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Gov. Cuomo On WAMC News 4/9/20

File photo: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Pat Bradley
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks with WAMC's Alan Chartock on Northeast Report on April 9, 2020.

Chartock: We're with the Governor. Right. I have some questions. I'd like to love to ask you. How do you do it? I mean, you turn it on in the morning. I just watched CNN, there you were, again, who schedules this? How do you know what you're gonna do every minute.

Cuomo: I know what I'm going to do because I do the same thing all the time, Alan. It's really easy. It's Groundhog Day for me, the way it's Groundhog Day for everyone, you know, it's around the clock, one issue. One goal. It's an operational goal, organizing the healthcare system in a way it's never been organized before. We have all these fragmented different hospitals. We have public hospitals, private hospitals, different geographic regions, trying to get them all to work together, coordinating them, move equipment, move patients, new facilities, figure out how to get patients from one hospital system to a Javits or Comfort, the federal facilities that we have open. So you have the operational and then you have the numbers coming in every night. And you're hoping for a break. You're hoping for some good news. You’re praying to see the death toll come down. And you do everything you can 24 hours a day.

Chartock: Do you sleep?

Cuomo: It's hard to sleep now. Right? You have such pain going on. You have such a challenge. Such a challenge before you. Everyone's stressed, everyone's in pain. It's just hard to sleep. You know, you feel like every minute, what should I be doing? What else can I be doing? There has to be more I can do.

Chartock: When do you hit the pillow, I mean what time do you go to bed?

Cuomo: I go to bed and now like probably about one-ish, like that.

Chartock: Really? Really?

Cuomo: Yeah. And you get in and then I get up about five-ish.

Chartock: Whoa, that's four hours. That's not that's not an awful lot. Are you eating? Do you eat?

Cuomo: Yes, no, I eat. It's not the hours. It's the quality of the sleep. You know, it's trying to turn off your mind.

Chartock: Sure, I get it.

Cuomo: Not sitting there tossing and turning. You know you go through the day. All the things, all the decisions you made, all the decisions you have to make. What else should I do? What can you do better? It's such a moment in time. It's such an intense period. You know, every minute, it's the same thought. What should I be doing? What can I be doing? What can we do to save lives? It's literally how many lives you can save.

Chartock: Do you find that, you know, you take it personally? I mean, in other words, to what degree is this integrated into your psyche? You know, I guess it's a bad question, but to what degree do you take each death and each piece of bad news personally?

Cuomo: I take it all personally. I take it all personally. I think I should. I'm in charge of the state, now. I'm not in control, but I'm in charge. And those are two different things, which I, I have to get my head around, you know. I can't control this situation, we can't control the virus, you can't control who gets sick and who gets infected, and you can't control who dies and who lives, but you're in charge. And I don't make excuses for myself or for my team, or for my position, frankly. So we're making a lot of decisions where we hope they are the right decisions. Where we're doing operational things that we've never done before. We had a 50,000 bed hospital system less than a month ago. We have a 90,000 bed system now. That's just operationally, the healthcare system has been phenomenal - what they've been able to do. So now I take it all seriously, and I'm sure when this is over, you know, we'll go back and we'll learn. And we should. This is going to be a case study not just for this country, but for around the world. The number of infections we have in New York is more than most countries. So, and we're in the midst of it; you're living it every day. And it's my way, for better or for worse, you know. You do the best you can and you hold yourself to a very high standard.

Chartock: Look, let me ask you this: You have to worry about the whole state. And so you make certain decisions which are bound to be unpopular. You know, why should I, why should we give up our ventilators? Or why should we move patients from here or take patients or give patients? And if you're a local politician, you're a mayor you're going to play to that, right? I mean, you're going to say, yeah, we don't want to give that up. But all too often we don't want to play that game because it's bad for us. Put up the walls. You know, put up the shades. So you have to you have to watch out for the whole thing. Do you find yourself under attack to the point where you have to mitigate what you've been saying?

