Andrew Cuomo’s Case for 2020—No, Really
The New York governor could jump into the presidential race if Joe Biden doesn't run.
NEW YORK—Here’s how Andrew Cuomo ends our first interview at the beginning of January, sitting in a chair in his office, after eating cookie No. 4 from the tray his staff prepared. I put a simple question to him: “Would you like to be president?” He dodges it over and over by talking about how much he wants to do his job as governor well. Finally he says, Well, Joe Biden is running anyway.
A lot of people think Biden is going to run, I acknowledge, and the former vice president certainly seems to be moving in that direction. But Biden looked like he was about to run in 2015 too, only to end speculation at the last minute. So: What if he doesn’t?
“Call me back,” Cuomo says, and puts his hand out immediately to shake, ending a conversation that lasted through a bathroom break and a theatrical phone call with his daughter, in which he begged her not to try cooking him dinner because she’d make too much of a mess of the pots.
A Cuomo interview is a manic chess game. It’s hard not to feel his hand trying to guide every move, constantly recalculating and recalibrating, and going off the record to embellish a point or ingratiate himself. It’s also hard not to feel his actual hand: Sort of for emphasis and sort of for dominance, he’ll grab a foot or knee, quickly lean forward with his big body, and stare until he’s not the one who breaks. He never wants to be the one who breaks.
Cuomo doesn’t do much reflecting on himself, especially in public. But in two long interviews in person, and over the phone, on the record and off, we spent well over five hours talking about why he thinks so many Democrats hate him, the psychodrama that gets read into every mention of his father, and what he thinks Nancy Pelosi and others in Washington have to learn from him. At one point, he even started drafting on the fly what he’d want in his own eulogy.
Cuomo can be irritating, confounding, and egotistical. He can also be engaging, intense, and charismatic. He deliberately stands apart from the leftward tilt of his party, but his record of bills signed into law on many core progressive issues is unmatched by any other Democrat, in D.C. or the states, with the possible exception of Jerry Brown. He wins in landslides, but most politicians in New York and beyond can’t stand him.
He doesn’t fit easily into the Democratic Party and has, at least for now, taken himself out of the two-year-long battle over its identity. Is there a place in national politics for a man who has spent a career lighting bridges on fire and obsessing over power plays in Albany that don’t matter at all outside New York? Is there a place for a person who gets tagged as a moderate? Who doesn’t get into the presidential mix himself?
And yet: As Democrats are desperate to show they can bring more results than promises, he is a three-term governor of one of the biggest, most complicated states, with a long list of accomplishments. As Democrats worry that the party’s 2020 nominee won’t be able to take on Donald Trump, he is another brash Queens guy, and just as eager to throw around his machismo and bravado.
He’s waiting on Biden. Other than that, Cuomo clearly thinks he has a stronger case to make than any of the people running right now. But not so strong that he’s ready to actually make it.
Now in his third term, Cuomo is the longest currently serving governor in America. He handily defeated Cynthia Nixon, a leftist, lesbian television actress, last fall. Cuomo won more votes, as he and his staff eagerly point out and then point out again, than anyone else in the history of New York. He will note that anyone else in this case includes both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mario Cuomo, his father and role model and constant reference point.
Thanks to his father, who in December 1991 famously had a plane on the runway ready to go to New Hampshire to file his presidential run, then announced that he couldn’t do it because the state Senate Republicans were fighting him over the budget, Cuomo gets tagged as a new Hamlet on the Hudson, this time with the ghost of Mario on the parapets.
Mario Cuomo, of course, was the great liberal hero who gave the amazing Democratic National Convention keynote in 1984 taking on Ronald Reagan and his vision for America. Reagan talked about America as a “city on a hill,” Cuomo said, but “not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory.” The Democrats, led by their nominee, Walter Mondale, and heading for their greatest electoral loss ever, were for a brief moment reminded, and inspired, by what they stood for. Andrew Cuomo has a long draft of an op-ed that he started writing last summer, laying out a case for what the Democratic Party should and can be, but that he has so far held off from publishing anywhere.
