Andrew Cuomo thrives on the front lines of US coronavirus crisis

The US was under attack by an unfamiliar foe. Washington was in disarray. A strong-willed New York politician stood up and stiffened the spine of a fearful nation.

Such was the case after the September 11, 2001 attacks when New York City’s mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, became “America’s mayor”. So it is now with the coronavirus pandemic and New York state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. 

With the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak riddled with mixed messages and confusion, Mr Cuomo has filled the void, providing leadership and reassurance — not only for a state that is at the US centre of the pandemic but also the nation. Even Mr Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, has praised the Democratic governor. 

“There are people who thrive in a crisis. Andrew Cuomo is one of those people,” said Elie Jacobs, a New York political consultant. 

Mr Cuomo has been decisive. When Donald Trump was still likening coronavirus to the flu, the governor deployed the National Guard to establish a containment zone in the city of New Rochelle, where a cluster of infections had broken out. 

He was quick to close Broadway, then restaurants and bars, and has implemented a testing regime that has outpaced other US states. 

A man crosses the street in a nearly empty Times Square, which is usually very crowded on a weekday morning, Monday, March 23, 2020 in New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered most New Yorkers to stay home from work to slow the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
A man crosses the street in a nearly empty Times Square in New York City on Monday
© Mark Lennihan/AP

After days of prodding, the governor has also persuaded the White House to send the Army Corps of Engineers to New York to repurpose existing facilities — such as the massive Javits convention centre — into hospitals.

Then there are the governor’s daily briefings, which have been likened to Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Great Depression. With preternatural calm and logic, Mr Cuomo details the progress of a seemingly inexplicable plague, and his administration’s response. 

The divorced father leavens graphs and statistics about infection rates, hospital beds and ventilators with homespun wisdom from his mother Matilda and confessional asides about his relationship with his daughter. There is also brutal honesty.

“[Coronavirus] will change almost everything going forward. It will,” Mr Cuomo said last week. “Nobody can tell you when this is going to end . . . Nobody can tell you when you’ll go back to work.” 

By contrast, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has been pilloried for squeezing in one last workout at his crosstown gym after announcing that such establishments would close to slow the spread of the virus. 

“Cuomo appears strong, because he is, and de Blasio appears flailing, because he is,” said Hank Sheinkopf, the veteran New York political strategist, who hailed the governor as “the national face of the battle”. 

Mr Sheinkopf praised the governor’s smarts and toughness. Perhaps more importantly: “He knows how power works because he grew up with power.” 

Mr Cuomo’s father, Mario, was a three-term New York governor. Although he was perpetually seen as a Democratic contender for the White House, he never entered the race. (“Hamlet on the Hudson” was his nickname.) His eldest son managed his campaign in 1982, and went on to serve in the Clinton cabinet as housing secretary before becoming New York’s attorney-general and then its governor. 

As the state’s chief executive Mr Cuomo has won approval for same-sex marriage and rebuilding airports, bridges and other infrastructure. The centrist Democrat has navigated a state legislature controlled by Republicans, and one that is now dominated by a new generation of progressives

Nevertheless, Mr Cuomo is often described as petty, domineering, bullying, vindictive, obsessed and even lunatic — including by his admirers.

Just before the pandemic, the governor came under fire for forcing the resignation of the British-born head of New York City Transit, Andy Byford, who won over New Yorkers by stabilising a dysfunctional subway system. In 2018 Joseph Percoco, a top Cuomo aide, was convicted of soliciting and accepting $300,000 in bribes.

Mr Cuomo has “gone out of his way not to be elbowed out of the spotlight, and if that means elbowing everyone else out — so be it”, a New York political operative said. 

He has also shoved aside Mr de Blasio, a fellow Democrat from the party’s progressive wing. When the mayor recently warned citizens he was considering a “shelter in place” order for the city, the governor publicly dismissed it, reminding them that only he had the authority to do so. Mr Cuomo shared Mr de Blasio’s misgivings about closing New York City’s public school system, the nation’s largest, and then did so anyway. 

Ultimately, the more important relationship for Mr Cuomo may be with Mr Trump. As Mr Cuomo has explained, New York desperately needs the muscle of the federal government to bulk up its healthcare system to handle an expected surge in coronavirus cases.

While the state has about 53,000 hospital beds, it may need twice that in a few weeks, the governor has said. Its 6,000 ventilators are only about a fifth of what may be required. 

Since taking office, Mr Trump has repeatedly punished New York, a Democratic state that voted against him. The US president has withheld support for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson river to New Jersey agreed by the Obama administration, which is one of the state’s top priorities. His 2017 tax reform disproportionately harmed the state. 

Not for nothing did Mr de Blasio last week call Mr Trump “a New Yorker in the White House who is betraying New York City”. 

Mr Cuomo has been more supple. He has blasted the president, but he has also credited Mr Trump when the president has, at last, moved in his direction — for example, the decision to dispatch the Army Corps of Engineers.

One former City Hall executive sensed some mutual respect among two formidable New Yorkers whose families both hail from the New York City borough of Queens. 

“Trump is smart enough to fear Andrew as a bit of a bully — because Trump is afraid of people who can dish it out — and Cuomo can,” this person said. “Cuomo is smart enough to respect Trump’s ability to speak directly to his base and manipulate the press.” 

With the pandemic intensifying in New York, the coming days will tell whether Mr Cuomo, for all his strength and cunning, is up to the challenge of managing both the coronavirus and Mr Trump. 

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