New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks with WAMC's Alan Chartock on Northeast Report Dec. 8, 2020.
The interview transcript was provided by Cuomo’s office.
Alan Chartock: Right. Okay, here we are. I have a very important question to you. What exactly are you going to do over Christmas, you know?
Governor Cuomo: Work, work, work, work, work. Plus I have the state. You know, the whole Christmas holiday for me becomes about the state of the state. But, you know, it's this crazy holiday season. We're going to watch the COVID numbers go up, which we expect they will. We're going to keep communicating that people should be careful and be careful of living room spread. And work on the state of the state.
Alan Chartock: I hear you. So, you know, no special meal planned or anything like that?
Governor Cuomo: Nah, not this year.
Alan Chartock: Okay, thank you. look, $908 billion compromise they're looking at now in the Congress. Is that enough?
Governor Cuomo: It depends on how they allocate the 908. If they try to do it politically, which is the way they've acted with the CARES Act money, distribute it politically, it's not enough. If they did it by need, it could be enough. If you actually help the states who had the greatest pain from COVID. If you did it as a matter of fairness, this state was ambushed by COVID because the federal government was asleep or deceptive. How they didn't know that the virus left China and went to Europe and it was coming here for three months is still the great mystery of all time. But on the budget, there's basically, vis-a-vis the state, there's basically two options now, Alan. Option A, at any point, the state could say, we're going to enact a budget. We're tired of waiting for Washington. We're going to raise revenues that we can raise and finalize the budget, and do that now. That's option A. No matter how high you raise revenues on option A, and we would have to do significant tax increases, the hole is so big, right, it's about $15 billion, we're going to raise taxes and close the budget. You would lay off about 7,000 MTA workers. You'd have to raise MTA fares and tolls. You'd have to lay off local government employees. You'd have to cut about 20 percent of the state budget. That's after you raise taxes, right. So that's option A, tax increase and a 20 percent cut, thousands of employees laid off just when you're going to do a vaccination program. cuts to education, cuts to Medicaid. Option B is wait for federal relief and use the federal relief to adjust, rationalize the budget. And we're in December. I'm one month away from doing the next budget presentation, right. So close out this year with next year when you know what the federal aid is going to be. You may still have to do a tax increase and you may still have to do cuts, but at least you know where you are and I have to believe that Joe Biden is responsible and we get real federal relief so there's not as much pain.
Alan Chartock: What happens while you're waiting for Biden? Is your count taking in that on some level, the Congress and the president would have to agree to save New York?
Governor Cuomo: Yes. I am banking on the federal government provides assistance. Look, I said to you, if Donald Trump had won for president, then I would say do the budget now, because you're not going to get anything next year. Bubkus, skata, niente, whatever language you want to use. But I believe Joe Biden will provide a federal stimulus. I believe he'll provide a federal infrastructure program. and I don't think we're going to have to savage services the way we would have to if we don't get the federal relief. But, it's option A or B. You could do a budget today and do a tax increase and then cut everything 20 percent, or let's deal with this year, which is now running into next year, do it together, and hope and pray and fight for fair federal funding.
Alan Chartock: Have you talked to the Biden people or to Biden about this? Because it seems to me we're riding into this kind of with a mask on. Over our eyes.
Governor Cuomo: Well, we're walking into everything with a mask on, okay? Yes. They will say A, no, forget A, because it's confusing with my other A. they'll say "we think the $908 billion package should be passed now, the so-called Senator Manchin interim measure, that that should be passed now in December. That provides short term relief, and then the Biden Administration in February proposes a large economic stimulus, stimulus checks, infrastructure, and you put the Congressional action this month, the 908, together with the Biden stimulus, and it would alleviate the significance of the impact to the states. That's what they will say.
Alan Chartock: So what's going on in the meantime? You got agencies to support, you got school systems to support, we're way behind April, what do you do until Biden takes office?
