New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks with WAMC's Alan Chartock on Northeast Report on Aug. 17, 2020.
Alan Chartock: Here we are with Governor Andrew Cuomo who is about to give a very substantial or important, not substantial, important speech at the Democratic National Convention, the virtual convention. Governor, that's got to be a tough one for you. You know, your dad made history with his incredible speech which had Walter Cronkite saying there goes the next president of the United States on the radio, on the television. So how formidable is that in terms of, you know, Dr. Freud, psychology and all that?
Governor Cuomo: Well, it's a good question. I've spoken at conventions before and actually in situations that were more analogous to a convention speech, right? My father's was the keynote so he had much more time. It was like a half an hour that speech. And when you give, that was a speech, that's in a room, there is feedback from the audience, there are applause, that's a speech, and I've given other convention speeches in that environment, not as long and not as, not the premium position, but those were more analogous. This is a virtual convention so they are video remarks. You know, it's not a speech, you're not at a podium, you're seated at a table. I was given five minutes which is actually one of the longer periods of time. There are people speaking for one or two minutes. So it's apples and oranges, this one versus a real convention speech. But in the five minutes I'm pleased with what I say, the argument that there is a national crisis. I use a metaphor, I say the COVID virus itself is a metaphor for the ailment that we're facing because a virus attacks the body when the body is weak and the American body politic is weak because the American body politic is divided and it's never been this divided before. That's why we are susceptible to the virus and then the federal government which is a metaphorical immune system was incompetent to respond. I like that divisive you will, to the extent you can have a divisive five minutes, but I think that's true. You know, it's not COVID, it's not just the George Floyd tension. It's what it is evidencing. It's evidencing a divided nation and a divided nation is weak. It's evidencing a government that can't respond. It says not functional and I really believe, Alan, I don't get into it in the speech, but I think this is going to be a transformational moment in politics. Actually I'm working on a book at the same time and I did say this in the book, this could be an FDR transformational moment. When was the last time government mattered? Think about it. Not in a generation. You know, you'd have to go back to the Vietnam War. Otherwise government, you know, it raises my taxes, it's a pain in the neck. This is different. I don't care what you thought yesterday about government. I don't care if you weren't engaged politically. You care about government today. It's a matter of life and death. It is making a dramatic effect on your life and it has to work and you know what government worked and what government didn't work. It's in the numbers now so I think this could be a whole transformational moment if the Democrats do it right.
Alan Chartock: Back to your father for a moment. I was running around the car today and I was thinking about father-son teams, which had, you know, somebody in a position and then somebody else years later, so, you know, we have you and your dad, both governors. And we have Browns out in California. Can you think of any others?
Governor Cuomo: Browns, Bushes, Gores.
Alan Chartock: Yeah, Gores. And what do you think about that? You think that's genetic or what?
Governor Cuomo: No, I think it's normal in some way. Sons of a carpenter grow up to be a carpenter. Daughters of scientists grow up to be scientists. If you sit at a kitchen table and you hear how this is the greatest occupation in the world and you're making a difference, and it's honorable, I don't think it's surprising that you follow that. In the book I'm going to get at this. There's a period of time that we never discussed and that by definition you wouldn't be privy to. It was the period of time post my father's loss and post my loss, okay. And we both spent years sitting on the couch re-running the game tapes. What we should have done—
Alan Chartock: Sitting on the couch or lying on the couch?
Governor Cuomo: Sitting because we're both on the couch and two of us can't lie on the couch, but I know what you were saying. No, we were sitting on the couch, watching the ballgame and just talking through what we did right, what we did wrong, what we would do differently if we ever got a chance, and then bang, I wind up getting a second chance as attorney general. So that was a pivotal moment, really, for both my father and myself. And I tried to do it with that analysis and with that hindsight, you know? It's you die, and then you review your life on your deathbed, and then the doctor comes and says oh, hold on a second, we just discovered a drug, here, take this pill and you can have a second chance. You'd do it a lot differently the second time.
Alan Chartock: Boy oh boy. Okay, back to more mundane things, although I could talk about this for hours. What do you think of the selection of Senator Harris as Joe Biden's running mate?
Governor Cuomo: I think it was very good. I think it's going to excite people to the extent they say people aren't excited. I think this is exciting, I think it's exciting for Californians, it's exciting for women, it's exciting for members of the Black community. I think she's young, I think she's dynamic. So I think it's all good. I know her, she's very impressive, so I think it's all positive, that's for sure.
