Eighty-seven percent of New Yorkers approve of how Andrew Cuomo is handling the coronavirus pandemic, while less than half of that number—41 percent— think Trump is doing a good job, according to a new Siena poll. But the fact that $280 “Cuomo for President” cashmere sweaters are flying off the shelves tells us everything we need to know about who this man harms and who has blinders on.
It’s understandable that New Yorkers are feeling stressed and anxious and under attack, here in what very much feels like the eye of the storm. The persistent failures of our president create repeated opportunities for clear-eyed leadership to step in, and Cuomo has pushed back successfully in important ways, most recently against the bizarre proposal to quarantine individual states.
But it’s been wild, as a New Yorker, to watch the internet and the cable news media elevate Andrew Cuomo to the level of a presidential candidate, or even our shadow president, when we are still at the beginning of a crisis that is assuredly only going to get worse.
I wish I was exaggerating. Forget about the spate of essays from writers developing crushes on the governor and the constant appearances on cable news, and look at #CuomoforPresident trending on Twitter, thanks in part to people in Michigan and Pennsylvania who have no experience of his pattern of making promises he doesn’t deliver on.
It also ignores the reality of the situation in New York, now the epicenter of the pandemic in America, which as of Thursday has the most cases of the coronavirus in the world. That is in part because Cuomo, along with his frenemy, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, did not act sooner and is still not doing enough of the difficult and less attention-grabbing work of governing.
I will grant that Cuomo is doing a bang-up job of playing the part of a cool head in a crisis, of acting the hero. I’m also not surprised. The governor’s Flickr account has hundreds of pages of photos of him wearing windbreakers in various action shots, and it can be compelling if you don’t have the full picture of his leadership.
I was a cub reporter when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, and there was never any shortage of government-provided photos of Cuomo in flooded subway tunnels, on roads with downed trees, and so on. Just a couple of months ago, the man made his driver pull over so he could interfere in a car wreck, precisely what police and emergency workers advise passers-by not to do. And of course, his staff was ready to document the heroism, and national news outlets took the stunt and ran with it, giving him the national attention he clearly wanted.
He’s been play-acting this role forever—truly, since he set his sights on the governor’s mansion. A mere seven months after the Twin Towers fell in New York City, killing thousands and sickening thousands more, Andrew Cuomo, while making his first (and failed) run for governor, attempted to capitalize on the event on the campaign trail, declaring that Republican Gov. George Pataki, who'd ousted Mario Cuomo, had only “held the leader’s coat,” the leader being Rudy Giuliani.
We now know how poor of a leader Rudy Giuliani was, and can see clearly the effects of the overhyping he received; the former mayor remains on our political scene, being largely incoherent when he’s not being outright harmful.
There are still people who claim Giuliani wasn’t as damaging of a mayor as he was, solely because of his reputation around 9/11, a toxic attachment that seems fueled by the same anxious desire for a savior that is compelling some to anoint as hero of the moment a governor who has not had time to prove his leadership in this crisis, and has failed to do so in the day-to-day of governing a massive state.
While people fawn over Cuomo’s cable news appearances-as-leadership, New York City schools don’t know if they’ll lose state funding due to mandatory closures—and they can’t get a clear answer, because when they try to follow up with his office about comments he makes on CNN, they get no response.
De Blasio apparently won’t help homeless children who can’t participate in distance learning because they don’t have internet access, won’t provide protective gear to the workers in the hotels where he’s keeping homeless New Yorkers with the virus, and won’t release localized data that Los Angeles, Charlotte, N.C., and South Korea have all figured out how to provide, to give residents the anxiety-reducing comfort of concrete information and medical workers the ability to hone their understanding of this disease with greater precision.
Hizzoner wouldn’t halt construction in the city—developers and property owners being a major source of politically influential capital here—and Cuomo only stepped in to freeze some construction on Friday, March 27. That’s nearly two full months after he openly recognized the inevitability of the virus hitting New York City, and badly. On Feb. 2, after announcing the state had set up a coronavirus website and hotline, Cuomo outright said, “Whatever happens internationally, it ends up at our doorstep eventually” due to “the density of New York, the complexity of New York.”
Of course, that was the same day he sent a delegation of New Yorkers to Puerto Rico to “tour earthquake affected areas” and ostensibly help, though more likely diverting resources and attention away from vulnerable people and toward catering to high-profile targets there for a publicity tour. He’d wrapped up his own publicity tour there two weeks earlier, in mid-January, a few days after China reported its first death and a few days before the United States had ours.
