One odd side effect of covid-19 has been what it does to taste. Even those who have avoided the illness enjoy things they once disliked: Government spending. Facetiming with family.
Andrew M. Cuomo.
The governor of New York’s morning news conferences have become part of the country’s new daily rhythm. He is broadcast live from the wood-paneled Red Room of the state capitol building or New York City’s convention center — a leader in a polo shirt or neatly knotted tie, projecting competence to go along with the PowerPoint projection of hard truths. And to the surprise of anyone who has watched his State of the State, it’s must-see television.
First come the facts. In a series of days, there are no cases, then 30,000 cases, then nearly 45,000 cases in New York state. “That’s a problem,” he says. They are running out of beds and ventilators. He doesn’t shy away from that. “That’s a challenge.” He pauses.
“Take a breath,” he says, and when he starts to talk again it is the revival portion of the meeting. There are moving stories about New York, his mother, his father and all of humanity. The density of the state — its “closeness,” he says — is its vulnerability in this moment. But it is also what will get it through. He is talking to New York but the whole country is listening to the Cuomo Monologues: part briefing, part sermon, part inspirational talk.
By the end, viewers at home are getting choked up, and people in California and Colorado are texting about him. They’ll tune in later to watch as he and his younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, rib one another about who mom loves more amid the coverage of impending doom.
The comedian Chelsea Handler is attracted to him. Even women who used to despise him find him irresistible. His enemies give him praise.
The coronavirus crisis has re-introduced the nation to a different cast of Democratic leaders. Former vice president Joe Biden — the supposed standard bearer of the party — has been largely missing, as governors like Jay Inslee of Washington state, Gavin Newsom of California and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan find the spotlight. And no one is on a bigger stage right now than Cuomo.
It’s an interesting turn of events for a governor who has mostly been known as a micromanager, a bully, a vacuum cleaner set on high to suck up power.
Plenty of Americans have had a thing for “tough guys” before. Trump became president, after all. People don’t seem to mind a jerk if he’s their jerk.
It helps Cuomo that the other daily programming is the president’s presser, equal parts bravado and wishful thinking, underscoring a message that conjures a deadbeat dad — “I take no responsibility at all.”
It can make Cuomo’s faults feel reasonable. He’s the strongman who can admit he’s wrong. He speaks fluently about the facts. He worries about his mother, and by extension, yours, too.
He can screw up. Cuomo, who declined an interview for this story, got into a public bickering match with his old rival, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), about a shelter-in-place order and wavered on whether to close New York’s schools. He shut down nonessential business after California did. When Cuomo decided to use the state’s prisoners to produce hand sanitizer, critics howled that he was exploiting what was essentially slave labor in a health crisis. Just this past week, Cuomo admitted that parts of mandatory quarantine, like sending people — both those in college and those without the savings to live on their own without a job — back home to live with their vulnerable parents, may not have been the best decision. But at least he doesn’t go against his own scientific advisers about when to open businesses back up.
“All of those attributes that at times grate at people — even like me who want to poke him sometimes — frankly are useful in an emergency,” said Marc Molinaro, Dutchess County executive and Cuomo’s 2018 Republican opponent in the governor’s race.
The state now accounts for more than half of all cases of covid-19 in the country, and having granted himself immense power to make unilateral decisions, the success of the response largely falls to Cuomo, and his ability to work with the federal government.
“This is not a time to play nice in the sandbox,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference.
“We are going to go out and kick coronavirus’s ass,” he said Friday.
As recently as last summer, New Yorkers seemed to be sick of the Cuomo show. A three-term governor and the son of another, the late Mario Cuomo, Andrew has spent more than two decades in and around the Executive Mansion.
Where his father was called a political visionary, as close to a poet as Albany may ever see, Andrew M. Cuomo has long been thought of as more of a blunt object.
“Mario Cuomo loved the art of thinking, of grappling with concepts,” said Steve Cohen, a former secretary to Andrew M. Cuomo who also worked for his father. Andrew, is in some ways, a reaction to his father. “He is every bit the intellectual his father was, but he is also very pragmatic. Andrew believes you need to actually get things done. If you can’t get things done, a lofty philosophy is a luxury.”
If Andrew M. Cuomo wanted to get it done, he often did: driving strict gun-control measures, minimum-wage hikes, and some of the most expansive infrastructure projects in the history of the state. He has also dealt with acute disasters before, including Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. After Hurricane Irene washed out a major thoroughfare in the Adirondacks in 2011, Cuomo got on the phone to threaten the contractor on the reconstruction job that if he didn’t fix the roads within a week, he’d never work in New York again. After Superstorm Sandy, Cuomo eviscerated the local power authority for mismanaging power outages and drove legislation to overhaul it.