Governor Cuomo: Well, you keep doing what we're doing which is we're funding operations at a reduced level because we won't have the funding and it is a little bit wait and see. Washington has been doing this to us for several months now. It's always next week, next week, next week. Now this $908 billion Senator Manchin package on the table, maybe that's going to happen, it would have to happen by Christmas, then you have January, President Biden comes in. But the reason I'm for option B is because option A where we pass a state tax revenue bill, and let's say we do a millionaires tax and a billionaires tax, okay, that gets you about tops $2 billion. Tops. You now have a $13 billion hole. That is thousands of layoffs. You have an MTA that has a $12 billion. That's increased subway fare, bus fare. It would be so devastating to this state that even if Biden then did a federal plan, February, March, and you got the funding, I think you would have cut yourself so deeply and bled so much that I don't even think the federal funding next February, March would alleviate the pain. Once you say, Alan, schools districts, you have to cut 20 percent, local governments, you have to cut 20 percent, once you say that they will act on that and they will lay off teachers and they will lay off first responders and local employees. You say that now and then in February you say, oh, look at that, Joe Biden just passed a package and now we actually have funding - it's too late. The damage was done. They fired the teachers. They fired the employees. What, are you going to have everybody now go rehire? You know, it would be so disruptive, it would be really terrible.
Alan Chartock: Okay, the FDA is going to approve a vaccine obviously. It's going to come to New York. What plans do you have? Anything? How do you distribute it?
Governor Cuomo: The state is in charge for the distribution for the state. I've been working with the CDC, FDSA, the military which actually does the distribution which is going to use FedEx and a private company called McKesson but I get a kick out of the military using FedEx, but anyway, they do the actual distribution. The State controls distribution throughout the state, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, New York City, etcetera. The state controls where the initial vaccine is distributed and stored and then the distribution priority plan, they call it. Our prioritization are nursing homes, nursing home staff, which will be conducted by the federal government, then high risk health care workers, we have about 700,000 health care workers, but we designate high risk health care workers those people who are working with COVID-positive people, and that will be the initial distribution, and then we just do it proportionately across the state.
Alan Chartock: You at one point were very concerned about the people who are Black and brown and poor in many cases getting screwed under the system and you made remarks about we can all go to CVS and Walgreens and the rest, but how are we going to make sure that the underserved population gets it? Have you done more thinking about that?
Governor Cuomo: I've been thinking about it, arguing, advocating, persuading, cajoling, lobbying. It is a very big concern and frankly it's a concern that this state is championing for the nation. I had governors on the phone this morning talking about it. Two levels of concern - first, the discrimination that we've seen through this COVID crisis is so disturbing. Blacks died at twice the rate of whites. Latinos died at one and a half times the rate of whites. COVID infection higher among Blacks and Latinos, more essential workers Blacks and Latinos, and now the answer for the vaccine would actually aggravate that disparity because they have no outreach plan to reach the black and Latino community and poor communities. We will have a very aggressive outreach plan that gets to Black and Latino communities, poor communities, using churches, using faith-based organizations. I've been working with the Urban League and the NAACP to do just that. We also have to have a tremendous public education effort because remember this - for the vaccine to work you have to hit 75 to 85 percent critical mass. You now have 50 percent of the people who say they won't take the vaccine. That is a mathematical conundrum. How do you get to 75 percent when 50 percent say they won't take it? So it's going to be much harder than people think but a priority that I've raised for the Biden administration and vis-à-vis the Trump administration - where is your prioritization for outreach for the communities that paid the highest price during COVID? The poor, the essential workers, the Blacks and the Brown communities.
Alan Chartock: How do you do that? You've got to 50 degrees below zero or whatever it is - I can't remember. How can you do that? I mean, arguably CVS and Walgreens can find the resources to do that, but how do you do that for people who live in these communities?
Governor Cuomo: Alan, you're 100 percent right. It is a massive undertaking. There is no such infrastructure. You're going to need the military. The cold storage is a real problem. I unpacked a box from Pfizer that the vaccine comes in. You have to add dry ice, you can only open the box twice a day for no more than 60-90 seconds each time, otherwise the temperature changes.
You put the public education effort to overcome the cynicism. Together with the logistical operation, remember this: This nation over 9 months did about 130 million COVID tests. The COVID test is just a q-tip in your nose. We have to do 330 million vaccines. We only did 130 million COVID tests over 9 months. It's a massive, massive undertaking.
Alan Chartock: And you're doing it by - have you appointed anybody? Do you have czar? Do you have a plan?
Governor Cuomo: We have a plan. I don't have a czar, but I have a great team and it's the same team that has been working on COVID all along. Some members of the team have come back who helped us at the height of the COVID crisis. Larry Schwartz has come back, my former Secretary, as you know well, who's going to help us. We have a dual issue now. We have to do the vaccine and we have to do the hospital monitoring as the hospital capacity is stressed under COVID. We have our hands full.
