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Analysis: Will Atlanta’s Snowmageddon imperil Gov. Nathan Deal’s re-election?

Snowstorm that snarled metro area comes in the middle of 2014 campaign

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

georgia mugATLANTA (CFP) — Georgia Republican Governor Nathan Deal appeared to be in cruise control toward re-election this fall — until Mother Nature brought an avalanche down around his head.ME sm

Deal is being widely criticized for the state government’s handling of a snowstorm that struck midday on January 28, stranding commuters on icy freeways and forcing schoolchildren to take shelter in their classrooms overnight.

After first deflecting criticism by suggesting that forecasters didn’t provide enough advace warning, Deal switched course and apologized unreservedly, telling Georgians that “the buck stops with me” for the mess.

“We didn’t respond fast enough,” he said, promising an investigation into what went wrong. “Our preparation was not adequate.”

In the aftermath of the storm, though, one big question is how much Atlanta’s Snowmageddon has damaged Deal politically.

Deal is being challenged in the May GOP primary by State School Superintendent John Barge and David Pennington, the mayor of Dalton, a small city in the northwest corner of the state.

Both Barge and Pennington have been highly critical of Deal’s handling of the storm. Pennington said Deal “failed miserably”and noted that in Dalton, officials started pre-treating roads hours before the storm hit.

Of course, Dalton has a population of just 33,000. Metro Atlanta, on the other hand, sprawls across 28 counties — nearly the size of Massachusetts — and is home to almost 6 million people. The management task is, well, substantially more substantial.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, has also come under fire for his handling of the snow storm. He has shot back, noting — with more than a bit of frustration — that most of the chaos didn’t take place in the city itself, which has only about a tenth of the metro area’s population.

True enough. Most of the thousands of people stranded on highways and separated from their children live in the suburbs that circle the city — places where Republicans are plentiful and elections for governor are won and lost. Not good news for Governor Deal.

State Senator Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor. He has been more circumspect in his criticism of how the snowstorm was handled, perhaps to spare Reed, one of his key allies.

But the political implications are obvious. Even as people were still shivering in their cars, pollsters were calling voters, asking questions about Deal’s performance, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It was unclear just who was doing that polling. But clearly, Deal’s opponents smell an opportunity. While Reed is also getting his share of the grief, the mayor was already re-elected last year. For Deal, the timing couldn’t be worse.

Ironically, his first inauguration in 2011 had to be moved indoors because of a ice storm that shut the city down for four days — after which state and local officials promised to do better the next time.

The next time has arrived, and now Deal’s second inauguration could be endangered by what appears to be an inability to learn from the past so as not to repeat it.

Snow has imperiled other politicians, the most famous example being in Chicago in 1977, when Mayor Michael Bilandic was swept from office after a series of storms that paralyzed the city. Mayors in Denver and Seattle faced similar fates.

Of course, Deal is a governor, not a mayor. He doesn’t have to face voters until May, when the weather will be balmy and the snowstorm but an unhappy memory. He also has more political heft than either of his GOP rivals, and Georgia’s Republican tendencies give him an advantage over Carter.

But thanks to Snowmageddon, Deal’s road to re-election could be more, er, icy than it might have been.

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