Cuomo Declared the Pandemic a ‘No-Politics Zone’ While Working to Burnish his Own Standing

(Washington Post) —
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo holds a briefing in New York City. (Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

On April 14, 2020, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took time out of one of his regular coronavirus news conferences to castigate President Donald Trump for politicizing the crisis.

“This is too important for politics,” the governor said, citing mounting death rates and hospitalizations in New York. “It’s a no-politics zone, right? . . . This is no time for politics, and this is no time to fight.”

A few hours later, an administration aide was instructed to print a list of poll questions for the governor to approve before they went into the field the next day, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

The survey would quiz New Yorkers on whether they supported sending emergency medical equipment downstate, when schools and businesses should reopen and whether Cuomo had been “too cooperative, too hostile, or just about right” in dealing with Trump on the pandemic, among other topics, according to a copy obtained by The Post.

The poll also sought to measure how voters assessed Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus four weeks into the public health emergency compared with the handling by Trump, infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., among others, the documents show.

The poll was among a number of moves Cuomo made to assess and bolster his political standing, even as his state was engulfed in the first deadly wave of the pandemic, according to documents and people familiar with the governor’s office, underscoring how consumed he was with burnishing his image amid one of the most acute moments of the crisis.

Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said in a statement that understanding public opinion was “very important in managing COVID because success would be determined by the public’s understanding of the severity of the crisis and their willingness to change behavior.”

The New York governor, a third-term Democrat, rose to stardom last spring with his fierce denunciations of Trump, his no-nonsense approach at his news briefings and his occasional criticisms of other politicians who were not following public health guidance. He was embraced as a liberal hero and regularly railed against political interference by others in the response to the pandemic, holding New York as a beacon of medical light during a time of national darkness.

Cuomo’s approval ratings surged to 66% by July, according to the Marist College poll in New York. “He had record-breaking numbers in New York because he was filling a void that you had in Washington,” said Lee Miringoff, the head of the poll.

In recent weeks, that record has been shadowed by allegations that his administration withheld the number of deaths in nursing homes linked to the coronavirus – a matter now under federal investigation – and revelations that Cuomo’s family members benefited from preferential coronavirus testing.

Cuomo’s poll numbers have also dropped, though he remains around 50% approval in New York among all voters, according to a recent survey by Marist.

“You see some of it eroding away,” Miringoff said. “It’s really a one-two punch.”

Azzopardi dismissed what he called a “retrospective kerfuffle” about the administration’s coronavirus response.

“New York’s COVID performance is indisputable as we went from one of the highest infection rates to one of the lowest, facing a much worse problem than any state and successfully managed it,” his statement said. “There is no question that the Governor’s daily briefings served New Yorkers and other Americans very well during the pandemic and that has been recognized internationally.”

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As Cuomo was touting the state’s response publicly, behind the scenes, the governor at times blurred political tasks with state resources, as did some key staffers in his office, according to documents reviewed by The Post and people with knowledge of the situation. They and others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

The governor asked a number of advisers, including top state officials, to spend scores of hours to help write a book about his leadership during the pandemic as the coronavirus raged through the state, according to four people.

The New York Times reported that Cuomo was offered more than $4 million for the book, titled “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which was released in October. A person familiar with the book proposal said one offer exceeded that.

The governor’s office declined to comment on how much he received for the book, adding that he annually releases a financial disclosure form and tax returns.

A number of his aides disagreed with the decision to write a book during the pandemic, saying it could be viewed as inappropriately timed and political, two people said.

One person who was key to the project was top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa, who regularly appeared at coronavirus briefings with the governor. She was most involved in writing the book with him while running the governor’s office, people familiar with the matter said.

Other aides who worked in the governor’s office were asked to print drafts of the book on government computers, according to the people with knowledge of the situation.

Azzopardi said Cuomo decided to write the book because “the governor believed it was important to chronicle the first 111 days of the pandemic when the numbers had gone down but we were facing a potential second wave in order to reflect on past challenges and improve upon our response moving forward.”

He said it was “not true” that aides said at the time that the project was not a good idea.

“To the extent that any state officials advised the Governor on the book it was voluntary, in compliance with state ethics laws and done on their personal time,” Azzopardi said, adding: “Every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project – to the extent an aide printed out a document, it appears incidental.”

Cuomo sought to buttress his image at key moments of the crisis with unorthodox ideas, such as having a whimsical poster titled “NEW YORK TOUGH” released last summer that depicted the state’s response.

Azzopardi said the governor’s campaign paid for the poster, which featured drawings of Cuomo’s family members, medical charts, a large mountain and the command: “Forget the Politics, Get Smart!”

Stephanie Benton, director of the governor’s office, was involved in helping shepherd the project, documents show.

Using her Gmail account, Benton emailed herself a draft version of the poster in June, then asked another person to print it on a state computer and deliver it to the governor. She sent the artist who drew the poster a number of requests from the governor, including that it prominently feature him, the documents show.

“He also wants to add himself in a dodge charger on right side,” the email from Benton said, adding: “Thank you so much! He’s pumped :).”

Azzopardi said the poster was “designed by the governor, working with an artist” and was another way to communicate the message about the pandemic.

Other documents that aides to the governor were asked to print included detailed biographies on allies and donors – including how much money they’d given to the governor – and a range of polls, according to people familiar with the materials. Cuomo commissioned polls frequently, gauging public opinion on topics such as whether New Yorkers believe the governor or mayor controls the region’s transportation system, whether marijuana should be legalized or whether Democrats would support primary challengers for leftist candidates, documents show.