The differences between the Cuomos are huge: Mario would blow up in a rage, while Andrew tends to bide his time for revenge; Mario was more of a book guy, while Andrew is more of a car guy. Andrew ran his father’s campaigns as his political bruiser; Mario wrote policy memos for his son’s campaigns and taped cards from supporters to them with long notes explaining why he should call them. Then, as if out of a novel, Mario died on the night of Andrew’s second inauguration four years ago, hours after listening to the swearing-in over the phone. Andrew barely gives a speech without mentioning his father; in his inaugural address in January, he said, “I took him from his bed that afternoon, and we put him to rest. I loved him so, so, so much.”
Speaking to me a few weeks after the speech, Cuomo said he’s always amused to see what gets read into their relationship. For many, he says, it’s a Rorschach test of “how they relate to their own fathers and what they think about that.” There was, and is, no competition, he says.
“He was my best friend. He was my best ally. My best colleague. Brilliant. Principled,” he says.
When Mario would show up at his son’s campaign events, Andrew remembers telling the crowd, “You know, my father believes that nobody looks at the first name on the ballot when they walk into the booth. So they think they just voted for Cuomo. He thinks they were voting for him. So he really believes he won.” The crowd would laugh, Andrew says. “And it was a vindication of him. That’s a very sweet thing that a son can also do for a father.”
Mario Cuomo was the one who came up with “Campaign in poetry, govern in prose” line. Andrew Cuomo campaigns in Robert Browning monologues and governs in wannabe John le Carré.
A few hours before our first interview in January, two days after New Year’s, Cuomo did his brash, I-get-things-done routine in announcing a big new plan to stop what would have been a two-year shutdown of the L train, which connects parts of Brooklyn that don’t have any other subway access to Lower Manhattan. It had been running through tunnels that have been crumbling since they flooded with seawater when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.
People had been flipping out about the impending shutdown for years. Thousands had moved to new neighborhoods to avoid it. Stores were going out of business. Then Cuomo entered the picture with a flourish, first with a surprise December tour of the tunnels that for some reason he did in the middle of the night, and then with this rollout in early January, at which he was joined at his Manhattan office by a panel of experts who’d spent the holidays working up plans. They explained how they would keep the L train running by coating the crumbling tunnel walls with a polymer, rather than rebuilding them, and doing it at night, with relatively minimal disruption. No shutdown.
You’d think people would be happy. That’s not how New York works.
The reporters arrived confident in their own instant high-level engineering expertise. Why hadn’t the administration thought of this before? They’d had years to find a solution, they’d done studies, and all of a sudden Cuomo was riding in at the last minute to save the day? Well, Cuomo said, he’d decided to give it one last shot, and lucky for him, the experts he’d tapped had a series of technological epiphanies.
Okay, the reporters said, but how could they trust that the untested technology would work? It wasn’t untested, Cuomo said. It was just new to America—they’d mashed together solutions from Europe and Asia and come up with a plan. Okay, but if it hadn’t been done in America before, how were American workers going to do it? Well, Cuomo said, they’d be trained. But what about this material they were going to coat the tunnel walls with—how could anyone trust that it would hold? “It’s not glue that you’re caulking your bathroom with. It’s a fiberglass polymer,” Cuomo ribbed back.
The press conference was a 90-minute absurdist parody. When it was over, the academic experts that Cuomo had convened rode down in the elevator together, trying to make sense of what they’d just lived through.
The subways in New York have become a well-known joke in the past few years. Trains run late and stop in tunnels, holding for what seems like no reason at all. (Naturally, a delay of my own almost made me late to this very press conference.) Fares keep going up. Every improvement project is behind schedule.
During the primary, when Cynthia Nixon made the failing subways a centerpiece of her campaign—she also got stuck in a few kismet delays, including when she was on the way to her own kickoff rally last spring—Cuomo responded by saying he didn’t control the MTA and couldn’t be blamed for what was going wrong.
Yet here he was, when he could be the hero in solving a problem with the MTA, taking the credit for what was going right. He decided to fix the problem, he convened the experts, he announced the solution. And because it felt like such a sudden, deus ex machina fix, many started to suspect that it wouldn’t actually happen, or that maybe, years from now, probably long after Cuomo was gone, the not-fully-tested solution would collapse and people would die.