Cuomo: No, look, it's on all these things. Any big decision is a controversial decision. And that's important to acknowledge because that's why most political officials don't want to make the decision right? Controversial by definition is a negative when you're an elected office. Make no one unhappy is the rule most politicians live by. So if it's a 60/40 issue, don't go near it. Because 60/40 you make 60% of the people happy you make 40% of the people unhappy, don't go near it. I've never lived that way. That's not Mario Cuomo, that's not me. That wasn't the death penalty. It wasn't marriage equality. It wasn't $15 minimum wage - wasn't gun control. That's why those issues languish through the political system. People are afraid of them.

Chartock: Well, you know, your Dad, I once asked him a question. I said, you know, look governor, you get to appoint all those judges, you got a lot of people who, you know, are beholden to you. He said, “Are you kidding? You make one appointment and you go - you get 12 people who hate your guts and one ingrate.”

Cuomo: Yeah, forget that. No, good. Exactly. Right.

Chartock: So, okay, so the mayor of New York comes along now and he says, “Let's open things up a little bit.” If I'm reading this press release correctly. We have to have to start to open things up. Do you have a reaction to that?

Cuomo: Okay. Everybody wants to open things up. And everybody wants to know we'll get back to normal and we'll get out of this torment as soon as possible. I understand that. I'm living it the way everyone's living it. This is a perverse time in history to divert, perverse time in our personal lives. It's frightening. It's stressful. I want it over, I want it over. Yeah, I get that. But we have to be smart, and we have to be disciplined. I've spoken to the smartest people on the globe about this, and the smartest people, Alan, all say the same thing. I don't know. I don't know. You look at all the projection models on this disease. They've all been off on the numbers. Nobody knows. This is uncharted territory. It's the first case. Follow the data. And don't make a promise to people that you can't really keep right. So I don't have a projection.

Chartock: Is that your advice? Is that your advice to the mayor? Is that your advice?

Cuomo: That's my advice to anyone. And by the way, anyone who has predicted what will happen, they've been wrong. So don't even try. Second of all, to reopen is, is a very big decision. And it has to be based on the data, and we've watched places that have reopened, and we've watched places that have reopened too quickly, and we've seen the infection rate go up. We're on a razor's edge here. Alan, we do not have the capacity in our healthcare system to deal with the worst case projection on these numbers. Whatever we do, we don't have the capacity, so we have to get this right. And I say let's, we'll follow the data, we’ll follow the numbers. Also when we reopen, that has to be a coordinated approach. We're not going to reopen Nassau, Suffolk or Westchester or Albany, it has to be coordinated. And I want to work with the surrounding states. At the same time, you know, when we close down, we close down with New Jersey with Connecticut. Because this is the tristate area, we have people who come back and forth. And that's one of the reasons why the close down was so successful because it was coordinated. I was saying to one of my daughters last night, I said, you know, experience helps here because not only do you repeat the positive lessons, but you don't make the same mistakes. If I don't make half the mistakes I've made in the past, I will be a wise person. I made the mistake of handling New York City differently than Nassau and Suffolk and the suburbs post Sandy. You come up with a different set of rules for that. People in New York City, all they do is go to Nassau and go to Westchester. You know, they're very smart. And Nassau isn't that far away in Westchester, it's not that far away. So it has to be geographically coordinated, has to be regional, if you can get there. That's the optimum. But it's a very big decision. And, yes, I get the political desire for people to get out of this misery as soon as possible. Just don’t create more misery by ending it prematurely.

Chartock: It sounds like that's a criticism of the mayor of New York City. Am I wrong about that?

Cuomo: No, no, I don't know exactly what he said. You know, that's why I don't want to really, I don't want to characterize what he said, you know, the reporters give you the question, but sometimes they can give it to you out of context. I don't know what he said. But I'm just saying any projection of any date, I reject because it's a projection and let's see what happens when we get there.

