snow gets picked up and whether you can get to work,” Berry said.
Even a strong storm performance by a governor isn’t a guarantee of future success. A glitch-free cleanup effort can be fleeting as the foul weather is forgotten and other events grip the public’s attention.
“As Dukakis in the sweater shows, it is not a guarantee of anything,” said Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at University of Massachusetts-Boston, referring to Dukakis’ failed bid for re-election just months after the blizzard of 1978.
The blizzard Tuesday isn’t Baker’s first experience with nasty weather while working in state government.
In January 1996 — when Baker was serving as former Gov. William Weld’s top budget official — he estimated that each storm that season had cost the state $10 million to $20 million in plowing expenses and lost tax revenues.
“Charlie Baker is saying this snow is no longer funny to him,” Weld quipped at the time.