Meanwhile, the reporters, angry at the latest abuse of Cuomo’s staff—leaking the news to The New York Times—loaded their coverage with doubts and unanswered questions. A response that had begun with Pat Kiernan, the best-known NY1 news anchor, nearly dancing in the street by an L stop had by the evening completely soured.
This is what happens. Even when there is good news, Cuomo’s scheming breeds suspicion from reporters, activists, and other politicians. And in the end, this mistrust often poisons whatever victories he has.
What comes up most in talking about Cuomo is how people hate him. Especially liberals. So much. In their bones, and in their souls, and in their Twitter feeds. Why? Everything, they say: He’s a sellout. A moderate. Maybe even a closet Republican. He maneuvered to support that breakaway group of Democrats in the state Senate so that he wouldn’t get boxed in to a more liberal agenda that he didn’t want (which Cuomo denied in words while acting in ways that helped them directly and indirectly).
He is in a constant grudge match with his old staffer and current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio that makes both come off like toddlers poking each other in the back seat of a car. (“Do you feel like it’s gotten too petty at points?” I ask Cuomo, to which he responds, “I don’t believe I have gotten too petty.”)
He set off rage locally and nationally for putting out a flyer in his reelection campaign that not so subtly accused Cynthia Nixon of being an anti-Semite—and then refused to take responsibility for it. Progressives also took offense at the way he threw himself at landing the Amazon headquarters, even joking once that he’d be ready to change his name to Amazon Cuomo to seal the deal for bringing 25,000 jobs to a new headquarters in Queens. When the company pulled out on February 14 because of continuing resistance from left-leaning local politicians, despite the deal’s popularity with the public, Cuomo responded by lashing out at the “small group [of] politicians [who] put their own narrow political interests above their community,” adding, “They should be held accountable for this lost economic opportunity.” As recently as this week, Cuomo was working behind the scenes to lure Amazon back to Queens, reaching out directly to Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder, The New York Times reported.
Starting with gay marriage, Cuomo’s string of big progressive accomplishments have all left a trail of enemies in the Democratic Party. Democrats had been talking about passing a gay-marriage bill for years. But they couldn’t muster the votes when they last controlled both houses of the legislature, in 2009–10. When Cuomo first took office as governor, in 2011, the state Senate had flipped Republican, thanks in part to the breakaway caucus of moderate Democrats who threw their lot in with the GOP. The so-called Independent Democratic Conference wasn’t voted out of power until the midterms last fall, finally returning Senate control to the Democrats.
The newly elected Cuomo gathered allies and advocates shortly after assuming office and told them he was going to take control of the process. The horse-trading and arm-twisting began—starting with Danny O’Donnell, an openly gay Democratic assemblyman from Manhattan who’d been the lead sponsor of the bill for a decade. Cuomo wanted O’Donnell to give over the management of the bill to his team. O’Donnell resisted and told Cuomo’s team members they didn’t know what they were doing.
Now Cuomo was invested, and he needed the win. One morning, the assemblyman remembers getting a phone call from the governor’s then chief of staff. Here’s the way it’s going to work, O’Donnell says he was told. Either he could give up and let Cuomo pass the bill, or he could make things difficult. If he made things difficult, he should think about the consequences. At some point soon, Cuomo’s chief of staff said, he himself wouldn’t be in government anymore, and he’d be making a lot of money in the private sector, but he’d wake up every day thinking of how to make O’Donnell’s life miserable.
“You’ll never work again,” O’Donnell remembers being told. “I’ll make it my mission in life to destroy you.”
O’Donnell gave in. A few months later, the bill passed, with four Republicans voting for it in the Senate. At the time, New York was the biggest state, and one of the first, to legalize gay marriage. It got done. O’Donnell stood behind Cuomo at the bill signing. But he says he still hasn’t forgiven him for what happened.
“It’s only about getting him credit,” O’Donnell tells me. “He only cares about credit.” O’Donnell married his husband in 2012. He didn’t endorse Cuomo for reelection in 2014 or 2018. But the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, endorsed Cuomo both times—and featured him as a speaker at the group’s annual New York gala this month.
Almost every legislator in Albany is furious with Cuomo about something. Most are furious with him about many things and can rattle off a list of clashes and slights and screaming matches. For Democrats, those have all come together into the mega-outrage of turning around on eight years of deals with Republicans to promote his Justice Agenda, which Cuomo unveiled in December.
