Why Chris Christie had to get back to New Jersey

Story highlights

  • Chris Christie on Friday reversed a decision not to return to New Jersey ahead of a major storm
  • Errol Louis: Christie had no choice but to hightail it back to the state

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)With megastorm Jonas bearing down on the East Coast, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie first told reporters he didn't plan to leave the presidential campaign trail in New Hampshire to return home. Then he had a timely change of heart and said he planned to skedaddle back to the state before the storm threatened to bury not only his state, but his political future.

Smart move. Back in 2010, Christie came under fire for remaining on vacation -- in Disney World, of all places -- rather than rushing back home when a major snowstorm hit the northeast. Christie suffered no lasting political damage from the incident, winning re-election in 2013. But he had to know the long, grim history of politicians who paid the price for bungling a winter cleanup.
Errol Louis
Start with the legendary February 1969 blizzard that slammed New York City with 15 inches of snow and nearly destroyed the career of then-Mayor John Lindsay. Neighborhoods distant from City Hall were left buried for at least three days; food deliveries were so snarled that helicopters air-dropped food in neglected areas.
    One prominent resident, Ralph Bunche, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and undersecretary-general of the United Nations, actually sent a telegram to the mayor about being unable to get to work. "As far as getting to the United Nations is concerned, I may as well be in the Alps," Bunche wrote. "This is a shameful performance by the great city of New York."
    Lindsay, a Republican, lost the party's nomination and fought on to win re-election that year the hard way, eking out victory over both a Democrat and a Republican as a candidate of the Liberal Party.
    Lindsay's close call didn't register in Chicago, where they still talk about how the snow ended the career of then-Mayor Michael Bilandic. In early January 1979, nine inches of snow was followed by a record-breaking 10 straight days of around subzero temperatures. Then came the haymaker, a 20-inch deluge over two days that knocked the Windy City on its back.
    Nothing seemed to go right with the response. The mayor repeatedly gave out faulty information, pronouncing the airport open (it wasn't) and urging drivers to stash their cars in municipal lots (many of which hadn't been cleared). In a desperate effort to keep the subway system running, the Chicago Transit Authority suspended service.
    This happened in an election year. Bilandic lost the primary to Jane Byrne, who went on to become the first and so far only female Chicago mayor.
    A few years later, more than 2 feet of snow fell on Denver on Christmas Eve 1982. It made for pretty photos, but city residents wanted more than nice pictures, and then-Mayor Bill McNichols didn't deliver. As one account put it: "The city was slow to clear main streets. Garbage trucks were deployed to pack side-street snow down to a navigable depth. Instead they created thin, dirty glaciers that lingered until just weeks before the May election."
    In that election, McNichols was beaten by Federico Peña.
    Fast-forward to 2010, when an unexpectedly harsh winter storm buried New York in 20 inches of snow the day after Christmas, and almost everything that could go wrong did. Many city plows and buses weren't properly equipped with chains and snow tires, and got stuck in central arteries along with residents' cars, bringing the city to a grinding halt.
    At least one death and possibly two occurred when emergency vehicles couldn't get through the snow-choked streets. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was invisible for the first day of the disaster; it later became clear that he was almost certainly at his vacation home in Bermuda while New York was paralyzed, a story that took some of the heat off Christie's Disney diversion.
    Bloomberg later apologized for the city's poor response, but came in for a lot of criticism, including from a local official named Bill de Blasio, who groused: "Like many New Yorkers, I woke up two days straight to an unplowed street outside my front door. This is not business as usual, and frustration is mounting."
    This year, as the new occupant of City Hall, de Blasio, perhaps mindful of the way ambitious politicians can play snow politics,- has been holding round-the-clock briefings, warning residents to stay inside and whipping his deputies to be prepared for every contingency. The mayor's partner and frequent rival, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has been doing the same.
    All of which is to say: Christie had no choice but to hightail it back to New Jersey and make sure he doesn't join the inglorious line of politicians who flunked a basic test of government: keeping the roads clear, the trains running and the people safe.
    Not the kind of thing you want hanging over your head just as voters start casting ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire, two places where they know a thing or two about handling snow, and expect the next president to be just as knowledgeable.