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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo On WAMC's Northeast Report 4/13/20

Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking in Saranac Lake
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking in Saranac Lake

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks with WAMC's Alan Chartock on Monday, April 13, 2020.

Cuomo: Hello.

Chartock: Hello, can you hear me?

Cuomo: I can hear you. Can you hear me?

Chartock: Absolutely these electronic things are magnificent. You know, Governor, I was just taking a walk, I have to do four miles a day and I get a green line on my app. So I was walking by the rock, the rock by Lake Mansfield in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. And there is the rock that David Axelrod, the Commissioner of Health under your father, who your father used to refer to on our show of many years as my David. And Axelrod once told me a story that he and his friend Jerry, when they were in high school, there's a gigantic rock there and it's got a big massive split in it, and they blew it up. And they had blown it up. So I always think of Axelrod and I was thinking of him as I took out one of the best books ever written Me and Mario Cuomo: Conversations in Candor. And I looked up Axelrod and one of the things that your father said, “Any doctor who refuses to live up to his obligations should be penalized.” And Axelrod said, “There's a general obligation to give treatment even if it's inconvenient or distasteful to you. You can't pick and choose the patients that you want to take care of, and mark all the others with a crimson letter and leave them open to the possibility that no doctor would ever operate on them. That's the same as sentencing that person to death.” And that was, of course, about the AIDS epidemic. What do you think?

Cuomo: David Axelrod. Well, my father loved David. You want to talk about the epitome of a public servant, the man was brilliant, brilliant. He could have gone to any hospital, made millions of dollars as an administrator and was just such an inspiration and my father, you know, you don't count doctor how much having a good team around the person can give them. And my father loved and got confidence having David Axelrod around him you know the way I have I mean, look at the team I have. With all due respect, these people have worked around the clock they did a budget in the middle of this unprecedented response. Every morning have a briefing, new numbers, new facts. Melissa de Rosa, Rob Mujica, my health commissioner, Dr. Zucker, Jim Malatras, Gareth Rhodes. I mean, really extraordinary, and it gives me confidence.

But on this specific question, sorry, on the specific question. Look, you don't have that issue here. Look at what our doctors did, what our nurses did. Nobody knew what this virus was. I remember when HIV started. Nobody knew what it was, it was a death sentence and people were afraid to go near it. I opened a facility that helped people with AIDS and at that time to get it sited was incredibly difficult. People thought HIV was a death sentence and they just wanted have nothing to do with it here. It was this virus. You had doctors and nurses from day one. You didn't hear anyone say I'm not doing it, really remarkable. And they weren't getting the right protective equipment and they were working in emergency rooms that had a greater capacity than ever before. And it's just amazing what they've done here.

Chartock: It is amazing. So well, I had the book out. I said here, the governor is fiercely protective of his son Andrew, who is so active in assuring Cuomo’s political success. He refers to you affectionately one December when I was asking for his New Year's predictions. I asked him about his son Andrew’s future. Quote, “He will work even harder than he is working now. Which is difficult to believe.” That's something isn't it? I mean, that's quite a testimonial and it's also true. I don't know that I knew it at the time, but I sure know it now. So, moving on from that, you had a meeting. You talked today, earlier today about New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, but not Massachusetts, coming up with a plan to reopen the economy. Can we go there for a minute?

Cuomo: Yes, please. Look, that's going to be the next topic. Right? We have to get a head of this situation once and for all. We've been behind this virus from day one, Alan. So anticipating where it goes and getting there first, the next phase is going to be the reopening phase. It doesn't happen tomorrow but it will happen. Numbers start to plateau. People have been in their homes for a long time; they want out. They have cabin fever, you have the economy stuck, you have no revenue - you have no paychecks. So they'll go to reopening.