Alan Chartock: So will the hospitals have a roll in administering the vaccine with all the over stress that they have now?
Governor Cuomo: Yes. In some ways it's to their benefit because they're also vaccinating first their own people. That's the good news. Look, the hospitals are a great distribution center. The national drug chains are a good distribution center, but to your point before, okay, now you have to get to Black communities and Brown communities and poor communities where they're suspect about the vaccine in first place. They don't believe Trump's approval process, they're nervous about the vaccine. You have to get past that whole anti-vaxxer community that now exists. That's a much larger community than you think. It's grown. People just don't believe in the vaccine, period. You have to do it quickly and you have to do 75-80 percent.
Alan Chartock: You'll take a shot, won't you, Governor?
Governor Cuomo: I will give you a shot and then we'll see. Yes, I will take a shot.
Alan Chartock: Okay, I want to go somewhere else.
Governor Cuomo: Doctor, I think we should go together. What do you think?
Alan Chartock: I'm willing. As soon as I read your book - as soon as I get your book. Let's talk a little bit about the Electoral College. Frankly, Governor, being an older guy and having seen the worst of the worst of the worst, and I think Trump is the worst, I'm watching now as he every day tries to corrupt the Pennsylvania legislature, the Congressional delegation and I'm scared to death.
I see people like Justice Alito making noises which sound to me like sympathetic to Trump and what he's doing and we have an Electoral College which is really messing up. Is there any way, because I get a lot of mail on this. I get a lot of mail on the Electoral College. What can we do to make that change? We've heard some plans, but if you could talk about it if you will.
Governor Cuomo: Look, it is doable. It is procedurally difficult. I think it has merit, certainly. This might be the election that puts it over the edge. I think we've all learned a lot this past year on so many levels, Alan. Between COVID, between the Trump presidency, between the elections. The turnout, the confusion, the different ways we had to do this election because of COVID. The mail-in ballots, et cetera. I think we've learned a lot and I think the time might have come to change the Electoral College.
I would support that change. We have our own practical problem here on the Electoral College in that the by law, the Electors must convene in the State Capitol. It doesn't say, "except if you have a global pandemic." We're actually going to have to convene people in the Capitol in the midst of this situation. It's not a large group, but you can't do it virtually or we don't believe, legally, you can do it virtually. If we did do it virtually there could be a challenge and apropos your point, I don't want to give anyone an opportunity to legally challenge the actions of the Electors. There is a theoretical challenge if we convened electorally. They're going to have to come assemble in the Capitol.
Alan Chartock: Have you talked to them? Do they seem shaken or are they really going to do it? Let's just remind everybody how we get our Electors: Each party nominates a certain number of people to run for Elector. Did you have a hand in who those people were? And are they mad at you now?
Governor Cuomo: They're going to be mad at me when I say they have to come here. I don't think they're mad at me as of yet, but when I say you have to appear at the Capitol then they will probably be very disappointed with me if they're not already disappointed with me.
Alan Chartock: I know that the Democratic party nominates who will run. Did you do that? Are you responsible for who became an elector in any way?
Governor Cuomo: I don't think, not that I recall. I'm sure the Democratic party did it. I don't think- I don't recall recommending any electors.
Alan Chartock: The only reason I say that is because, you know, if anybody really comes down with it, you're going to get blamed.
Governor Cuomo: Well, if anyone comes down with it, I'm going to get blamed anyway.
Alan Chartock: You're probably right about that. I used to tell my students, back in the day when I was a young professor, the day that someone wins the electoral vote and loses the electoral college, well that's the day everything will change. Wrong. One more wrong thing on my spotted record.
Governor Cuomo: Well, it sounded right though. It sounded logical.
Alan Chartock: It did. So, do you think that New Yorkers are ready to roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done here? In other words, do you think New Yorkers understand how bad things are.
Governor Cuomo: Vis-á-vis COVID? Or the Budget?
Alan Chartock: All of it.
Governor Cuomo: I think the first hurdle is getting through the holiday season, and I think it's very hard. I think fatigue - call it what you will, "the vaccine is almost here. I think we're fine. People get sick but they don't die. I'm just a social being and it's the holidays. I will stay at home with just my friends and family and that is apparently safe." That is the greatest obstacle. In your own home, you can be in your living room with your family, and your friends, and your aunt Ethel, and your cousin Joe, and they all love you, but they can still make you sick. You know, it's apparently your safe haven and that's where we're seeing the biggest increase. It is in those small gatherings, living room spread.