Its components range from legalizing marijuana to a middle-class tax cut to a state-level Green New Deal. Unveiling it in December, Cuomo made himself out as the modern-day Franklin Roosevelt, explicitly. “While our ship of state is sailing well, the ocean in which it is sailing is tempest-tossed,” he said, trying for poetry at the beginning of his remarks during an event announcing his plans, in a room that had been packed with leading supporters to clap for him. “There are no more excuses, my friend,” he said, in a very Cuomo flourish. “Now is the time to lead.”
Nixon responded, from her post-primary political retirement, by taking credit on Twitter for everything he’d proposed, arguing that her losing campaign was “worth it” for moving him to the left. Democrats laughed at the governor who’d spent the previous eight years triangulating for suddenly turning himself into the man storming the gates. “These are bills the Assembly has already done and our members have long fought for,” Mike Whyland, the communications director for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, tweeted in frustration on New Year’s Day, as Cuomo boasted in his inaugural address about his ideas on what to do next. People in Albany will yell at Cuomo behind closed doors, but Heastie himself later declined to comment.
“The governor is the Tom Brady of New York politics,” Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, insists. “People will complain, people will privately backbite, but at the end of the day, they know that he’s able to put the ball in the end zone. That’s the disconnect.”
Cuomo says he sees that discord as the world of advocates being too caught up in their own agendas to care about the people they represent. “The ‘professional left’ to me is the greatest scam in history. What does it mean, ‘professional left’? Basically, a sham set of groups that are fronts for labor unions,” Cuomo says. “They were all with Cynthia Nixon, the professional left.” He drew a distinction between the professional left and regular liberal Democratic voters, with whom he says he has a 70 percent approval rating—and with whose votes he “blew out the standard-bearer of the professional left.”
Or, as DeRosa summarized it in our conversation: “What 2018 proved is just how irrelevant they are. If you’re trying to shoot the bear, you’d better kill the bear. All they did was prove their impotence by going up as hard as they did and coming up short.”
The people Cuomo counts as the professional left have an even worse opinion of him, and his record is irrelevant to them. He’s raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour in New York City. In-state college tuition is now free, which he announced at an event with Bernie Sanders. Twelve-week paid family leave is the law across the state. New York has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, which Cuomo rammed through in the weeks after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, while Barack Obama was still naming the members of the special commission he ordered, which made the big move of … ordering up more mental-health studies. And then, of course, there was the bill legalizing gay marriage back in 2011, when that was an out-on-a-limb achievement. Joe Biden didn’t accidentally disclose the Obama administration’s support for same-sex marriage until 2012.
Pramila Jayapal, a Washington congresswoman and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, dismisses Cuomo as “a politician’s politician. He is not a movement politician; he’s not the person who comes up with the bold ideas first and does the work to push it forward.” Most of Cuomo’s progressive accomplishments, such as gay marriage, are what big donors want anyway, she says. When I pointed to issues such as raising the minimum wage or offering free public college, Jayapal said, “You can be a politician’s politician and tough to move on an issue until you see a public out there that’s clamoring. You still deserve credit for getting it done, but where were you when an issue was not popular?”
Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, the other co-chair, started giggling when I asked him whether he considered Cuomo a progressive. What about his progressive accomplishments? I asked him. “New York’s such an interesting state,” he said, ducking the questions. “I don’t know enough about him.” But he knew about progressives saying they hate Cuomo, he said. I asked him whether he knew anything about what’s behind that hatred. “Not really,” Pocan said.
Over the course of a few weeks, I tried to get Ezra Levin, a co-founder of Indivisible, a grassroots political movement aimed at electing progressives, to talk about Cuomo. Levin had laid into the governor on Twitter several times during last year’s primary race, in which Indivisible had endorsed Nixon. Eventually Levin passed the request on to the communications director, who provided by email a quote to be attributed to María Urbina, the group’s national political director. “In national progressive circles, it’s well known that he propped the state senate group known as the IDC up for many years prior to his reelection,” the statement read, referring to the group of breakaway moderate Democrats who voted with Republicans and kept the chamber in the GOP’s hands for the past eight years. “He will have to contend with that record just like anyone else if he wants to win the trust of Democratic voters and progressive grassroots activists.” She didn’t follow up when asked about the laws he passed.
