Snowstorms are a part of life in Connecticut. As modern-era governors (and former mayors) like Dannel Malloy know, a storm can make or break a chief elected official.
It made former Gov. Ella Grasso’s reputation.
Grasso’s handling of the blizzard of 1978 helped her squelch political opposition from her then-Lt. Gov. Robert Killian, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz said Wednesday.
Bysiewicz, who documented Grasso’s life in a biography, said when the snow started falling the morning of Feb. 7, 1978, Grasso was anxious to get to the state armory. But due to the weather conditions Grasso and her state police detail got stuck in traffic on Farmington Avenue about a mile from the Capitol complex.
“In true Ella style, she got out of the car and decided to walk the rest of the way,“ Bysiewicz said. Once she got to the armory she held several news conferences and then went on a helicopter ride where she saw a message stamped out in the snow somewhere over Norwich that said “Ella Help.”
In a bold move, Grasso ended up closing the state’s roads and highways to allow for snow removal and the rescue of motorists.
Bysiewicz, a junior in high school at the time, said she remembers she had the entire week off from school, a rare occurrence even in those days.
Grasso’s actions during the 1978 blizzard may have been partially motivated by the decisions of her predecessor.
Bysiewicz said Grasso remembered that the late Gov. Thomas Meskill, decided to go on a ski vacation to Vermont during what ended up being a fairly substantial ice storm. Meskill ended up getting stuck in Vermont and was unable to return to Connecticut to publicly reassure residents the state was doing everything it could to handle the storm.
“Ella was probably at the lowest point in her political career when the storm hit,” Bysiewicz said. From union issues to large budget deficits, Grasso’s popularity was injured prior to the storm, but by the time the storm passed her handling of it had earned her the nickname: “Mother Ella.”
“Many people looked at the storm as a political turning point for her,” Chris Cooper, who served in Grasso’s administration and the administration’s of three other governor’s, said.
“For any governor they know leading the state in a time of crisis is what a governor does,” Cooper said.
But the 1978 blizzard was much different from the Nor’easter newly elected Gov. Dannel Malloy was dealing with Wednesday.
The 1978 storm, which dumped upwards of 18 inches of snow on the state, was followed by freezing rain, high winds, and more snow, which caused numerous power outages across the state and stranded many drivers in their cars. Wednesday’s storm dumped upwards of 30 inches in some parts of the state, but was not accompanied by high winds or freezing rains and at around noon there were reports of only about 2,800 power outages.
By noon Wednesday Malloy had already held what was his fourth briefing on the storm where he thanked the public for staying off the roads and allowing the plow drivers to do their job.
“As I said earlier this is a great day to be making grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup,” Malloy said.
With just a week in office under his belt, Malloy was asked on Tuesday if he felt any pressure to perform well during Connecticut’s first significant snowfall of the year.
“I don’t feel any pressure to demonstrate leadership above and beyond (what) I was hired to do,” Malloy said Tuesday.
Malloy’s predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, struggled with only one winter weather event.
In 2007, an afternoon snowstorm which dropped about two to three inches per hour on the roads triggered an early release of state employees and major private employers in the Hartford area.
Cooper, who served as Rell’s press secretary, said Rell called for a staggered release but received limited compliance. The highways and secondary roads were clogged immediately making it impossible for plows to get through. The situation led to several backups and accidents.
She was successful in getting compliance with future requests for staggered releases, Cooper said.
But for the most part Rell was hands-on when it came to weather events and was known to cut her time away from the state short if any sort of weather was threatening the state.
The first Connecticut politician known to have lost his job over a snowstorm was the mid-20th Century Socialist Party mayor of Bridgeport, Jasper McLevy. “God put the snow there,” McLevy reportedly remarked. “Let him take it away.” So the streets remained uncleared. Instead, voters cleared him out of office at the next opportunity.