A week later, and three days before the World Health Organization declared a global state of emergency, Cuomo traveled internationally to Poland, where his website boasts that he was “the only U.S. elected official to attend the official commemoration events” of the liberation of Auschwitz. Presidential? Maybe. But he wasn’t the shadow president then. He was the governor of a massive state with a terrifying lack of hospital beds and facilities, due to a decade-long campaign to maximize profit over patients in the healthcare industry.
It’s no secret that wealth disparity is stark in New York, and the political will to tax the wealthy to support the poor is nowhere to be found, despite the state being largely controlled by the Democratic Party, which claims to be the one that cares about the poor. One in three New Yorkers is on Medicaid, and before this crisis hit, Andrew Cuomo was threatening the system with budget cuts, while refusing to acknowledge that the budget deficit was of his administration's own creation; they had quietly delayed nearly $2 billion in payments from one fiscal year into the next.
He still didn’t relent on the poor and sickly, even in the face of an impending public health crisis. On Feb. 4, he announced his “Medicaid redesign team,” a newcomer in a longline of cumbersome task forces that the governor likes to convene and then hamstring (see, for example, the Moreland Commission, and the task force created to get HIV below epidemic levels, whose report he delayed and funding recommendations he reneged on).
This one is, predictably, stacked with hospital CEOs and political insiders, as well as his own political appointees, including the budget director who ostensibly helped hide the non-payment that created the budget deficit. Cuomo also found time that week to place and promote an op-ed from that budget director published in a New York newspaper, finger-pointing on the Medicaid issue, rather than proposing solutions.
Consider Medicaid the canary in the coal mine. While it’s true that the federal government was screwing New York, it’s also true that Cuomo had avoided for years tackling substantively the problem of Medicaid in ways that were not opportunistic, such as giving lump sums of money to entities connected to political donors.
The first samples taken from New Yorkers were sent to the CDC that week, and negative results came back within days. But there were only 23 samples taken, and no information on how many tests we had then, how they were being administered, and to whom. A few days later, the governor announced a free snowmobiling weekend “to boost out-of -state tourism,” scheduled for March 15 and 16, as well as interstate travel for himself, to Massachusetts, Illinois, and either California or Colorado, ostensibly to learn about their cannabis regulation systems, though why he couldn’t get that education from documents or over the phone is unclear. He opted not to include Washington State, where doctors were at that very moment fighting against government restrictions and lethargy that was inhibiting them from properly containing the virus.
That’s the thing: Cuomo has been very good at telling us he has a plan. We have been preemptively rewarding him, despite the fact that the plan has clearly come much later than it should have.
On Feb. 29, after getting FDA approval for a test formulated in New York, he doesn’t specify how quickly the test kits can or will be produced, how long it takes to run them, how many patients can be tested. Instead he says trying to anticipate the impact of coronavirus is “like looking at the weather map when they have different tracks for a hurricane [that] could hit Florida or could hit Washington or could hit New York or miss everybody and go out to sea.”
“That's sort of the forecast on the Coronavirus—it could be minimal, it could affect a lot of people,” he said. “So, prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and that's what we're doing here in this State.”
A day later, the first case in the state was detected. A day after that, he started going on cable news almost daily, sometimes multiple shows in a day. Meanwhile, a New York City school teacher’s attempts to get tested were unsuccessful. It took more than two weeks before the decision came to close schools—a decision that was difficult in large part because schools are one of the few, albeit flawed, places where poor and homeless New Yorkers can consistently get meals and care for their children.
At a press conference about his interstate cannabis travel plans, he said something that appeared to be a dig at Elizabeth Warren from a Biden supporter (i.e. ardent follower of and hopeful participant in the establishment), but reads now like advice he should be giving himself, now, as he continues to pursue airtime at the apparent cost of governing: “You know, our political debate now is all about ‘I have a plan.’ Yeah, everybody has a plan, but can you actually get it done and does it turn out the way you planned it, right? That's the big question, and that's where government usually gets into trouble.”
New Yorkers need Cuomo to focus on his plan, on how it’s going to get done, and to exhibit unprecedented political courage to help the poor and vulnerable first and foremost—which, in the long term, will prevent the inevitable economic fallout of this crisis from lasting longer than it already will. Out-of-state tourism and construction and keeping jobs available to New Yorkers is undeniably important.
But the expensive and less glamorous work of helping the homeless, reforming jail conditions, repairing the subway, having enough hospitals and hospital beds available to all New Yorkers regardless of income has been categorically undervalued for far too long. A lesson of this virus, especially in a place as dense and complex as New York, is that what the weakest among us need matters to all of us.