Gov. Nathan Deal apologized Thursday, saying the “buck stops” with him for the government’s lagging response to a storm that resulted in an epic traffic jam. But the guy getting even more of the blame across the country is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Part of the reason Reed is feeling the heat is obvious — he leads the city at the heart of the icy debacle. It’s his job, as the city’s CEO, to oversee emergency response plans to protect Atlantans. And as mayor, he’s become one of Georgia’s most nationally recognized political figures, with ties to the White House, a seat on the Democratic National Committee’s executive board and a regular spot on political talk shows.
So when the metro-region shut down under 2 inches of snow, and Reed embarked on a round of high-profile media interviews, he effectively became the national face of Gridlockalypse. And in turn, the face of a failure to prevent thousands from becoming stranded on roads and in schools.
Howard Franklin, an Atlanta based political strategist, says the criticism comes with being what Reed has sought during his time in office: to be viewed as a leader with statewide reach and national influence.
“This is what Kasim Reed is hungry for. He wants to be a national figure. I don’t think everybody is after him necessarily. I think he’s putting himself in the line of fire,” Franklin said. “Clearly he held himself out as a regional leader, so there’s where the double-edged sword comes in. You have to take the bitter with the sweet.”
What’s left is the image of a frustrated mayor pushing back against assertions that he dropped the ball — claims he is making without openly criticizing Deal, state transportation officials or other leaders who share a role in the fallout.
It’s a political tightrope he walked during a swath of tense media interviews following the storm, including a tough exchange with a CNN anchor Wednesday and The Today Show Thursday.
A MSNBC interview was outright contentious, as agitated anchors pressed the mayor to “name names” of those responsible and Reed refused to cast blame, but noted that roads and highways in the city limits — his jurisdiction — were largely clear.
“Kasim is combative and overly defensive in his interviews and that’s part of who he is. And in these kinds of situations it makes him look too combative and aggressive,” said Kennesaw State political science professor Kerwin Swint. “Obviously he has aspirations of furthering his career and he surely didn’t need this to come along and make the city look like its pants are down.”
By contrast, Deal enjoyed a gentler and smaller number of national interviews. The governor spoke for brief stint on PBS’ “NewsHour” over Skype, spoke with a sympathetic FoxNews anchor who praised the governor for apologizing within 24 hours and ended Thursday with a CNN interview he first shot down due to what he perceived as an unfair treatment of Reed.
Like the governor, Emory political science professor Michael Leo Owens thinks Reed isn’t getting a fair shake in the national spotlight. The mayor is right to distinguish what’s in his control and what isn’t — namely, his lack of decision-making over interstates and schools, Owens said.
“I think people are being unfair toward him because they have a misunderstanding about local government. When people say Atlanta, they think the city of Atlanta is responsible for all of metropolitan Atlanta,” Owens said. “There are 60 municipalities in metro Atlanta, but I don’t see the mayors of any other municipalities being called on the carpet for this issue.”
Just how extensive the damage to Reed’s and Deal’s political careers is yet unknown, despite calls for their ouster from the epicenter of criticism: social media sites.
But Swint thinks despite the current heat, the long-term political fall-out for both men may be minimal.
If anything, it will be toughest for Deal, who faces a competitive re-election this year and thus has more to lose as angry Georgians ask why and how thousands became stranded on interstates across the region, with some still stuck two days after the storm.
“It’s not going to disappear from peoples’ memories, but by (November’s election) it may not be a priority,” he said.
Franklin isn’t so sure.
“Deal has the re-election coming up this year. It will certainly play out as a political issue … he will have to prove he learned lessons from this,” he said.
And Reed’s saving grace? Redemption itself, as the mayor is likely to encounter another winter storm before, or if, he decides to run for higher political office when his term ends in 2017.
“Kasim will have another chance to prove that the lessons were learned from this one,” Franklin said. “Hopefully the next time we won’t have this.”