Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: The transformation of Andrew Cuomo

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — In Andrew Cuomo's first term as New York governor I wrote a column stating that "I have never been a fan of Andrew Cuomo's — finding him transparently ambitious and politically Machiavellian." He seemed to me to be "an aggressive, imperious, and hidden politician, who has little capacity for empathy or delicacy." Still, I went on to write that no one should ever underestimate Cuomo's political intelligence and skills — his gift for twisting arms, making deals, and playing bipartisan politics. It allowed him in his first term to transcend party lines and to leverage his office to get the New York State Legislature, including the Republican State Senate, to do things he wanted achieved: two on-time budgets in a row, with none of the usual brinksmanship dramas; and his signature legislative accomplishment: the legalization of same-sex marriage, with the passage of the Marriage Equality Act.

Of course, his long tenure as governor has not been free from criticism. He has alienated the state's progressives for most of his time in office. For every accomplishment, there was his silence when asked to support Democrats running for state Senate, suggesting he desired Republican control of the Senate as a brake against progressive legislation he didn't want passed. (Cuomo was aided by the IDC, a schismatic group of opportunist Democrats.) He played it both ways during his years in office, focusing on spending cuts, capping property taxes, and cutting pension benefits. At the same time, he was socially liberal — committed to gun control and extending women's equality — positions that were supported by a majority of the people in the state and that involved no risk.

PANDEMIC EMERGENCE

Everything changed during the 2019 session — the first time in a decade that the Democrats simultaneously controlled the Senate, Assembly, and the governorship. So with Democrats in full control, progressive new laws approving landmark rent regulations, expanding voting rights, and approving election reform among many other bills were passed. At times, Cuomo implicitly made known his discontent about losing some of his power in Albany. But he still ended up congratulating the legislature as " the most productive legislative session in modern history." As an extremely shrewd operator, Cuomo knew exactly when to identify with what is politically popular and successful.

Still, his political gifts aside, I wasn't ready for the emergence during this pandemic of a Cuomo who appears every day on television addressing us with a clarity, honesty and intelligence we obviously cannot get from our demagogic, corrupt and incompetent president. Being governor of the state that is the epicenter of the pandemic gives him a central role in the struggle to get sufficient medical equipment, testing, and personnel to save lives. Also he has been able to empathize with the impossible hours and pain and loss all the people who work in hospitals suffer. And to praise the first responders as well as workers who work in groceries, deliver packages and mail, and who are necessary for our survival.

Over the weeks he often repeats the same mantras, but nonetheless they offer information and consolation at a time when the national government offers magical thinking, suppression of science, and lack of concern for human life. He continually emphasizes: "Use the data, use information to determine actions. Not emotions, not politics, not what people think or feel but what we know in terms of facts."

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Each day he soberly provides the numbers of the people who are hospitalized, those who are intubated, and the huge numbers who have died. The numbers are rapidly going down, but Cuomo does not crow or take credit for it. He quietly says that things are getting better, and that the opening of the state will be gradual. He has outlined a detailed 12-step plan to reopen New York. The phased plan operates on a regional basis, and each region must follow the guidelines.

Cuomo's talks are never rhetorical; they are commonsensical and affirm rational and principled solutions, like closing subways for the first time from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. so they can be sanitized. A necessary act given that the homeless had taken the subways over, and were a danger to the essential workers who had to use them. It was a difficult and decisive action. That's the persona he projects — a tough, extremely smart, and even humane and compassionate politico with a steady decision-making hand. The compassionate part of him was one that he had rarely projected in the past. But though Cuomo has a few moments where he engages in self-promotion and a tendency to obfuscate why the state was slow to react to the pandemic, he has become a star.

SUPPORTS WORKERS

In another surprising recent change, Cuomo has also become a progressive, attacking corporations by arguing: "If you can lay off workers to save money — you don't need the American taxpayer to subsidize you." While it's hard to see the politically pragmatic and often bullying Cuomo now becoming a politician committed to a set of ideals like Elizabeth Warren or John Lewis, in his new role he has wholeheartedly supported the interests of working people (he has extended the stay on evictions for non-payment of rent until August 20).

In addition, Cuomo is a seamlessly articulate speaker, and has the ability to talk warmly and perceptively about his Italian family — mother, brother, three daughters, and his dead father — the venerable Mario. These days he is always consummately disciplined and cogent. But more remarkably, he has turned into someone who emanates warmth that comforts the public in these dire times.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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