Chartock: What's the, I mean, we all have to know ourselves. What is the most dangerous part of your character? In other words, what is it that you know about yourself that you have to worry about controlling for? In my case, I blew up the other day on the radio. It wasn't good. And then you have to know that, go “Alan, don't do that again.” Is there something about you that you know you have to watch out for?

Cuomo: I think I've, I've put myself and my ego on a shelf. I don't have the right words for it Alan, but I'm so focused on solving the problem, I don't have me in the equation, you know. I am dealing with everyone, I'm biting my tongue on everything. It's just about what's best for New York and let's maximize everyone's contribution here. And that has worked well, I'm working well with the federal government, local governments, etc., private sector. I think the worst parts of my personality, I will I pay the price for you know, I'm very tough on myself. But that's me versus me. And that's fine. It doesn't affect the job.

Chartock: But is there a difference between the way you're doing it now and the way you were doing it previous to this? In other words, you know, some people say that you could be very tough on staff. I think all leaders can have that rap given to them. Do you find you’re nicer on staff or tougher on staff right now?

Cuomo: You know, tough on staff. I've had probably the highest quality and the most loyal team in the modern history of state government, I put my team against anyone, and the longevity and the loyalty you know. They call it Hotel California, Hotel Cuomo. Nobody really leaves. We're a fraternity. We just, we love each other. I brought back - all my past secretaries came back to help I put them all on the dais. They’re all working. Steve Cohen, Bill Mulrow, Larry Schwartz is working is back working 16 hours a day. I mean, more handling all the coordination of the healthcare system. Jim Malatras. So look, are we demanding of ourselves? Yes. And I don't put the pressure on them. They put pressure on themselves. They believe they're the best team. They have very high standards. But I think in a situation like this, you don't have the luxury of your feelings or your ego, or your shortcomings. That's a luxury. I think even, know what, look. When you got hot on the radio. As you say, I didn't hear it. That way, you knew that you were indulging yourself. Right?

Chartock: Yeah.

Cuomo: You knew, as the words were coming out of your mouth, “I'm indulging myself.” There's an automatic governor, if you will, that says you, nobody has the luxury of indulging themselves right now. It's all about the optimum performance. And I think that almost kicks in naturally. You know, when it always happens. I think if you have a personal situation at home or health crisis with someone you love, it's all about them. It's not about you, and whatever you can do to help them and that adrenaline kicks in and that singular focus.

Chartock: You were on with Christopher last night. I didn't see it. I go to bed very early, but I've heard reports that there might have been a little tension. It may have been brotherly love, not that I know, but he drew out a picture of you, you know looking like you were in Saturday Night Fever. And that you responded get rid of the picture. Some people took that to be, you know, a little bit of, of, you know, maybe competitiveness, maybe not so nice between the two of you. Is that wrong?

Cuomo: Anyone who saw the picture knew it was not kindness and love in Christopher's heart when he pulled out that picture. It’s a really embarrassing photo.

Chartock: It looks like John Travolta.

Cuomo: It is not John Travolta, trust me. He knew exactly what he was doing, but of course, it's all in good spirit. And, look, there is such a heaviness out there right now, that I do Christopher show. And frankly he pushes me like no interviewer could ever push me on topics, you know, because he just has license and he takes it, you know. He comes after me to keep drilling and ask me the same question 10 different ways. But it was also, we can't help ourselves but have some fun and tease each other. And that is just natural and beautiful and warm. And to the extent it's a relief valve, frankly for him, you know, he's bottled up he's in the basement with this virus, which is frightening is the only lightness that I have experienced, you know. I have my kids here, two of my daughters. And that's a relief valve. But he just he, with him, it's different. It's just different, he is. We have such a chemistry together. And he just gets me to a place where, you know, there's just a natural release and there's a back and forth and to the extent it's fun, and it's light, what the heck? People need it nowadays. You know, I need it. Chris needs it. Everybody needs it. Everything is so heavy and the news is so heavy. You can laugh. What’s so bad, right? It's the best medicine.

