(NEW YORK) — With the coronavirus pandemic bearing down on New York state last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced bluntly that he would order all people to stay home unless they work in essential operations — like health care, food supply or police and fire services. “I take full responsibility,” Cuomo said in the ornate Red Room at the New York State Capitol in Albany. “Blame me.”
The measure was “drastic,” as Cuomo said. It was also unprecedented in the face of a public health crisis unmatched in at least a century. And it came from a man who has been preparing for this moment his entire life.
Cuomo, 62, likes to remind people he’s a son of Queens and of New York City. He talks frequently about his mother, Matilda, and has been invoking her as one of the Americans at grave risk from coronavirus because she is elderly.
But what Cuomo really is, is the son of his father, the late former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. And he is the heir to Mario Cuomo’s expansive view of the authority of the Empire State’s governorship — and more than that, the nature and need for big, broad, sweeping government.
“Many elected officials don’t understand government and don’t want to understand government,” said Gerald Benjamin, a longtime political science professor at SUNY New Paltz who has studied the Cuomo family since Mario Cuomo was a rising star in state politics in the ’70s.
Andrew Cuomo, “knows how things work,” Benjamin said. “He’s tough, he doesn’t suffer differences gladly. He doesn’t brook opposition gladly. But he’s very good in crisis. He believes that he knows what he’s doing, and he’s in control.”
First elected in 2010, the younger Cuomo has been a line prosecutor, a housing advocate, the New York state attorney general and federal housing secretary. Now in his third term at the executive mansion in Albany, he has matched his father’s record of three terms and is widely expected to seek a fourth four-year term in 2022.
As he receives plaudits for his work during the coronavirus outbreak and other emergencies, critics are quick to remind people of Andrew’s flaws. His close family friend and loyal aide, Joseph Percoco, was convicted of corruption two years ago. And there is no shortage of controversies and battles that dot his long political history. The governor, himself, has made it clear that he relishes a fight and is slow to forget even the smallest of slights.
However, some of those controversies provide a window into understanding the Andrew Cuomo on whom which the nation is now focused, observers say, as was the case when Cuomo first ran for governor in the wake of 9/11.
Only a few months after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, Cuomo criticized the then-governor, George Pataki, for not leading appropriately in the face of that crisis.
”He stood behind the leader,” Cuomo said at the time, referring to then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the man in charge. Pataki ”held the leader’s coat. He was a great assistant to the leader. But he was not a leader.”
“That was it. That was telling. To him, Pataki was carrying Giuliani’s coat. That is not Andrew’s way,” Benjamin said.
Andrew’s father, Mario, served as governor from 1983 to 1994, taking over leadership during a period when — led by President Ronald Reagan — government and public services were being reined in throughout the country. The elder Cuomo famously positioned himself as a counterpoint to Reagan, the champion of the conservative renaissance in America.
Mario Cuomo, known for his willingness to talk about political and religious philosophy coupled with considerable oratorical skill, was also notorious for getting his hands dirty deep inside the functions of state government by going directly to ground-level staffers and bypassing their bosses.
A constitutional scholar and law professor, Mario Cuomo viewed the New York governorship as one of the nation’s most powerful perches — both through its official legal configuration and because of the Empire State’s status as a leader among the states since the dawn of the republic. He also made the conscious decision to invigorate the office with energy as the state and nation emerged from economic down times.
Then in his 20s, Andrew Cuomo was first his father’s campaign manager and then, once Mario was sworn in, served as a special assistant to his father. The pair also were roommates.
It was during that time, Andrew Cuomo earned a reputation as his father “enforcer” in Albany. The stories are legion: if Mario Cuomo was angry, Andrew Cuomo meted out the punishment. But it was also the time when younger Cuomo became steeped in his father’s worldview of political authority and the power and importance of the governorship, especially when people need leadership.
“It’s a government philosophy,” said Howard Glaser, a longtime friend and aide to Andrew Cuomo who served in the key role of director of New York state operations. “It’s a little out of step since Ronald Reagan, when people narrowed their view of what government is. But in a crisis, all of that gets turned on its head.”
Glaser said he’s now sitting at home “watching other governors grapple with this. It takes them a while. But with Andrew, it’s not only his skills and experience, it’s the philosophical mindset.”
Plus, Glaser said, Andrew Cuomo’s understanding of his job as governor was not shaped only by Mario Cuomo but by the legacies of the people who served before him.
“Right outside his office is hanging portraits of FDR and Teddy Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland,” Glaser said of the political pantheon that is the Hall of Governors at the state Capitol.
Though he usually acts with all the charm and warmth of a rusty nail going through the bottom of your foot, Andrew Cuomo has limited his direct criticism of President Trump and others in the COVID-19 crisis while letting his actions and statements speak for themselves.
“I’m normally accused of being overly blunt and direct,” he said during one appearance last week. “And I take that. It’s true.”
Cuomo also has compared his own impatience with his father’s — a quiet reminder to aides of the times when he himself would call directly to talk to case workers in state agencies or paving crews handling road repairs too slowly for his liking.
Well aware that he is perceived as too tough and not particularly user friendly, Monday morning, Cuomo told reporters that his decisions in the face of the coronavirus would define his future.
“I’m sure there will be political consequences. I know people are very angry about it,” Cuomo said of his decision to shut down New York state and order people to stay home. “I had a gentlemen tell me ‘there’s no way the state will ever re-elect you."”
“Frankly,” Cuomo said. “I don’t care about that.”
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