Now, how you do reopening is going to be the great question of all time. It's never been done before. And nobody knows what they're talking about. You look at some of these other countries around the globe that have reopened, and now they're having second thoughts. And they may have made missteps. South Korea has people who are negative and are positive again, I mean, you have data all over the place. But how do you do it? And how do you design a public health strategy and an economic reactivation strategy and combine them and then do it with states that are neighboring each other where if you don't take the same policy, you'll have people shopping jurisdictions. So it's a place that nobody's been before and how do you do it smartly, so that people have confidence in government, and that's always been the underlying issue.

I started all these briefings. I wanted to make sure the people of the state were with me, Alan, because the great question was not what policy does government declare, it was what government will people follow? I could have gone out there and announced the policy statewide and the people said, “Go to heck, I'm not doing it. I'm not locking myself in my house. You haven't proven the case.” So we have governors together, unprecedented. New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania - working together. Head of economic development, head of health for each state, and the governor's chief of staff to come up with a regional plan, or at least regional guidelines, or at least tell us where we'll have different policies - So we can coordinate.

Chartock: What about my state of Massachusetts - doesn't seem fair, and we have a Republican governor. Could that be the difference?

Cuomo: No, we're talking to Massachusetts. We have conversation with him today. We are coordinating with him. This “coalition” we put together relatively quickly, you know. It was literally over the weekend that we asked people to join the phone call, so don't take Massachusetts absence as emblematic of anything.

Chartock: Okay. Now, obviously there seems to be a little bit of a difference here between the roles of these governors you guys have all put together, and the President of the United States, who is saying off and on that it is his ability - he can open the economy anytime he wants. Can he?

Cuomo: He's the President of the United States. It's a big job. He has the Constitution. He has laws that provide limits on the executive but he's the president. And, look, the question has always been from the beginning of this: What role does the federal government play, and what role do the state's play? The president argued the opposite from early on. He said it's up to the states. Remember, the states should determine to close. So the states had to determine to close. I closed my state. But now the federal government, he thinks, has the responsibility to open.

Chartock: Well, does he? Do they?

Cuomo: He could argue that.

Chartock: No, he can argue anything. He can lie about anything. And he does. But I'm asking you, based on your understanding of federalism and the division of power between the states and the federal government. Does he have the power to say “close” or “open”?

Cuomo: He could, depending on how he does it and what laws he invokes. But that's not going to be the trick here. The trick is going to be, okay. What does that mean, Mr. President? I get the concept. A federal government declares it's open and we have to get back to work. People are liberated, get out, the cabin fever is over. Okay. What does that mean?

What does that mean, governmentally? What does the federal government do? And what do I do? Who does purchasing of equipment and supplies? Who does testing? Because I can't and states can't. I don't have the capacity to do testing. And it's a federally regulated issue with the FDA. How do you determine what opens and what stays closed? Are you going to give me a formula that says, this percentage of infection, this city opens? This percentage of infection, the city stays closed? What do I do about my schools, and my transportation and my businesses? Do i do it all at once? Tell me what that means, Alan. This is government. It's not politics. It's not a battle.

Chartock: Well actually, I hate to even try to correct you governor because that wouldn't work. But truly, it is a matter of politics. This is a president who faces reelection. Come on now. He knows if he doesn't open the economy, he's a dead chicken, unless you're a vegetarian. And one wonders whether or not that isn't the underlayment of this entire debate.

Cuomo: Okay, so let's say he wants to say the economy must open because this is unsustainable, either for governmental reasons or for political reasons. We won't have a way to look at his heart and soul. So let's say he says that, fine. Tell me what that means. Tell me what that means. I have local governments in my state. I have said that to them. I've said to them, it's a statewide emergency. Once I invoke statewide emergency, it means I override local governments. Here's my policy. This is what you must do. X, Y, Z. I will coordinate hospitals. I will coordinate the emergency response. We're closing all schools statewide period. I don't care. 700 school districts, 700 people yell at me. They are all closed. The businesses closed. Okay. He can do that to states. He's a president.

Chartock: No he can’t, no he can’t. Sorry about that. I taught political science all these years, I know that there's a there's a division of powers between the state and the federal government and he doesn't have that power.

