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It’s rare for a single US state governor to get so much attention it even rivals the president during a historical national crisis – but that’s exactly what New York’s Andrew Cuomo is experiencing.
Cuomo, the technocratic three-term governor who’s had to deal with the state hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, has emerged as the most prominent Democrat in charge of fighting the virus, filling a role many felt former vice-president Joe Biden should be occupying.
But while Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee set to fight Trump for the White House in November, has been holed up in his basement streaming online briefings, it is Cuomo who has loomed far larger in America’s fight against Covid-19. Cuomo’s televised daily press conferences – calm, measured and honest – have emerged as the rival to Trump’s chaotic and misleading evening broadcasts.
Though Cuomo has vociferously denied harboring presidential ambitions, it is telling that speculation about a future Cuomo run for the White House is now one of the hottest topics in US politics – a remarkable turnaround for a politician widely disliked by America’s resurgent left wing.
But the age of the coronavirus has upset conventional politics around the globe and there is no doubt Cuomo has seized his moment.
“I’ve been very very impressed by the way in which he’s approached it,” the former Washington governor Gary Locke, an ex-chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said. “Very frank, very honest – upfront. Preparing the people, presenting facts so that the public is not caught off guard, they know what to expect. He’s very even-keeled and I think the public appreciates that. He’s not trying to gloss over things, the magnitude, the severity of the pandemic.”
Governors are usually some of the more aloof elected officials in the pantheon of American politicians. Often they’re less well-known than senators or members of Congress, and their power varies from state to state.
It’s virtually unheard of for any politician – other than the president – to have his press conferences aired live on major cable networks daily, but that’s just what has happened with Cuomo. Cuomo’s briefings always feature the governor and his deputies on a panel, with Cuomo delivering an update on the number of infected cases in New York and then a description of how his administration is fighting the virus.
Often – and unlike Trump – Cuomo will admit where New York is falling short on equipment. He is frank that the crisis won’t end tomorrow or any time soon.
“In general, I am tired of being behind this virus. We’ve been behind this virus since day one,” Cuomo said at a press conference last week. “Everybody wants to know one thing: when is it over? Nobody knows. ‘Well, the president said by Easter, this one said by this’ … nobody knows. But I can say this: it is not going to be soon.”
He will also, without hesitation, praise the Trump administration when he feels it is merited and then separate himself from the president the next minute. He will also share when he’s recently had a call with Vice-President Mike Pence or Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and an influential adviser in the Trump administration. He has repeatedly stressed New York’s deficit of ventilators.
“The federal government is a partner in this obviously. I spoke to the president again yesterday about the situation, I spoke to the vice-president, I spoke to Jared Kushner,” Cuomo said. “The White house has been very helpful.”
Cuomo’s visibility is a dramatic flip from just a few months ago, before the coronavirus crisis.
For years he’s been known as a technocratic governor reviled by the most hardcore liberal sections of the Democratic party. He has cut deals with Republicans and repeatedly angered progressives. Many Democrats sometimes snicker at the thought of him doing retail politics in early voting states like Iowa, where endless hours of handshakes and diner visits are seen as non-negotiable facts of campaign life.
Yet Cuomo’s New York speeches, his personal tangents about how his mother is responding to the pandemic or how frightened he is about his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, having contracted coronavirus, have matched the moment more than any other governor in the nation.
“I’m frightened for my brother. I’m worried about my brother – as everyone is worried about their humanity and everyone they love,” Cuomo said at his press conference on Wednesday as news of Chris’s infection broke.
New York politicians are constantly under the national spotlight. Rudy Giuliani became “America’s mayor” for how he handled the city’s response to the attacks on the World Trade Center. More recently, at the beginning of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary the New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand was a top-tier contender before failing to gain any real traction.
Cuomo’s name had been bandied about as a potential candidate for 2020 but he took only a modest look at running for president before deciding against it, according to a Democratic strategist with knowledge of those considerations.
Cuomo has never been a friend of grassroots progressives and he has repeatedly defeated leftwing challengers. When he ran for re-election in 2014, his more liberal primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout, became a national progressive icon for challenging the establishment-aligned Cuomo. In 2018, when Cuomo ran again, he faced another challenge from his left, that time from the former Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon, who became the darling of liberals hoping to oust the incumbent governor.
The common liberal critique of Cuomo is that his administration has been rife with corruption and his agenda has been too deferential to centrists and the right.
“The Democratic party has spent the past two decades moving away from its New Deal values and refusing to unequivocally stand up for working people – and Governor Cuomo embodies this shift to the center,” said Monica Klein, a New York-based progressive Democratic strategist.
“The governor has consistently led New York as a corporate Democrat – slashing funding for hospitals, public schools and affordable housing instead of raising taxes on the wealthy. If Democrats want to take back the White House, we need to once again become the party for working people – and leaders like Cuomo are doing the exact opposite,” Klein added.
Cuomo is certainly party establishment.
He is the son of the former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who memorably decided against running for president at the last moment in 1992. He has known Trump for years. His personal life has been the subject of local and national scrutiny. His first marriage was to Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of the late Robert F Kennedy. Cuomo’s romances and breakups have been documented in the New York and national press (including more recently his breakup with longtime partner and Food Network star Sandra Lee).
These days, Cuomo’s prominence has earned him a new level of attention. His press conferences have even sparked speculation around the internet over whether he sports a nipple ring.
But it is Cuomo’s actions that have won him acclaim. He has taken an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to fighting the virus. He has pleaded for more ventilators, worked with the federal government, issued strict edicts on isolating, and talked with business leaders privately.
Despite all the praise and attention, however, and mutterings over White House ambition, Cuomo has solidly stuck with supporting Biden.
When his brother asked him on CNN if he was thinking about running for president, Cuomo kept saying no.
“No. No. The answer’s no,” Cuomo responded curtly.