I think it continue to get worse. I've been saying this, I said before Thanksgiving, it's not just Thanksgiving. It's 37 days of holiday season. I had Dr. Fauci with me yesterday at the briefing. He said it gets worse until mid or late January, so it's going to be a long [inaudible] until January. Even when you get to January, critical mass for the vaccine wouldn't be until June, so then you still have to get from January to June, and they're saying their tired already. It's a long wrong, my friend.
Alan Chartock: Listen, we only have a few minutes left and that is because you're very parsimonious and you won't give me more time. You turned 63 over the weekend. Did you get any good presents?
Governor Cuomo: I got some good presents. I didn't get any bad presents; I got some good presents.
Alan Chartock: Get a nice tie, did you?
Governor Cuomo: No. No ties. No sweaters. [inaudible] I got into trouble, by the way. I said no ties and no sweaters because they are a default gift. That's when you can't really- you don't really know what to give the person, give them a tie or a sweater. That's the default position. I said that before my birthday, so I didn't get any ties or sweaters but I got some cool stuff. I got some stuff for the car. I got some, you know, I love historic letters and I got some letters. All good. And plus, you at my age, another birthday, you don't even want to think about it.
Alan Chartock: At your age? What do you know? At 63, you're a kid. Okay. So now we hear that Doug Jones is a favorite to President-elect Joe Biden's attorney general. Do you know how many people have written me and said, "of course Andrew is going to be the attorney general." So, is that completely out of the question?
Governor Cuomo: And of course, you said in response, I've known Andrew Cuomo many years and when Andrew Cuomo says, this is what I'm going to do, that's what he does. When he said to the people of the state of New York, I'm going to be with you. I have no intention to run for president or vice president, or go to the administration, I'm just going to get us through COVID, and help us rebuild, that's my commitment, that's what he meant.
Alan Chartock: So, what about Doug Jones, is that a good pick?
Governor Cuomo: I don't know him. I don't know. I think Joe Biden should be applauded on the diversity he has brought to his appointments. Attorney general is really critical, especially now. I mean look how complicated the situation is, you have, what cases might be pursued against former president Trump. All these- everything is so controversial now so, it's a key position. I don't know Doug Jones well enough to say, but it's really the confidence that Biden has in that person. There's a reason why John Kennedy appointed Bobby Kennedy, right? That's a special relationship and he has to feel that, the president.
Alan Chartock: Let me ask you this, Charlie Baker the governor of my very good state of Massachusetts, announced some reopening rollbacks after previously saying that elective surgeries will stop on Friday. What rollbacks are you looking at today? Is indoor dining, especially in New York City, on borrowed time? And you only have two minutes to do that in.
Governor Cuomo: I was with Charlie Baker today. He is a good man. We were both awarded the Senator Ted Kennedy Institute award-
Alan Chartock: Where was it?
Governor Cuomo: It was all virtual so, he was, it looked like in the state capitol, and I was in the capitol. But that was taped today, actually I don't know when they broadcast it, but Vicki Kennedy, Senator Kennedy's widow, runs the Ted Kennedy Institute, and he won the award and I won the award from the institute for leadership, their leadership award. And it was actually very nice. Ted Kennedy, I worked with. I showed that he sent me a flag the day I was confirmed as HUD secretary. And he taught me a lot. I'll tell you one quick Ted Kennedy story. I mentioned it on the broadcast. I was assistant secretary at HUD and gave out the CDBG funding, Community Development Block Grant funding. Ted Kennedy calls me up and says, "I want to give out the funding with you in Massachusetts." I said senator, it's like 20 small cities all through western Massachusetts, before you even get to Boston. He said "Yes, I know. I want to come and do it with you." in a car, city to city, every city—
Alan Chartock: Wow.
Governor Cuomo: —pictures, handshakes, big foam check, you know, cardboard check. That kind of personal tough, even for Senator Ted Kennedy. It was really, it was really, he taught me a lot on a lot of levels.
Alan Chartock: That's some memory. Listen Governor, I really appreciate your being with us today. I wish I could have another hour with you. But this is the way it is and I thank you so much, and, you know, I'm thinking about you. So good luck and we'll be talking to you soon I hope.
Governor Cuomo: Thank you doctor, thank you very much. Bye.