“This is the Cuomo disaster playbook,” said Josh Vlasto, former deputy communications director for Cuomo. “Hands on, fully immersive, direct and clear communication, and completely blowing through bureaucracy even if it is his own bureaucracy.”
But the go-it-alone attitude has been frustrating to some, especially the many Democrats who fall to his left and feel he hasn’t done enough to address inequality. And at its worst, Cuomo’s brusque leadership style can give the impression that not everything is on the level.
In July 2013, Cuomo sat in the same Red Room and announced that in response to a spate of scandals plaguing the State House, he was forming an independent panel of lawyers and investigators to crack down on corruption.
“The people of this state should sleep better tonight,” he said, announcing what would be called the Moreland Commission.
But when the commission started looking into entities tangentially connected to the governor, he shut it down months ahead of schedule.
“This was an edict by the governor that we should uncover whatever might be going on in the state,” said Barbara Bartoletti, a former adviser to the commission. “What he did not apparently want us to do was get close to him. And that’s when it started to fall apart.”
But what counts as good government in a crisis? Sometimes it’s a heavy hand.
In late February, Cuomo secured $40 million in a bill that gave him broad authority to combat the virus without having to seek approval from the legislature.
“If the legislature abdicates their role, he’s the type of governor who, like a large celestial object acting with the laws of gravity, will pull more power to him,” said Blair Horner, who used to work for Cuomo and is now a regular critic. “But maybe right now it’s the only option.”
A lack of options has driven the governor into regular contact with a fellow New Yorker he’s known for 30 years: President Trump. The two are on the phone every day, often multiple times. Along with the rest of the country, Trump regularly tunes into Cuomo’s news conferences, and by some accounts has tried to emulate his tone.
For the most part, the two have been careful to praise one another in public. But they both have their limits. Earlier this month, the president tweeted that Cuomo needed to “do more,” which rankled the governor enough for him to respond: “No — YOU have to do something. You’re supposed to be the President.” Ultimately Trump deleted his tweet and told Fox News’s Sean Hannity, “Generally speaking, I’m getting along very well with Governor Cuomo.”
“They are just two boys from Queens, right?” said Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island. “Considering the two personalities involved and their history, it is notable the degree to which they have worked with each other.”
In their latest run in, Trump floated a quarantine of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut without telling Cuomo or the other governors. Aides spent hours talking the president out of it. Then Trump called Cuomo to say he’d relented.
Cuomo has said he’s trying to keep his emotions in check these days, and reserves his flashes of anger not for Trump, but for the federal government itself, calling their $2 trillion aid package “reckless” and “irresponsible” for not doing enough to help New Yorkers. So what does he do when the feds don’t come through? Same thing he always does, turn to his own New York network. Early on, he called his father’s former health commissioner to try to expand testing for coronavirus in New York. “He got very very involved to facilitate regulatory approval to make sure our lab got up and running in a very coordinated way with the state lab,” said Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health system in the state. Cuomo visited Northwell’s lab on a Sunday in early March to inspect the facility. It is now conducting 1,700 hundred tests a day, according to Dowling. “Andrew has been leadership in action,” he said.
Cuomo’s crisis management has earned plenty of rave reviews, but as the state becomes the worldwide coronavirus epicenter, it’s unclear if anyone will ultimately be seen as a winner. Already there have been questions about whether keeping the New York City subway open has allowed the virus to spread. Has Cuomo done enough to protect the vulnerable populations of New York City, especially those in prison? News stories have already started to critique his response — turns out that hand sanitizer story was a bit of a ruse. And while he’s been sounding the appropriate levels of alarm now, would he not have saved more lives if at the end of February he hadn’t said: “This situation is not a situation that should cause undue fear”?
“In an emergency, no matter what there are going to be a thousand things that could have been done differently and that we should learn from for the next time,” said Molinaro, Cuomo’s former opponent. “But I was also once a volunteer fireman, and you want to put the fire out before you look for the missteps.”
If Cuomo is able to help stave off this disaster, it will further fuel speculation about him seeking higher office in the future, an ambition his aides deny. The president’s praise has wavered the more Cuomo’s star has risen. Hannity, Trump’s mouthpiece and muse, recently berated Cuomo, whose requests for supplies have grown ever more urgent.
“The cynic in me — and I’ve known him a long time — thinks he is setting himself up for 2024. He certainly wants to save lives in New York, he’s genuine about that, but he’s a political animal and always has been,” Bartoletti said.
“He has his eye on one thing right now — being governor in a time of crisis. There is no 2024. It doesn’t exist to him,” Cohen said. “What exists is now.”
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