Cuomo: Within limits, he has declared a federal emergency. He has emergency powers that he can invoke. And you're right, they're not unlimited. That's why I think it depends on how he does it and what he says and you'll hear whether or not he has a legal argument, the way he phrases it, because I'm sure the councils have looked at this issue for him.

But, look, you can make an argument that the federal policy is best here because it in fact affects the entire nation affects and infects. But then Alan, you're gonna have the responsibility of doing it. And when he, if he says the federal government is going to do this, okay, give me the rule for New York and New York City versus Albany versus Buffalo versus Texas versus North Dakota. Just give me the formula. Give me the rules. How are you gonna take responsibility?

Chartock: Okay, aren’t you just afraid of the guy? I mean, look, he has so much power that he can deliver to New York State or not. So you've been very careful. That's obvious to me. Been very careful not to say anything bad about Trump. I can say plenty of bad things about him and do all the time, but you don't because you're a governor and you got to produce for New York. Isn't that right?

Cuomo: I am in an emergency situation. I do not allow personal emotion. Personal emotion has nothing to do with this. Just put your ego aside, work with anyone who will help the state. We were in an emergency situation. I needed thousands of emergency hospital beds; he produced them with the Army Corps of Engineers. And I was not going to allow, because remember, I had a fractious relationship with him to begin with. It would have been irresponsible of me and it would be totally repugnant to my responsibility as I see it, to be gratuitously difficult, controversial or non-cooperative. That would have been irresponsible of me as a public official. However, even during that situation, when he did not do the right thing by the State of New York, I called him out. And I tell you the truth, he did deliver quickly on many situations, and I think part of it is the dynamic we have. He respects me and this state and he know that we would holler if he was not treating us fairly. And I respect that too.

Chartock: You respect that, but are you saying that you respect him? He respects you, but do you respect him?

Cuomo: I respect the relationship.

Chartock: Okay, okay, fair enough. So you're on with Howard Stern this morning. You were talking about Mario. And you know, with whom I had this show for all of these years, that out of everything comes this book, Me and Mario. I'm shameless about that, because there's still some copies left. So my question, sir, my question to you is, when you and Howard Stern were talking about this, you know, you referred to you and Mario’s speaking about tough times. Your marriage fell apart. He didn't get elected. What are your remembrances of all of that?

Cuomo: I remember it like it was yesterday. You know, people remember Mario Cuomo now it’s “Oh he is great, great, great.” Yeah, he lost people forget that, by the way, he lost. He lost and he was devastated. And then I lost and I was humiliated. And then I personally went through difficulties and we sat on the couch for four years. Four years as political dead men, right, just going back through what could have been what should have been - What should we have done differently?

And in my father's case, they write your political obituary, and you have to read it. It's worse when you die in political life because you are still alive. So you have to read the obituary, and then deal with it. And his obituary was great speaker of poetry, but didn't actually accomplish anything, which was so cheap, and so unfair, and so nasty. But it was also widespread. And we sat there and said, if we had to do it over and we had to do it, what would we do? And then miraculously, I get the chance to do it over.

I mean, first, the Attorney General's race was incredible, that I would have any political future, and then I become governor. And he was very vital at that point. And I said to him, Well, I, we lived the eulogy, and I am going to make sure in my term that I totally eradicate any negativity, even if it's false and unjustified. And the concept of not producing enough, this government is gonna produce more than ever before. And I believe this government has produced more on the record balanced by fact than any government since FDR, which was a very different situation.

Chartock: So let me assume that you're right. And that you have done all of that. Are you telling me you've done it better than your father?

