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Andrew Cuomo, the charismatic, controlling, combative anti-Trump

How New York's state governor became a coronavirus-era political icon. 

On 9 April, the governor of New York Andrew Cuomo delivered his daily televised briefing on the coronavirus outbreak in his state, the worst-hit region in the worst-hit country in the world. The number of new hospitalisations appeared finally to be decreasing, but over the previous 24 hours 799 New Yorkers had died, setting a grim new record.

“I understand the scientific concept. I understand the data. But you’re talking about 799 lives. The highest number ever,” Cuomo said, his voice straining. “It’s gotten to the point, frankly, that we’re going to have to bring in additional funeral directors to deal with the number of people who have passed. If you’d ever told me that as a governor I’d have to take these actions, I couldn’t even contemplate where we are now.”

More than three weeks into the state-wide lockdown, the governor’s lunchtime briefings had acquired the comfort of an old routine. From a wood-panelled conference room in Albany, Cuomo, 62 years old, sharp-suited, ruggedly attractive, would begin with a frank update on the latest data and projections on the virus’s spread, and then move on to more philosophical territory.

“Big question from everyone, from my daughters, I am sure around everyone’s dinner table, when will things go back to the way they were? I don’t think it’s about going back, I don't think it’s ever about going back, I think the question is about going forward,” he mused recently.

During his briefings, Cuomo frequently talks about his fears for his own family, including his brother, the CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, who was diagnosed with coronavirus last month. He shares thoughts on how to live through these uncertain, lonely times, he tries to boost morale, he scolds people for improper social distancing, cracks the occasional tame joke and exudes a fatherly air that is at once old-school and precisely what so many Americans are craving.

Cuomo has “serious big dad energy,” the comedian Seth Meyers recently joked. The PowerPoint presentations that accompany his briefings have developed their own cult following. Under a slide headed “young people not fully complying” was a note in all-caps telling such rule breakers: “YOU ARE WRONG”. Another slide, titled “message to my Congressional Delegates”, included the bullet point: “baloney”.  Almost a decade into his governorship, Cuomo is becoming a social media hit.

More than that, by the end of March Cuomo’s approval ratings in the state were 71 per cent, the highest in seven years, and he had never enjoyed such prominence nationally. While Donald Trump has flailed, Cuomo has emerged as the face of the pandemic response, the calm and charismatic leader who would get America through this unprecedented crisis. 

New York’s governor since 2011, Cuomo has been involved in the state’s politics for over 40 years, having started campaigning with his father, the former New York governor and liberal hero Mario Cuomo, when he was a teenager. He is known as brilliant, ruthless, domineering, transactional, even misanthropic: “It’s sometimes said of certain politicians that they love humanity but hate people; Andrew Cuomo does not appear especially fond of either,” Jeffrey Toobin wrote in the New Yorker in 2015. 

But Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic has not only underlined his fundamental competence, his honesty, acumen and calm authority thrown into sharper relief by Trump’s blustering ineffectualness. It has also revealed a softer side and a new relatability. Cuomo never inspired much public love or affection – until now.

“It’s been amazing to watch, but I’m not surprised, because Andrew is always at his best in a crisis,” Michael Shnayerson, a Vanity Fair writer and author of a biography of Cuomo, The Contender, told me. “He is the man who stepped up to get us through this, with Churchillian swagger and passion. He really is our Churchill right now.”

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Among the challenges faced by Cuomo has been the urgent need to secure emergency federal funding and medical supplies, while also managing the president’s fragile ego. As the crisis in his state mounted, Cuomo emerged as a  “Trump whisperer”, a rare public figure able to challenge the federal government, win political concessions and still stay on relatively good terms with the president. 

By mid-April, however, the relationship was once again straining. After Trump claimed that he had the power to override states and force their economies to reopen, Cuomo slammed the president's response as “dictatorial” and said his briefings were like a “comedy skit” and not worth watching. The latter insult no doubt stung the publicity-obsessed president, particularly as Cuomo’s daily press conferences are said to be watched intently by the White House. It also likely served its purpose: Trump backed down.

Cuomo and Trump have known each other for years. They both grew up in Queens, New York, in the shadow of successful fathers, and they are both, as the Republican strategist Mike Murphy put it, “combative egomaniacs”. But while Trump in his youth was ferried around the city in chauffeured cars, Cuomo, a gifted engineer and car obsessive, supported himself through university and law school by working as a roadside assistance tow-truck driver. Cuomo teasingly calls his brother Chris, a dozen years younger than him, “mansion boy”: when Andrew, the second eldest of five, was a child his father was a workaholic lawyer and not yet a household name. 

When Mario ran for New York mayor in 1977 Andrew, in his second year at Fordham University, a Jesuit college in the Bronx, volunteered to be his driver. Mario lost, but the following year he ran for lieutenant governor (an executive role below that of governor), appointing Andrew to be his deputy campaign manager, and won. In 1982, Mario ran for governor and Andrew, just 24 years old, served as his campaign manager. Andrew revealed an instinctive grasp of politics, as well as an arrogance and an aggression that earned him nicknames such as “Darth Vader” and “the Prince of Darkness”.