Other progressive Democrats see him, less flatteringly, as a model for how a throwback Democrat who still idolizes Bill Clinton gets dragged into what the party is becoming.
But when all the rage against Cuomo was put to the test last year, he got 66 percent of the vote in a primary in one of the bluest states in the nation, in which he was running as a moderate older white man from a political dynasty against Cynthia Nixon in a year dominated by anti-establishment and female politics. Even in one of the bluest states in the country, the number of primary voters interested in the kind of aggressive progressive politics that have come to dominate the conversation among Democrats nationally proved to be less than 35 percent.
In the same congressional district that elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a giant-toppling primary in June, Cuomo beat Nixon by 38 points in September. He made sure to remind me of that too. He makes sure to remind a lot of people about that. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, who worked with Cuomo when he was in the state assembly, understands his method and continues to be an ally: “There will be a hard-left crowd that is never satisfied, but when you look at the things that he has accomplished with respect to gun safety, a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, criminal-justice reform, and marriage equality, he has made a tremendous difference in the lives of millions of New Yorkers.”
Jeffries was elected the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House in December, and many people see him as a future speaker. In the meantime, Jeffries says that Cuomo “can serve as a model for executive leadership that Democrats can look to once we seize the White House in 2020.”
Cuomo insists he’s deferred to Biden for 2020, though it’s obvious to some who’ve talked to him that White House dreams still lurk in his head, and that a part of him would like to be running the country and putting his stamp, his way, on the Democratic Party and beyond.
He believes the way to win is the same way he’s won in New York: by being a walking, talking embodiment of the modern political cliché that Twitter isn’t real life. When he looks at the Democrats who are already in the race, he makes a point of noting how many of them he knows, even as he makes clear that he doesn’t think any of them measure up.
“I know how to do what everybody’s talking about doing. They’re all talking about how to fly an airplane. None of them have flown. And that’s a big difference when you get in the seat and you buckle the seat belt. And we just had a guy who spoke about flying a plane. And never flew. It’s not as easy as it looks. I know how to do affordable housing. I know how to bring jobs to the middle class. I know how to build infrastructure,” he told me, in one of his typical brush-offs of Trump.
Cuomo has had two White House meetings with Trump, who he doesn’t believe can govern much at all. The first came in late November. Cuomo had asked for the meeting to discuss federal funding for a big tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan. Trump, he says, was all about the border wall, with constant digressions.
“Experience matters, because in a private life, you regulate what you subject yourself to. You’re feeling under siege, you’re feeling insecure, you take it easy. You stay home. In this business, you can’t step out of the batter’s box,” Cuomo says. “He is personally and emotionally motivated. He is without long-term strategy and tactics, and he’s scared.”
Scared of what? I ask.
“All these investigations. All these people, what do they know?” Cuomo says. Trump “led the life he led, played life the way he played it. Now the closest people to him are talking. That’s frightening. I think it has him clinging tighter to his base. Uh, which is not enough to win.”
I ask him to assess Trump’s reelection chances.
“He’s lost a lot [of supporters] who have lost faith in him. Once you lose faith in the person, the message loses credibility,” Cuomo says. “It was a vision, and he came in credible. He was apparently a billionaire—who knows what he really is. He was a businessman, outsider, successful, articulate. And a fresh face. He had all that going for him. Now he is mercurial. Obnoxious. Alienating.”
Democrats, Cuomo says, still don’t get it: Voters across America don’t want bold policy proposals; they want money in their pockets and worries off their plates. They don’t trust government, and they don’t trust the Democrats as the party of government, because they’ve heard years of high-minded promises and they’re still struggling. They want to know what they’re getting for their anxiety and their anger beyond more words about ideas that will never go anywhere or, if they do, will only benefit others.