Alan Chartock: Well, there's a very good chance, you know, you look at the odds, that she's going to end up as the next president of the United States, and you know, I mean let's face it, if she gets elected as vice president and he's an older man that could pass the torch, or he says it's one point or another, I don't know if he had a ticket that he was on, he could be one term, I never quite believe that, but if that were true, she would be the natural successor, wouldn't she?
Governor Cuomo: Yes. And look, I think it would be historic. I think it would excite a lot of people. My daughters, you know, they're ready for a woman to be president. And I think so is the country, and I think it would be empowering and it would be a new first. I mean look when we elected President Obama, how proud we were of ourselves as Americans, right. I think the same is going to be true when we elect the first woman.
Alan Chartock: Okay. But of course there's kind of something going through your mind, and saying well, had I been the vice presidential candidate, then I would be the next president, right?
Governor Cuomo: I never wanted to be the vice president. I said I would not accept the nomination. I did that whole Sherman-tarentello on vice president.
Alan Chartock: When was the last time you spoke with Joe Biden?
Governor Cuomo: Couple of weeks.
Alan Chartock: What was that about?
Governor Cuomo: Just general catch-up, how are things going. Nothing specific. You know, I've known him a long time. He's a personal friend and no specific agenda. I mean, obviously he's running for president so there's a lot to talk about but nothing beyond that.
Alan Chartock: Do you think he's got the get and up go and an "umph" to it - some people say he's pretty lethargic?
Governor Cuomo: No, he's fit. He's tough - tougher than people think but he's playing it smart, let's be honest. This is about Joe Biden but more this election is about Donald Trump - he is the incumbent and he's so big and he's doing so much and creating so many waves that it's about Donald Trump and Biden is critiquing Trump, "This is what I would have done differently," but it's President Trump, it's how he handled COVID, it's how he's divided the country, it's the George Floyd murder and the aftermath - that's what this election is going to be about.
Alan Chartock: Are you using PowerPoint tonight like you did when you talked to the American people?
Governor Cuomo: I don't want to give it away but I tease it, that's all I do.
Alan Chartock: Now when Biden gives his acceptance speech, what should he be saying?
Governor Cuomo: He should be laying out an affirmative vision for the country, he should not be doing much of a current critique. People get that. That's why I think there's been such a unique moment, Alan. Government mattered, people focused, they watched it, they know what it performed and they know what it didn't perform, and they have their opinions. This COVID - not since the Vietnam War did you sit at home every night and see the death numbers on the screen. You know, this has captured everyone's attention because it's governing everyone's life.
Alan Chartock: Is the President responsible for that? I keep thinking he is because he didn't prepare us.
Governor Cuomo: I would put aside the preparation, okay? Because that's a deeper discussion. Where was the CDC? Where was the NIH? To the extent the World Health Organization missed it, the World Health Organization has been funded by a lot of presidents, it is still shocking to me that a virus could start in China, go to Europe and then come here from Europe and then everybody is still watching China? I mean, how can that be? Whoever could expect the virus would still be in China two months later? It's almost astonishing and not just the federal agencies, but I got to tell you, you had all these experts, all these global experts, "Coronavirus is in China in December," and February we think it's still in China. Didn't anybody think that somebody with the virus is going to get on a plane and go somewhere? So I would say forget the preparation and don't get into the stockpiles and how many ventilators should we have had, et cetera. It's going forward. It's once you knew it was here. And you have Dr. Fauci and you have the CDC and you have all this information, how did you handle it? Once they handed you the bucket full, what did you do?
Alan Chartock: So, could you answer that question - how did he do?
Governor Cuomo: I say, look at the numbers. Look at the numbers. I'll tell you what I do say tonight - here's the great question. Look at how we handled New York and why are we the exception? Why did New York get ambushed by this virus? Nobody knew it was here and that's not shame on us, that's shame on everybody else because the planes landed in Europe. Okay, we get handed the worst situation on the globe in terms of spike. How do we go from the highest infection rate to the lowest and now we're sitting around watching states all across the country go through the roof and we're quarantining them? How do you explain that juxtaposition? How? And I say it tonight, I don't want to say too much about tonight because I know you, you go to sleep too early; you won't even watch. But they watched New York six months later. You're seeing the states spike. You had six months. Where's the testing? Where's the tracing? Where's the quarantine? You had six months. We had two weeks in New York. We went from the first case to total shutdown in 18 days. How incredible. That's why I call it an ambush. You had six months. How are you still unprepared in six months? And that's a question for some states, frankly, but also for the federal government, because they're the ones who decided this management model; it's up to 50 states, then the President gave his theory: it's only the flu, it's going to go away, it's going to be gone by Easter, it's going to go away when it gets warm, there's a light at the end of the tunnel, take Hydroxychloroquine and everything's better. And the states, frankly, that followed his advice really then saw this phenomenal spike and death rate that was unnecessary. That's his problem with COVID. That's the Senate's problem with COVID. See, I think these Republicans in the Senate are in real trouble.
Alan Chartock: I agree. Nobody cares, but I agree. I think that's right. They're between a rock and a hard place. They don't know what to do.
Governor Cuomo: Oh yeah. Because, Alan, this is not a political question, this is now a performance question and a common sense question. Americans know what happened. You're not going to explain to them what happened. They lived it every day of their life and it was not handled well, and they know it.
Alan Chartock: Because we're running out of time, I want to ask you about the Post Office. Obviously, you know this is on everybody's lips. We live by the Post Office; we get our medication by the Post Office. It was working and now all of the sudden, perhaps because the President thinks that online voting will kill him he starts talking about taking down the Post Office. Here's a question, how outrageous can you be?
Governor Cuomo: There is no limit to how outrageous you can be. I'll make you a wager: how much do you have in your pocket?
Alan Chartock: A dollar fifty.
Governor Cuomo: Alright, I'll bet you a dollar fifty -- I'll bet you two dollars, and then you'll owe me fifty cents.
Alan Chartock: I haven't got two dollars. No go ahead, please.
Governor Cuomo: Two dollars. What's going to happen is Donald Trump is going to lose the election. Donald Trump is going to contest the election and he's going to use this mail-in ballot argument that have been seeding for months and the Post Office argument in his Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case. It's not going to be about hanging chads, it's going to be about mail fraud, and postal service failure; that's going to be his lawsuit.
Alan Chartock: And so when it gets to the Supreme Court of the United States, what happens there? Do these guys all fall in line and salute?
Governor Cuomo: No. He's going to lose in the Supreme Court. And his appointees have signaled this. You know, it goes back to my father's line about you have one job, you have one ingrate. They're now Supreme Court Justices, you know, they have their own reputations to worry about, and they're not going to wind up being political puppet for a president and calling an election. They're not going to make that their legacy, they're now Supreme Court Justices. And I think the honor of that position is going to prevail. I think you'll have the Attorney General Barr, who has shown that he is just a political proxy, he'll make the argument. But in some ways, there's an old Yiddish expression "a thief gives himself his way because his hat burns." You've been making the argument for months already. "Mail-in ballots, there's a lot of fraud. There's a lot of fraud, mail-in ballots. Democratic states have a lot of fraud. The Post Office can't deliver mail. It's picking up mail boxes so now they really can't deliver mail. I think otherwise, what else? What else is all of this except a setup?
Alan Chartock: Some Democrats are crying foul. The Republicans sent Governor John Kasich of Ohio to be invited to speak at the Convention to discuss his support of Biden. What do you think about that?
Governor Cuomo: Fair game. It's fair game, right? Whenever one party gets a person from the other party to endorse, they put that person up on the pulpit. As far and as high as they can.
Alan Chartock: It's like capture the white flag. If you can bring them over to the other side.
Governor Cuomo: Yes. Yes.
Alan Chartock: Okay, so you don't have any problem with that right?
Governor Cuomo: Nope.
Alan Chartock: Now, if your support of Biden hurt New York for the rest of the year, possibly the next four years if he wins? What do you think of that?
Governor Cuomo: What else could they do to New York? What else could they do to New York? Well, they could pass a special tax provision that raises our taxes. Did it with SALT. They could stop funding the Second Avenue Subway that they've always funded. Did it. They could refuse to approve any new projects like your train to LaGuardia. They did it. They could take just capricious and arbitrary actions and use the government against you, like the Trusted Traveler Program. The Department of Homeland Security ended a program to show their disdain that you did undocumented drivers licenses. Did it.
What else are they going to do? And, by the way, we don't survive this. If we don't get funding from the federal government to make up for the deficit on state side, these are terrible years. I think the question is could we survive another 4 years of the Donald Trump presidency with his constant attacks?
Alan Chartock: Explain to me Governor, how come CNN anchors had a poll which showed only a five-point difference between the two candidates, Biden in the lead. What I could only call a stinking five points.
Governor Cuomo: First of all, I have to be careful about what I say about CNN because I have a brother who works there and then see, if something happens, like if he says something wrong and he gets fired it's all going to be my fault because I said something about their poll.
That Biden is ahead is remarkable to me because your point, it's not that Biden - he hasn't even had the convention yet - he hasn't put forth his affirmative game yet and he's already ahead because they're looking at what President Trump has done and it's disapproval of President Trump. ABC - Anyone But Cuomo. It's a litmus test on the incumbent and how they feel about the incumbent. Yes, we're a divided nation, but nobody thought that the President was going to add to the division. Now, in a post George Floyd situation, where we now have a real chasm in this country, which is disquieting and it's the COVID management.