Cuomo was retained on a dollar-a-year contract as an adviser to his father, while also working as a lawyer in New York. In 1986 he founded a non-profit called HELP, which provided transitional housing and other assistance for homeless people in New York City. In 1993 President Bill Clinton appointed him as an assistant secretary for housing and urban development (HUD); four years later he was appointed secretary of HUD. By then he was married, to Kerry Kennedy, a human rights lawyer and the daughter of Robert F Kennedy, with whom he has three children.

He did not return to New York until 2001, following George W Bush’s inauguration.  In 2002 he decided to run for the Democratic nomination for governor. It was, in his own words, a “public humiliation” – a clumsy, tone-deaf campaign that he was forced to end before the primary. Not long after, his marriage broke up, creating a tabloid frenzy.

Cuomo took a job working for a commercial real estate developer, laying low for a few years before in 2006 running for New York attorney general, a common stepping stone to becoming governor. He embarked on crusades against student loan companies and health insurers and sought to rebuild bridges with local Democratic power-brokers. He also started dating the Food Network star Sandra Lee (they separated last year). In 2010 Cuomo ran for governor again, this time winning by one of the widest margins in history

As governor, Cuomo oversaw the legalisation of gay marriage in 2011, passed some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and introduced a number of policies championed by progressives – such as a $15 minimum wage, paid parental leave and free in-state college tuition. Yet he is not ideological and is seen as more often motivated by pragmatism and power-politics than by personal conviction. 

“I don’t know if he has a deeper sense of political mission. I would say he remains a governor who’s very good with his hands, if you will, very good at making the state work,” Shnayerson told me. 

“I think he goes crisis by crisis. He’s at his best building a new airport or a new bridge. That is the kind of thing he loves. He rolls up his sleeves and talks to architects and he gets really involved and knows he’s better at that than almost everyone else.”

Cuomo has also alienated progressives in the state, who accuse him of using his executive powers to crush left-wing challengers. Last year, after Cuomo criticised his party’s progressive wing, a radio interviewer asked the governor if he was attacking the left. “I am the left,” Cuomo replied. 

The most recent state budget, passed in the midst of the epidemic, includes provisions that allow Cuomo to make funding cuts without the agreement of the state legislature, and changes to campaign finance laws that make it harder for third parties (ie parties other than the Republicans and the Democrats) to qualify for the ballot. Sochie Nnaemeka, the state director of the left-wing Working Families Party, told me that the budget – which was “pushed down people’s throats” with the debates dragging on until almost 4am demonstrated that Cuomo was using the pandemic as cover to shore up his power, silence critics and impose austerity politics.  

“There was a two-pronged strategy: one was to erode all checks and balances to rule the state as the sole branch of government, to consolidate power, to silence his opponents, to limit the power of other entities, including the Working Families Party. And on the other hand, push through a real austerity budget that completely insulates the wealthy and corporate actors. It does not ask for additional taxation, but makes cuts to hospitals and education, does not address the homelessness crisis, does not cancel rent,” Nnaemeka said.  

“Cuomo is a skilled politician, and he is a team of one. He governs in an absolute manner. Control is his operating order. Control which can translate into managerial competence on the one hand, but control which can manifest itself as utter disregard for any other voices, elected or not, in governing the state.”

In recent weeks, Cuomo has frequently clashed with his longstanding rival, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. When de Blasio told New Yorkers on 17 March to prepare for a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, Cuomo overruled him, before issuing a similar edict three days later. 

The popularity of Cuomo’s briefings has detracted attention from his initial sluggishness in responding to the coronavirus outbreak. The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, issued a state-wide stay-at-home order on 19 March, when California had 675 confirmed cases. By 19 March New York already had over 4,000 confirmed cases, but its shutdown did not come into effect for another three days. On 13 April California had registered 682 Covid-19 deaths, while New York had over 10,000. As a densely populated, international city, New York was always at high risk of becoming a hotspot, but an investigation by the New York Times suggests that Cuomo and other state and city leaders will face difficult questions over whether they could have avoided the catastrophic death toll. 

For now, Cuomo’s rising national profile is reviving speculation over his presidential ambitions. He had been expected to launch a presidential bid in 2016, and then again in 2020. In late March, the hashtag #CuomoforPresident began trending on Twitter. It’s highly unlikely that the Democrats would draft in a new nominee at this stage in the primary race, particularly someone so unpopular among the party’s left wing. Joe Biden has also said that he wants to pick a woman to run as his vice-president. None of this has dampened speculation, mostly in conservative circles, that either might happen.

On the evening of 8 April, the day that democratic socialist Bernie Sanders withdrew from the Democratic primary, Chris Cuomo interviewed his elder brother for CNN and asked if he was considering running for president, or to be Joe Biden’s deputy. Their brotherly affection is often touching, with episodes such as a playful spat over which is their mother’s favourite widely shared on social media, but in other times this flouting of journalistic norms would be more jarring. Andrew Cuomo playfully misinterpreted and deflected questions he must have known were coming, before offering his answer. 

“When I said I wanted to run for governor, I said to the people of my state, I will serve as your governor. People asked me, well, will you run for president, I said no. I'm not that guy, Chris,” Andrew eventually said, as Chris no doubt knew he would. “I am true to my word.” In recent weeks, Cuomo’s unflinching honesty and emotional authenticity has won him new support among voters – but on this occasion, he was less convincing.

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor.