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Winter storm may pack a political punch for Deal
States response could become a campaign issue in governors race
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Our Views: Blizzard of criticism 

2014 election calendar

Federal, state primary: May 20 (voter registration deadline April 21)

Primary runoff: July 22

General election: Nov. 4 (registration deadline Oct. 6)

State runoff: Dec. 2

Federal runoff: Jan. 6

The political fallout from the winter weather fiasco that left residents stranded along icy roads and highways in metro Atlanta is just beginning to take shape, and Georgia voters can expect the issue to rear its head during this year’s election.

Gov. Nathan Deal stepped up to the microphone at a widely televised news conference Thursday and accepted blame for not better preparing and reacting to the storm.

“I’m not going to look for a scapegoat,” he said. “I’m the governor. The buck stops with me.”

But will that be enough to limit the potential damage to his poll numbers and re-election campaign?

State political observers say the answers start with whether Deal can show he has learned the lessons wrought by the storm.

As long as he takes action to better prepare for the next big storm, “voters will be forgiving,” said Heather Casey Hollimon, political science professor at Brenau University.

Deal’s apology came with an assurance that next time around, things will be different.

“We will be much more cautious and much more aggressive in terms of taking precautions in advance,” he said.

On Monday, Deal will announce the members of a Severe Weather Warning Task Force, and an investigation into what went wrong and what can be gained from the experience is expected to come soon.

Taking early action is critical to mitigating a snowstorm’s impact, said Gainesville and Hall County officials. Pretreating roads and coordinating communication among all public safety and public works agencies is crucial.

“Our preparation started back months ago,” Assistant Hall County Administrator Marty Nix said.

But Nix added that there are always lessons to be learned and better ways to respond. He said Hall County will hold a debriefing session on its response to the storm to look for efficiencies and improvements it can make next time a big one hits.

Gainesville Public Works Director David Dockery said he didn’t want to be critical of how agencies in Atlanta responded, but noted that preparation was the key to obviating the worst-case scenario in the city.

“It worked out very well for us,” he said.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said he witnessed firsthand how traffic snarled on interstates throughout the metro region as the snow poured down and turned roads into icy sheets Tuesday afternoon and evening.

“Obviously, the Department of Transportation didn’t prepare properly for it ...” he said. “Hopefully, a valuable lesson has been learned.”

Rogers expects the state Republican leadership to take a political hit as a result of the bungled response to the storm from the DOT and Georgia Emergency Management Agency, but the impact won’t be long term, he said.

However long the fallout remains in voters’ minds, Republicans across the state are readying for attacks from Democrats on the issue come campaign season.

“(Democrats) make an issue of pretty much any and everything,” said state Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville. “They’re going to use this as another tool” to criticize Republicans.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, acknowledged that the timing of the response to the storm was flawed, but warned Democrats about pursuing it as an issue in this year’s elections.

“We should be making decisions based on policy and principle, not on politics,” he said.

State Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, Deal’s likely Democratic challenger in this year’s gubernatorial race, said he was going to avoid trying to score political points over the response to the storm.

“What I think we have to do is concentrate on the future and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told The Times. “But it doesn’t do any good to lay political blame. This campaign wasn’t about disaster response two months ago, and it won’t be about that now.”

Carter said he had many changes in mind for how state agencies should deal with a similar storm in the future. Foremost is creating a traffic plan for Atlanta that coincides with disaster preparedness and response.

Though Carter is taking the high road and avoiding the political attacks many expect of him, state Democrats are not pulling their punches.

“People are furious, and rightfully so,” Democratic Party of Georgia Chairman DuBose Porter said in a statement. “This is as big and bad a dumpster fire I’ve seen. Deal’s lack of leadership to manage GDOT’s resources and subsequent failure to competently respond to the aftermath of the storm is appalling.”

Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, said he thinks the issue will play well with Democratic voters on Election Day, but he’s skeptical that it will hurt Deal’s campaign.