Azzopardi said the governor’s office is permitted to “maintain an integrated schedule and briefing binder that has the governor’s official as well as political events” and that Cuomo benefits from understanding public opinion.

State law generally bars public officials from using their position to “secure unwarranted privileges” for themselves, including the misappropriation to themselves of the “services or other resources of the state for private business or other compensated nongovernmental purposes.”

In a training document for state employees, the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics lists examples of prohibited behavior, including “using the computer in your office after work to produce a brochure in support of a candidate’s campaign.” Another example: using state Internet connections to “forward e-mail messages received from a partisan campaign or someone supporting a partisan candidate.”

“In general, it would be improper for a public official to require a public employee on their own time and using public resources to aid a public official’s private venture,” said Richard Briffault, a Columbia University law school professor.

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Cuomo was determined that other New York politicians – particularly his rival de Blasio, the New York mayor – not receive positive headlines for the virus response, according to five people familiar with the matter.

During one point early in the pandemic, state workers were told to spend the weekend hastily arranging an antibody testing program because the governor wanted to announce it on a Sunday.

The impetus, two of these people said, was that state officials had learned that New York City was going to announce a program of its own.

Azzopardi said the state was “standing up testing in every corner of the state.”

“What a locality was doing is irrelevant,” he added.

At another point early in the pandemic, after de Blasio announced that the federal government had deployed ambulances to help an overwhelmed New York City, Cuomo angrily told federal officials to share resources with the city, not the state, people familiar with the calls said.

Azzopardi said he was not aware of the episode.

An early draft of Cuomo’s book included a jeremiad against the New York mayor. “He is like Trump in many ways that it is politics all the time, facts be damned,” Cuomo wrote, according to a copy obtained by The Post. He was ultimately dissuaded by aides from including it in the final version, people familiar with the matter said.

Several City Hall officials said they stopped telling Cuomo’s team what they were planning to do in advance, because he would often try to preempt or squash the announcement.

“Andrew Cuomo’s obsession with optics has consistently gotten in the way of the fight against COVID,” Bill Neidhardt, a de Blasio spokesman, said in a statement. “It’s disturbing to think of all the staff time and taxpayer money wasted on a book of petty insults just so he could declare victory midway through the second quarter.”

Azzopardi said the governor “went to great lengths to work cooperatively with the mayor,” adding: “As everyone knows, the relationship has not been ideal.”

Current and former administration officials said Cuomo was intensely focused on how much attention his coronavirus briefings were drawing, asking aides about when national TV networks were cutting away and discussing how he could keep them tuned in longer and improve his ratings.

“Monitoring how the press is carrying a government official’s announcements – particularly during a pandemic when messaging was crucial to the state’s response – is a key function of any press office,” Azzopardi said.

Meanwhile, key health department officials who complained that they were sidelined from decisions joked grimly among themselves that they needed to watch the daily news conferences to learn what policies they were going to have to implement, former officials said.

After the briefings, health officials scrambled to draft guidance on issues such as reopening certain industries, high school graduation protocols and mask-wearing to try to match what the governor had already announced, according to people familiar with the matter. Many of the decisions were made with little public health guidance, they said.

“We would watch the press conference so we could see what we were going to have to do next,” a person with direct knowledge of the effort said. “We would see the metrics, Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 4, this industry, that industry, and we’d have no input in it. Then we’d try to execute whatever it said. We learned when the public learned.”

A second person with knowledge of the operation said: “We would listen to find out what the policy was on schools, on microclusters, mask-wearing, on everything, and then we would retrofit any kind of guidance that was needed.”

Over the course of a year, more than a dozen senior health officials, including many who worked on key parts of the pandemic, had quit rather than continue dealing with Cuomo and his staff, four people familiar with the matter said.

One former official said the governor and his aides would regularly berate department staffers if they pushed back against the direction Cuomo wanted to take: “It was all about making him look good.”

In a statement, Azzopardi said “managing COVID was highly stressful for all, time was of the essence, and many people in many health departments across the country either left or were fired due to the stress and demands of the pandemic.”

“To the extent that DOH officials needed to watch the presser to understand policy, that is correct,” he added. “The health commissioner was involved in day-to-day policy decisions in a morning meeting that was publicly announced later that morning. Policy shifts did happen on a daily basis as the facts on the ground about the pandemic changed on a daily basis.”

One decision the Cuomo administration made in early April 2020 – to relocate medical equipment from upstate facilities for use in New York City hospitals – drew backlash from some officials and hospitals upstate, who accused Cuomo of leaving residents “without protection.” Within days, the governor backed away from the idea, saying the need had diminished.

In the aftermath, Cuomo’s political team sought to gauge public support for such a move through the poll it commissioned from Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, documents show.

The draft survey obtained by The Post asked whether New Yorkers would support “moving medical equipment, like ventilators, from upstate hospitals and health care facilities to the epicenter of the pandemic downstate with the promise of returning them upstate if and when they are needed?”

The poll also sought to measure public opinion on a range of policy positions, including where hospital relief money should go, whether social distancing was a good concept, how economic aid should be spent and what businesses should open before others.

And it included several questions aimed to assess Cuomo’s standing.

“In a few words, what positive things have you seen, read or heard recently about Andrew Cuomo? In a few words, what negative things have you seen, read or heard recently about Andrew Cuomo?” one question read.

The governor’s office and the polling firm declined to comment on the findings.

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