“The Republicans do it negatively. ‘They did nothing for you. Absolutely nothing. Everything is for somebody else—you got nothing,’” he says, explaining his sense of the GOP line. “All right. If you believe in the positive, then you ought to fill that void with the positive. No, the Democratic Party hasn’t done enough. If I pushed you, you would say, ‘Well, Obama’s affordable health care.’ Yes. A positive. I did the best health exchange in the country; we affected about 2 million people. Positive. Not enough to fill the void, but a positive. Uh, but not enough. Are we doing enough in this state? Still not enough.”
Four million people got raises when he signed off on the minimum-wage increase—and those are 4 million voters, Cuomo points out. Everyone got paid family leave. Everyone who was worried about saving enough money to send kids to college saw tuition disappear at state schools. Thousands of people have jobs because of all his building projects, and hundreds of thousands more see those projects under way and can see government at work. When Election Day rolled around, Cuomo says, they voted based on that, not on the chatter.
Clearly, in the context of the 2020 presidential race, Cuomo wants his fellow Democrats to give him credit for what he thinks is cracking the code to political effectiveness. He wants to be called a progressive. And he wants it to be seen as his choice not to run for president—not that he’s been scared out of the race by any of the people who are running or any of the issues about his past and the feelings he inspires. The word he kept using for himself was model, as in, he is the model for Democratic success.
Biden and Cuomo talk often. The two share an assessment of what voters actually want, and it’s part of what’s convincing the former vice president that—against most normal calculations that would take him out of the race for president—there is a pathway for him right down the ignored center of the Democratic Party and the country.
“He knows what he’s talking about, he’s experienced, he is relatable, he knows how to get things done, he wants to get things done, he’s not blowing smoke, he’s not a blue-sky puffer,” Cuomo says, explaining his support for the former vice president. “He’s not, ‘Health care for all, Social Security for all! Everything for all!’”
Our first interview, back in early January, was on the day Nancy Pelosi officially took the gavel to become House speaker again. If Pelosi wants to keep the majority, Cuomo believes, she’ll need to protect the people in swing districts more than the ones who’ve been the most vocal about moving the party to the left. What she’s going through reminds him of how he says he’s trying to keep Democrats from overreaching in Albany, as they did the last time they had full control, back in 2009. They lost the state Senate in 2010, after a sprint of dysfunction, corruption, and city-minded fiscal moves.
Cuomo said in his inauguration speech that he feels “liberated” now that the Democrats got the state Senate back in November. Since the primaries, leaders in the legislature and their allies among advocates have been bubbling about boxing Cuomo in to embrace their agenda. But he’s moved quickly to co-opt control and says that he’s the real progressive—the one who’s been getting it done all along.
Take the minimum wage, he says. He signed a bill raising it to $15 an hour in New York City and a lower rate for upstate, among other compromises, which he says were the only way he could get Republicans to support any of the changes. “They wouldn’t give it to me. Everything was half a loaf. Three-quarters of a loaf. Four-fifths of a loaf,” he says. “But it was never everything I wanted. Half a loaf is better than nothing. But that’s what I’ve been living with.”
I tell Cuomo that there are people who are just as convinced that he’s a bad person, that he’s scheming all the time, playing people off each other, hogging the spotlight for his own tactical gains. What’s bottled up bursts out.
“Look, I’ve done focus groups out the wazoo. ‘How could he do business with the Republicans?’ Seven years I stood next to them and praised them,” Cuomo says. “If you’re a purist Democrat, you can’t rationalize that I worked with Republicans.”
I ask Cuomo, if he sees himself as the model for the country, how progressive he is prepared to go.
“Single payer. Okay. Pass it. I’ll sign it. You pass it, I’ll sign it,” Cuomo says.
But … would he want to sign it?
“No, but no sane person will pass it,” he says.
So he’s daring the legislature to pass it?
“Oh no. If they pass it, I’ll sign it,” he says.
Even though he thinks it’ll blow up the state budget?
“Yeah, well, you’d double everybody’s taxes. You want to do that? Let’s go,” he says. “They can never pass it. But I have no problem with the dare. Every union is against it. The hospitals are against it. The Civil Service Employees Association is against it. The 1199 health-care union is against it. That is the only issue. Marijuana, I’m there. Voting rights, I’m there. Contraceptive Care Act? I’m there first. Anything else you can name, I’m there.”