Chartock: Somebody once asked George Pataki, “Do you know the Chartocks,” and he said, “Well, I know them. I like Lewis.” That's my twin brother. “Alan, not so much.” So people can have differences of opinion. Hey, have you talked to Joe Biden?

Cuomo: I talked to Joe often, yeah.

Chartock: Well, you know, without giving anything away that you don't want to give away, I'm sure. What do you talk about?

Cuomo: Oh, we talked about this a lot. You know, we talked about the coronavirus situation and what's happening and how it's evolving and what we can do and what we should do and what other people across the country are doing or learning. And he's a personal friend, he's so bright, he is so wise that I just enjoy talking to him about it. And he's been very helpful to me, he's been helpful to the state, he’s a good sounding board for me.

Chartock: Is he out there enough? In other words, I think one of the one of the hits on him is that you know, he's not strong enough to take on, that's my word now not yours, a bully like Trump. And you know, he's too much of a gentleman. He's too quiet. Even the President calls him Sleepy Joe. Is he is he up to it?

Cuomo: Oh, I think he's personally up to it. He's much - I mean, he has a warmth to him. But don't think the warmth is a weakness. This is a fundamentally tough guy. Experienced. He’s seen in a lot in life. He's been through a lot in life, Alan, I mean, he is a strong, strong personality. I don't see that at all. And as far as being out there enough, you know, this, this is no time for politics. People don't want to hear it. And I've said to him, you know, helpful advice, helpful dialogue, constructive dialogue. But I think it would be a mistake for him to politicize this. You know, Trump is the president. He's the commander in chief. We're all working together. I'm - I haven't - I've refrained from any political commentary. I've refrained from anything that would distract from the focus of what we have to do here. And I think that's right.

Chartock: Well, now the President of the United States certainly hasn't refrained. So the question is, if he bullies and he continues to bully, as he has in the past, he's come after you occasionally. Even though you've refrained. You know, I mean, doesn't he have to be held responsible, other than people thinking that his opponent is weak?

Cuomo: Well, look, that is a balance, Alan. Yes, he is. He's said things about me that in the normal environment, I would have responded to, right? Well, I wouldn't now, I wouldn't now. Goes back to what we were saying before, right? This is not about - just suppress anything that is not productive. Just suppress anything that is not productive for what you're trying to accomplish now, right. That's how I'm operating. And that federal connection for us is very important. Now Army Corps of Engineers is very helpful. Setting up, we built thousands of new hospital beds with the Army Corps of Engineers. Just focus on what's important. Now, forget the politics. There'll be another time and place.

Chartock: You're not afraid of him. Are you? In other words, if he beats on you, and you want all those resources from the federal government, but on the other hand, do you really, really want to let him walk over you?

Cuomo: You can't have it both ways.

Chartock: No you can’t. I can’t.

Cuomo: No, you can't. You're right. I take it back. I can be too tough, but I get walked on. I get it. Look. When it comes to this situation, I'm very tough. I represent the state of New York. If the federal government isn't helpful to New York, I am the first one to speak up. And by the way, as you know, for the past years with this president, there's no governor who has taken him to task more than I have, and there's no governor who he's attacked more than he attacks me right. If you go back and look at his Twitter account, he attacks me quite frequently, but now it has to be all about what we are doing. And I, I just feel that with every gene in my body.

Chartock: You’ve asked the President of the University at Albany to lead a task force on why minorities have worse health care outcomes when it comes to coronavirus. You have confidence that something can come out of this that will be helpful?