Cuomo: No, he did it differently. He did it differently. But this is what I said to my daughter Michaela the other day. They, they, they. She was talking about what they say this about me on Twitter. They say this. I said, “Forget what they say. You know what they said about Grandpa Cuomo? Afterwards, they said he all he did was speak but he didn't produce. You know what they said about me? They said, I produced but I didn't speak, like Mario Cuomo. I wasn't that kind of communicator.” I said, “And now you know what they say. Now they say I'm a great communicator. What? He gets criticized for not producing enough. I come in I produce a lot, I get criticized for not spending as much time on the poetry as he did. And now they say, Oh, I'm actually a great communicator, with my briefings, talking to people about the facts, etc. Forget them, forget them. Do what you think is right.”

Chartock: How important is Mario in your life? I ask you that because I think I know the answer. I have a theory I've advanced it, some people don't like it. Some people do. I think you both love him, and love him to death and that you also compete with him, in a way, you know in terms of getting done what he couldn't get done. Is that wrong?

Cuomo: I wanted to complete the record for him. Out of love out of love. I said to him when they talk about the Governors Cuomo there will be nobody who can say “They did not do more to improve this state than any administration in history.” And look, I do see a connectivity and a continuity between the two of us, you know, what people don't get is I was very much a part of his administration, as you know.

Chartock: Yeah. Yeah.

Cuomo: They're not two separate chapters. I was involved in the first chapter also. So when they criticize that first chapter, as all talk no action, I was part of that. That was a criticism of me too. Right? So I take liability for that criticism during his term. I don't think it was fair, but fair doesn't really matter. You can still be hurtful and lasting. So, uh, yeah.

When I got the second chance at life, right, Lazarus boop. God says okay.  You spent enough time in purgatory. I'm going to give you another chance. Even though purgatory is now gone, but yes, I did get a chance to learn from the past. And I did produce. Now, what I was pointing out to Michaela. So then the criticism against me is, oh, all you did is produce. You didn't do the poetry like Mario Cuomo. I said, “Well, hold on a second. The only way we got here is because you said the problem with Mario Cuomo is he didn't produce. How ironic.” But now they say, and yes, I'm a great communicator better than Mario with these briefings, etc. None of it matters, none of it matters.

Chartock: You know, when you got married I asked him about it. And The Times thought it was relevant enough to print the whole thing in gauze. It was interesting, so I asked him about, you know, so I tried to tell him, I tried to ask him about it. I said, “Did you cry?” “I'm not gonna answer that question” he thundered back in response. “I'm not gonna answer that question,” he reiterated for effect. So I tried to tell him he wouldn't say no if he hadn't. But he saw the question coming and cut me as short as he could.

“It's none of your business,” said the governor. Then the governor pulled his usual tricky turn the tables and started to question me. “Well, what does cry mean? Do you mean tears? Oh, do you have to have tears to cry? Can you cry internally? Are you asking me? Is this just a little bit of regret when people are married? Or is this old joy on the part of the parents? This is wonderful. He won't be around as much as he used to be. He won't be there when I call all the time at 6:30 in the morning. I won't see him on the weekends all the time to play basketball. But this is great because now they go on to a new and full life. Is that what you're asking me?” I mean, is that a wonderful reprise? I mean, it's just unbelievable.

Cuomo: Yeah, but look, you knew he was not going to answer the question.

Chartock: He answered the question. He says, “He's not around to play basketball. He's not around so that I can call him at 6:30 in the morning.”

Cuomo: Yeah, but he would not say, “I cried.”

Chartock: No, like you got on Howard Stern today?

Cuomo: Yes. He asked me, did I cry? Which I was a little surprised by the question. But I said yes. Now I didn't give him the full…

Chartock: You didn’t say how when? Because - I'm sorry, I'm lost. Cry when Mario died or what?

Cuomo: No, no, he asked me if I cried during this situation. And I said yes. And I have about the death toll. It's very difficult for me to deal with on every level but my father would never say he cried. You know, he would not do intimate emotional communication. That is not what my father did. He was very private that way. He would intellectualize it, but it was not going to be personal emotion.

Chartock: Some say your father was more emotional with Christopher than he was with you. Is that a fair hit?

