The governor who in large measure has defined states' up-and-down fight against the coronavirus, including occasional combat with the White House, is poised to widen his national spotlight.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the reins of the National Governors Association on Wednesday during a meeting held virtually because of the disease.
Cuomo, who was tapped for the position in 2018, said governors who've shouldered the brunt of responding to COVID-19 will unite to prepare for the next virus and control a pandemic still taking the lives of thousands.
The new chair said governors will push for a federally funded infrastructure plan, while asking for “unprecedented testing capacity” and stockpiles of protective gear, supplies and medicine. He said governors would help each other safely revitalize economies and schools and fix beleaguered public health systems.
“There has never been a moment when state governments have been more instrumental in the lives of the people of this country,” he said, adding: “We now have shown what states can do.”
The association representing governors in all 50 states and territories has long focused on training and lobbying for federal aid, but it's emerged from the political shadows since the pandemic erupted in the U.S. The chairman who is handing off to Cuomo, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, has pushed the group to put bipartisan pressure on the Trump administration to provide supplies and budget help to the states.
In a recent interview, Hogan noted times when President Donald Trump would “bristle because he wants people to thank him for the job he’s done and to say everything’s great.”
“But my job as chairman of the governors was to stand up for the governors and kind of speak out,” Hogan said. “I’ve praised them when they made progress, but I’ve also been, as nicely as I could, you know, pushed them when I thought they needed to get something else done.”
Cuomo signaled Wednesday he'll follow his predecessor's bipartisanship — but the governor hasn't been shy from using the sharp-elbow approach when needed with Trump. While he has worked with Trump to secure more ventilators and has praised the president at times, he has blasted the administration in recent weeks.
He criticized it for failing to mandate masks nationwide, waiting until mid-March to ban travel from Europe and not providing additional aid to state governments beyond an initial infusion of cash in early spring. Unlike Trump, Cuomo’s approval ratings have risen as he's used highly-watched televised appearances to position himself as a steady, data-driven alternative.
“Every American knows this was the worst government blunder in modern history,” Cuomo said earlier this week. “Not since the Vietnam War have Americans sat in their living room to see the numbers on the TV screen every night saying what a mistake it was.”
Trump, for his part, has rarely attacked Cuomo — an indication of a begrudging respect between the two, who grew up in nearby Queens neighborhoods.
That relationship could benefit the NGA, said political consultant Harry Giannoulis, a former senior aide to Cuomo’s late father and former governor, Mario Cuomo, said.
Cuomo also has chastised governors in states where the virus is surging for failing to learn lessons about the coronavirus that New York grappled with this spring, when the dead piled up by the thousands in New York City. Cuomo himself has been criticized for New York’s high COVID-19 death toll at nursing homes.
Cuomo will have his work cut out for him as he seeks consensus among governors across the political spectrum — currently 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats.
"If someone doesn’t like it, they’re just going to quit," University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Chris Mooney said. The NGA's "incentive is to keep as many members possible.”
Cuomo’s elevated profile could help the governors association become more influential as it lobbies for $500 billion in unrestricted federal aid to states, which remains a contentious bargaining point as congressional Democrats and Republicans struggle to compromise on another big coronavirus relief package.
“Here’s one of the biggest national crises going on in the country and these governors are in the spotlight, empowered on this issue,” Giannoulis said. “And here’s Andrew Cuomo, who’s widely seen as having handled this issue.”
The third-term, 62-year-old governor has repeatedly said he isn't running for president this year and claims he isn’t focused on politics. Cuomo has brought Northeast governors together to collaborate on issues such as travel restrictions and is now sending his staff to help other states with testing, tracing and protective gear.
“What’s going to happen is Cuomo will continue to speak out probably,” said University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Chris Mooney. “And then every time he speaks out, he’s going to be labeled as the chair of the National Governors Association."
The incoming vice chairman, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, said he isn't concerned about Cuomo using the association as a platform to take digs at the Trump administration. He said the association is most effective when it advocates on behalf of problems facing all states, such as increasing virus testing and shoring up budgets.
Cuomo could use his new national platform to seek more uniformity among the states in how they are responding to the virus surge, perhaps influencing national policy.
“A lot of the most thorny political issues, you’re just going to leave off the table because you’re not going to have an agreement,” said former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who led the NGA once Trump took office.