Cuomo: It has to you know, I did emergency disasters on the federal side for eight years. It always seems that the poorest people pay the highest price. The flood always affects the poorer communities more. The people who were left behind after Katrina in New Orleans - Those were not rich white people on the rooftops, Alan. It's the people who didn't have a place to go. They didn't have an alternative. They couldn't get in a car and drive out to their sister's house in the suburbs. It was the people of public housing. Why do we have these racial disparities? I get the comorbidity etc. But I think it's deeper than that. And I want to understand that now. So we learn from this situation. It’s such pain. Let's make sure we're learning everything we can and we never do this again. And we're in a better position next time. And we actually advanced from this. This will be transformative right? For a whole generation.

Chartock: Look governor, you've got a Democratic Senate, a Democratic assembly and you the old Democrats, and you've announced that New Yorkers are going to be able to, you know, vote by mail. My question to you is, shouldn't that be forever? In other words, is it just the exigency or shouldn't this be the way that it goes from now on?

Cuomo: It's a good question. And I think a lot of the things that we're doing now may lead to a different pattern going forward. More telemedicine, more work from home. I think people are, by necessity, doing things that they've never tried to do before. And maybe there’ll be a lesson and a pattern going forward. The by-mail voting, the absentee voting, I get the downsides. But…

Chartock: What are the downsides?

Cuomo: It’s a harder system to administer. And obviously it's a harder system to police, writ large. People showing up, people actually showing ID is still the easiest system to assure total integrity. But look, with the exigency you're right. But there may be lessons to learn. And I think we should be open to that.

Chartock: Who do you want him to pick as his vice presidential nominee? That being Biden is the he in this. I mean, you know, he says he wants a woman. I've advanced the idea that you should be the nominee. But you know, let's assume that that doesn't happen. And you've said you don't want it. Then of all the women on the list, who do you like?

Cuomo: I don't have a favorite.

Chartock: Yes, you do. Yes, you do. You do. You sit with your daughters and you have these confidential conversations and you say if and then, and as your father did, if then, then if, you know, that kind of thing. So I can't believe you don't have somebody on that list who you think ought to get that nomination?

Cuomo: Well, here's the difference, I think for it to work well, you can't tell someone who they should marry right?

Chartock: Well, I can.

Cuomo: You can, well, yes, again, it's partially your position. You can opine on anything. But for that relationship to really work, it has to be a person who the principal feels good about, and will really make a partner. You can't tell me who my lieutenant governor should be. Because for it to work, it has to be a person I'm comfortable with who I'm willing to share with, and I trust and I believe in their capacity. Otherwise, all you did was, yeah, you have a vice presidential candidate who can be there but will never really be a full partner in the administration, so I think it's his choice.

Chartock: Fair enough. I only got two minutes. I want to ask you real quickly. What would you rather be - This is a conceptual question. Just a hypothetical question. What would you rather be Attorney General of the United States or Secretary of State?

Cuomo: Governor.

Chartock: That’s so tricky, but no, I didn't include governor in my question. I gave you a choice. The choice was Secretary of State or Attorney General.

Cuomo: Those are the only two choices and I can't be governor?

Chartock: You cannot be governor. Those are the two choices.

Cuomo: Retirement.

Chartock: I hear you. You see former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has died. Yeah, what a thing people die. I don't get that. Never quite understood that. And, you know, people within the system die, and I'll never forget one night we had him we had an attorney general, you know, format and he was up on the stage with six other guys and he got up and he walked over to the piano, and he started to play the piano. I always think of him playing that piano. Amazing. Isn’t it?

Cuomo: He was a character. We’ll miss him. We’ll miss him. He was a bright, bright fellow.

Chartock: Yeah, he was. Well, Governor Andrew Cuomo we’re always so pleased when you come and talk to this section of your state. And we go for a long way. But we so admire the fact that with all you're doing you have the chance to come and talk to us. And every time you were on, I always say, “Well, this will be the last time he's too important now.” And then you come back. I'm astounded, and I thank you for it.

Cuomo: Nothing more important than being governor of New York. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Chartock: And thanks again.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.
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