Cuomo: He was a different person with Christopher. Christopher came at a different point in life, you know, he was a much older father. You know, I had him he was young. He was, testosterone was high. He had to make it very competitive, working very hard. Total conflict situations, nasty campaigns, and everything was tough and hard. Christopher comes along. You know, he's in the mansion; he is governor. He's in a much different place in life, my father, much more relaxed. You know, he had climbed the hill at that time. You relax when you climb the hill, when you've climbed the hill.

Chartock: So what about the poetry? I mean, your father was a bit of a poet. Are you?

Cuomo: The poetry takes a tremendous amount of time. See there was something to their first point; the poetry takes a tremendous amount of time. I will do a speech the way he did a speech. But when I tell you, it can take, like I worked on this past State of the State, I must have spent six weeks doing that State of the State. It takes a lot of time. So you have to choose at one point.

Do you spend that much time doing this speeches? Or do you spend more time doing something else? Also, the speeches are not as impactful as they were back then. There was more attention to a speech. But even that is a little, he also said this, which is also confusing with the whole situation. After the keynote speech, Democratic Convention, keynote 1984. All of a sudden, he's a great speaker. And after that all his speeches were magnificent, magnificent. The reviews were incredible after the Democratic Convention speech, and he would say to me, “What a bunch of baloney because it's the same speech I gave before. I've been giving that speech for years.” Remember, he was already governor for two years when he gave the keynote speech. He said, “I was ever known as a great speaker. Now all of a sudden, I give a speech and I'm a great speaker. And now every speech becomes a great speech.” You know, part of it is the lens that they see you at that moment. He gives the keynote speech, all of a sudden, he's a great speaker. There's a crisis, and now all of a sudden, I'm a great crisis manager. I'm not doing anything different than I did. I do the exact same things - I do the PowerPoints that people mocked me for.

Chartock: Yeah, but you have an opportunity, the same kind of opportunity, frankly, that FDR had. You know, the thing about your father, which was so interesting to me over all of those years on that program, was that he could reach for a piece of poetry, and he would do it. He could do “Flanders Field” by heart he could do. And then one day I asked him about the pig in the gutter. You remember that one?

And, well, he and he out of nowhere, he said, “I know that one. One night in late October when I was far from sober, returning with my head, with my load of manly pride. My feet began to stutter and so I lay down in the gutter, and a pig came up and laid down by my side. As I lay down in the gutter thinking thoughts I could not utter a lady passing by was heard to say, you can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses and the pig got up and slowly walked away.” And I think, you know, he was thinking of all those guys who’d lay down in the gutter next to him. So he could come up with that stuff. Can you?

Cuomo: It is telling that the two of you would know that poem. What kind of mind and what kind of experience would remember that poem? Anyway, he spent a great deal of time at it. He enjoyed it. And he enjoyed it more than the other aspects of the business. You know, he would never get a budget done on time, and he just didn't care. He would not deal, he didn't have the patience to deal with the legislature. And he would lament, you remember, he would lament about their pettiness and their political nature. And they wouldn't take a gutsy stand. But he did that State of the State and assemblymen clapped. Yeah.

Chartock: Yeah, or to threaten them. And believe me, you've got their number and you make them sit up and heel, don't you?

Cuomo: Oh, he had much more of an adversarial relationship with them than I did those leader meetings that he used to have. I used to blush in his leader meetings. I remember Joe Bruno saying to me, “I have never been as verbally assaulted and abused as your father abused me in a leaders meeting.” It was incredible, remember he had Stanley Fink he had some really tough…

Chartock: Fink yeah, Fink could hold his own. I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, but he was a tough guy. That was for sure. Governor I so admire your willingness to come on and talk to us, as I have said many times, considering the fact that, you know, you could turn on CNN and see you and it's with a group of wonderful reporters. So, it's very good of you to spend some time with us and I so appreciate it. Come again, will you?

Cuomo: Sure will. Thank you, doctor. Stay safe out there.

Chartock: Well you too, sir.

Cuomo: Thanks, buddy. Thanks, bye.

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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