You don't get away from that, Alan. You know, people are bottom line oriented. Your listenership went down, your viewership went down, the value of the stock went down. My portfolio went down. There is a measurable index to government. You look at people's opinions on governors and mayors across this country. They are hard and fast because people watched them through COVID and they made a determination.
That's what you're seeing with President Trump. I think there's been nothing more descriptive than his management of COVID. He was the Commander-In-Chief and went to war and lost the war. He went to war against COVID and lost the war.
Alan Chartock: Now, he's been giving, Governor, he's been giving racist talk for quite a while now. What's in it for him? In other words, why is he doing that?
Governor Cuomo: He plays politics. We all have politics at different levels. Some just with our spouse, some with a larger group and he supports his base and whips up his base and that's a message that he's been sending since he ran in the Republican primary for president, they gave him that script. They said you have to run far to the right. Whose ever most conservative wins the primary and he picked up that script and he's been with it ever since.
Alan Chartock: Is America too racist?
Governor Cuomo: America- the tension we had at birth, we have today. The concept of taking different people, different religions, different cultures, and putting them on one piece of land and forging a community from them - E Pluribus Unum - that was, the founding premise had never been done before has never been done before and it is difficult. It is a human instinct to fear differences. "You're different religion, you're a different skin color. I fear that. I fear differences." You have to get to people's better selves to be accepting and to be loving and that's the tension that we endure. Sometimes we do better; sometimes we do worse. The fear is easy to stoke and it's easy for a politician to stoke that fear and I think that's what you're seeing now.
Alan Chartock: I got four minutes and I want to ask you this. You've been opposed, I think - I don't have words in your mouth - but I think you've been opposed to a millionaire's tax. It's a change in the way we tax people in New York State. They would run away, they got other places. Let me ask you this, if they don't come through with the money you just described as being absolutely imperative to running New York, would you change your mind on that?
Governor Cuomo: Well yeah, first of all, I haven't been opposed to a wealth tax. I said it should be done on the national level. These federal officials are saying, New York should do it. No, federal official, if you believe in it, do it federally. And don't put us at a competitive disadvantage with other states. Just do it across the board. Every state this is what you pay. Do it at the federal level.
Alan Chartock: True. All true. But they're not going to do that. [inaudible] When you're faced with the real question, do you do it or not?
Governor Cuomo: We have the highest income tax in the United States as it is. Only California is higher than us. So, we have a significant wealth tax and I am worried about our competitive position. I believe it's on the federal government and they have to deliver, and they have to bring home the bacon on this one and it can't be a press release because we have a $14 billion deficit and they have to provide funding. Period. And I'm not going to say, "Well, we'll make it up." No. It's on them. It's on the senators and it's on the Congress people. They have to perform-just the way we performed here on the state level and I'm not going to let them off the hook, Alan.
Alan Chartock: Well suppose you don't let him off the hook, tough noogies. I mean, they'll just do what they want to do. They don't care. Do they?
Governor Cuomo: They should care because they're running for election and if they come back from the Congress and they bring a big goose egg after we dealt with the worst problem in the country on COVID, and we get no federal help and then we have this tremendous deficit and you're going to see possible additional taxes and additional cuts: that's on them, and they don't want that on them.
Alan Chartock: I got one minute, I got to ask, are you satisfied with the response you're getting from the school districts? You demanded a plan from everybody. Are they all up-to-date or are people dragging their heels?
Governor Cuomo: I think a lot of the school districts are missing the point. They're doing this as a bureaucratic exercise. They did a plan so they think they can open. Talk to the parents and talk to the teachers. They are the arbiters and you have the sell the parents and the teachers that your plan is safe because they're nervous. I think I've been working very hard to try to get the local school districts to understand that. Just because you say school opens first week of September, doesn't mean everybody's going to show up. You have to explain to the parents why it's a smart plan and many of them don't get that. And I'm getting hundreds of calls from parents and teachers with questions and their savvy because they listen to my briefings- we have the most educated people in the country on COVID and they have good questions.
Alan Chartock: You do. We're out of time. You are wonderful for coming on and being with us. I always admire the fact that you come to WAMC and you allow us to talk to you directly and that really is quite good for us. I don't know if it's good for you but it's great for us and we thank you so much.
Governor Cuomo: If it's good for you, it's good for me. Don't forget the $2 wager because I won't. Okay, will argue that next time.
Alan Chartock: So long.
Governor Cuomo: Thank you.
Governor Andrew Cuomo's office provided the interview transcript.