His thinking on health care will undoubtedly affect his role as policy chair for the Democratic Governors Association, though no one is quite clear what that entails. He puts out statements about bills and court decisions when he can find a connection to New York. And he’s trying to turn into a cause the provision in Trump’s tax law that limits the federal deduction for state and local taxes to $10,000, effectively a backdoor tax increase for many in high-tax states such as New York.
He went back to the White House in February to meet with Trump on this, though this time their meeting was just a discussion over sodas. He came out insisting that House Democrats “should not do anything of any significance” until the president restores the deduction, and last week he got the governors of New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, and Oregon to join him at a press conference at which he declared that Trump had started “an economic civil war between Republican states and Democratic states.” He followed it up on Monday with a big event in New York, where he had Nancy Pelosi join him at the table as he signed a new gun law, which creates a provision for judges and others to stop sales to anyone deemed an immediate risk.
Cuomo spent years saying he was so uninterested in national politics that he wouldn’t even leave the state on vacation. Then came the primary last year, and he started piping up against Trump every chance he got. Now he’s looking for a way to stay involved.
Ifinally managed to arrange my second sit-down interview with Cuomo on January 25, the day Trump’s friend and confidant Roger Stone was arrested, the air-traffic-controller sick-out nearly closed down LaGuardia Airport, and Trump gave in on the shutdown without getting anything he’d wanted other than a guarantee of TV time for the State of the Union address.
There had been weeks of false starts and promises of talking again, with Cuomo trying to set up phone calls on a moment’s notice because he decided he had a point to make, focusing on more immediate fights with politicians and local reporters, and repeatedly urging me to read a draft of an op-ed he wrote about the future of the Democrats but not allowing me to quote from it. And to be clear, it was always Cuomo, not his staff, making the arrangements. (As he once told an upstate radio host who had complained about getting the runaround from Cuomo’s people: “My people? I have no people. I’m my people.”)
A few hours before the second interview, Cuomo signed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, his latest progressive feat. GENDA protects LGBTQ people from being fired or facing other repercussions, and bans conversion therapy. Similar legislation has bounced around Washington for years without going anywhere, and many other states have actually gone in the opposite direction, either legalizing discrimination or trying and failing to stop it.
At the bill signing, he sat in the front row in a room at the Center, the historic home to gay and lesbian activism in the West Village, running his thumb over the words on the few note cards he’d prepared. He didn’t look up or move as Glennda Testone, the executive director of the Center, called out all the other supporters in the crowd. He smiled briefly when she mentioned his name, called him a national champion of LGBTQ rights, and praised his “unwavering commitment to our community.”
When Cuomo came to the microphone, he said he was emotional, thinking how long the struggle on gay rights had taken. With that on his mind and the planes at LaGuardia in the air, he let loose. “The good news is that in light of the federal madness, it makes what New York does even more important. What you’re seeing here is a juxtaposition between one philosophy and one mentality in Washington, and New York is laying out a totally different alternative and philosophy,” he said. “People are too tired of just talking and saying, ‘My position is this,’ and ‘I propose this,’ and ‘I believe this.’ Who cares at one point what you think and what you believe? What did you do to make my life better? What did you do to secure my rights? What have you accomplished for me?”
On his way out, a local politician noticed me taking notes on the speech. “Is the announcement coming?” the person asked, then joked that with the way Cuomo is structuring the rollout of this Justice Agenda, “100 days is either a countdown or a count-up.” I asked the politician to say that on the record. The response was a closed-lip headshake. No point in saying something nice and seeming like a traitor to the others. No point in saying something mean and worrying about how Cuomo might make an issue of it.
Later, during our interview, Cuomo made it clear that he thinks most of the Democrats running for president are going off a cliff, feeling out how far left they can go while still saying Sanders is too far left. Cuomo believes he’s the only one who’s figured out how to be cozy with Sanders in the right way while keeping his distance and not giving up too much.
Again, I told him, that sounds like he could be making an argument for himself as a presidential candidate. Long before he could try to end the interview without answering, I asked him what he’ll do if Biden doesn’t end up running. He made it sound like I was stringing together all sorts of hypotheticals, when in fact it was just one, and a simple one at that. But once again, he made sure to leave the door open. “If, if, if, if,” he said. “Call me when we get the fifth if.”