ATLANTA — No one other than schoolchildren looking for a snow day wanted more winter weather, but Nathan Deal was probably a little glad it came anyway.
It provided him what golfers call a mulligan, a second chance after traffic snarls and stranded children during Winter Storm Leon made Georgia a national punch line in January. Polls showed Deal got loads of the blame, and his election rivals helped pile it on.
GOP challenger David Pennington said Deal’s apology after Leon and formation of a task force amounted to a “snow job.”
“Nathan, the problem wasn’t the lack of proper warning of severe weather; it was devising a plan for safe traffic routes and executing real leadership,” said Pennington, the mayor of Dalton. “The world’s greatest plan does no good if your leader is asleep at the wheel and can’t execute.”
So, when Winter Storm Pax crept toward the Peach State last week, Deal began to act preemptively and very publicly. He issued ever-expanding emergency declarations and implored motorists to stay off the roads. He let cameras into his staff meetings. He held multiple press briefings each day and even welcomed journalists when he took an aerial tour of the lingering damage in Augusta.
Critics say Deal didn’t take the reins when the first storm hit and pretty much left Georgians to their own devices. That’s surprising, considering the state was gripped in an icy winter storm when he was sworn into office. His actions last week make his inaction in January seem all the more glaring.
Even fellow Republicans, such as House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, couldn’t offer a defense. “I think he had to find out the hard way that he had to give it a little more intensive attention (in January), which is sort of a wake-up call for any executive,” said O’Neal. “I didn’t see it as a mark against Nathan Deal, but he may be just too nice of a guy.”
Deal’s aides note that the first storm was predicted to hit south of Atlanta, and the official response was complicated by timing. All of metro Atlanta apparently had hit the road at once, compressing what would normally be a three-hour rush-hour-departure window into about 30 minutes. Traffic would have been problematic on a sunny day, and the congestion prevented snow plows and salt spreaders from getting to the roads.
Deal defenders might argue that all of those complaining had access to the same weather information he did, and yet they sent their children to school and drove themselves to work anyway. Of course, it is easier to take a snow day when the governor has declared it than to convince a boss or school principal to make an exception to mandatory attendance.
Pax was a more brutal storm than Leon, and Deal apparently recognized that. Pax packed more punch and stayed longer, so the governor might have deployed the full range of state tactics for Pax even if he hadn’t been embarrassed by Leon.
An unscientific reader poll by the Atlanta Business Chronicle showed on Friday that 79 percent of the 200 responding thought the official response to Pax “was terrific.” Another 18 percent said it was “okay,” while just 3 percent termed it “awful.” Compare that to the same publication’s survey of 2,051 readers after Leon in which 54 percent said Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed were to blame for the mess while 8 percent said they weren’t and 38 percent said no one was.
At least one pollster has said privately that the blame Deal got during January’s Leon pulled him significantly below Democratic challenger Jason Carter in head-to-head election surveys. Observers are waiting for surveys to be made public to see what effect the two storms have on the race.
Carter offered a hint Thursday during an interview as he was musing over why Deal agreed to give the Legislature a veto over any gubernatorial decision to expand Medicaid.
“They are looking at the same poll numbers we are,” said Carter, an Atlanta senator.
Carter was reluctant to attack Deal while people in the Augusta area were still without electricity, but he replied when asked about the governor’s performance in the two storms.
“What this shows now is that if a governor is willing to take charge from the beginning, we can manage,” he said of Deal. “It’s all about his instinct, which is to try not to lead.”
House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones was among those stuck in traffic for hours during January’s storm. While she describes herself as a “Gov. Deal fan,” the Milton Republican said it is probably better to risk a false alarm than it is to appear unprepared.
“We can always do better. We don’t have these types of occurrences often,” she said. “It is probably better to err on the side of caution.”
More than one elected official has been booted from office because of a botched response to a snowstorm, although it’s rare in Georgia. The unusual mulligan that Mother Nature offered Deal was an opportunity he wasn’t going to pass up and run the risk of under-reacting to.