Cuomo and de Blasio: A Tale of Two Leaders

The two Democrats have been a study in contrasts as the Empire State becomes the epicenter of the global coronavirus outbreak.

Mike Segar / Tom Brenner / Reuters / The Atlantic

At about 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Bill de Blasio had just finished a live interview on MSNBC when he heard from someone who, just hours earlier, the New York mayor had viciously attacked for deserting his city in its hour of desperation.

President Donald Trump was on the phone.

It was the first time the two leaders had spoken in months. After badgering the president on television for weeks, de Blasio was finally able to appeal to him directly for the ventilators, hospital beds, face masks, gowns, and other supplies New York City needs imminently as it becomes the frightening epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

“The president of the United States is from New York City, and he will not lift a finger to help his hometown, and I don’t get it,” de Blasio had said that morning on Meet the Press. “I can’t be blunt enough. If the president doesn’t act, people will die who could have lived otherwise.”

Later that night, after a phone call with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence that aides said lasted more than 30 minutes, de Blasio’s tone toward the White House softened. He gave Trump and Pence credit for “a serious, detailed conversation.” The next morning, the first 400 additional ventilators had arrived in New York City, with hundreds more on the way.

The delivery was but a tiny first step, a fraction of what city hospitals will need from the federal government in the coming weeks, according to de Blasio and his unchosen partner in this scramble to save New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo. Coronavirus cases in New York City have soared past 20,000 in the past week, making up more than a quarter of infections nationwide. Calls to the city’s emergency-response system have surged to levels not seen since 9/11, and the sound of ambulance sirens fills the air every few minutes. But as New York struggles to suppress a pandemic that is rapidly overwhelming its health-care system, de Blasio—and the 8.6 million people he leads—can only hope that a phone call between two men who despise each other will mark a turning point.

Over the past few weeks, New Yorkers confined to their cramped apartments have probably seen and heard more from their two main leaders, de Blasio and Cuomo, than they have in the past year or longer. Millions more Americans watching on cable news have gotten to know them, too.

The pair of Democrats share a party, but little else. De Blasio, in the second half of his second and final term at city hall, is a movement progressive whose focus turned national almost as soon as he was elected in 2013, culminating last year in a run for president that was remarkable only for how little support it generated. Cuomo, on the other hand, has rarely strayed far from the Empire State in nearly a decade as governor; more feared than loved by Democrats, he’s racked up an impressive streak of progressive policy wins—and two relatively easy reelection victories—even while alienating the party’s left wing with his fiscal restraint and domineering style. Within New York City, Cuomo has been known as the governor who neglected the city’s once-vaunted subway system and then tried to cast off blame for its descent into disrepair. The de Blasio–Cuomo relationship, meanwhile, is almost comically dysfunctional, marked by rifts both important and petty. (The two once fought over the handling of a single deer loose in Harlem; the buck died.)

Now, however, the mayor and the governor are joined in the most consequential crisis of their careers. Their leadership styles in the unfolding pandemic have been a study in contrasts, and the reviews of their performances have been just as divergent. Cuomo has won nearly universal adoration, his daily press briefings hailed as a master class in public communication. With clear charts and stats on PowerPoint, the governor has delivered bad news calmly but frankly, mixing his oddball sense of humor with notes of reassurance and confessions about his own worries for the health and safety of his family. Cuomo has pressured—and criticized—both the Trump administration and congressional Democrats, but without the heightened rhetoric and personal attacks de Blasio has heaved at the president.

To that end, Cuomo has drawn praise from his critics on the right (Lindsey Graham, Nikki Haley) and on the left. A swooning Jezebel blogger confessed she might be falling in love with the governor, while a former top adviser to de Blasio called for Democrats to push aside Joe Biden and make Cuomo their presidential nominee this summer

Multiple New York Democrats I spoke with in recent days have reached for a comparison that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago: They’ve favorably likened Cuomo’s performance to Rudy Giuliani’s after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, resurrecting an image of “America’s mayor” that had long since given way to the more cartoonish presidential henchman Giuliani has resembled to Democrats over the past year.

“I am mesmerized,” David Paterson, Cuomo’s predecessor as New York governor and a onetime rival, told me. He praised as masterful the mix of administrative skill and creativity, crisis management, and “personal humanity” that Cuomo has brought to bear. “He’s been governor of the state, a friend, and a therapist all rolled into one,” Paterson gushed. “Who needs Dr. Phil? They should put Andrew on from 2 to 3 p.m.”

There’s been no such love for de Blasio, and no one is calling him America’s mayor.

De Blasio angered New York parents and some of his own allies by resisting for days a decision to close schools, acting only following pressure from Cuomo and after a near-revolt by advisers and top public-health officials. “He’s both a bad decision maker and not good at communicating about it,” said an elected New York Democrat and former ally of the mayor’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve a working relationship with the de Blasio administration.

At a press conference announcing the decision, the mayor looked and sounded like a man defeated. “I am just distraught having to take this action,” de Blasio said.

The next day, the mayor went to his beloved gym, the Park Slope YMCA.

It was a stunning move, even for a leader whose regular 30-minute, cross-borough chauffeured trips to a mid-morning workout have been the source of mockery for years. Here was de Blasio, clinging to his own routine just hours after ordering millions of New Yorkers to abandon their own in the name of public health.

After former aides slammed him on Twitter, de Blasio dug in. “There’s something wrong in the world where this kind of very small matter gets blown up like that by people, you know, who live in a world of public relations,” the mayor said. “I don’t live in that world. I live in the regular world.”

To de Blasio’s disillusioned allies, the incident was a microcosm of the mayor’s wholesale rejection of the role of image and example as a fundamental part of public leadership, especially as compared with Cuomo and never more so than in a crisis. “It’s not just what you’re communicating. It’s how you’re communicating it,” Rebecca Katz, a former de Blasio aide who worked for Cuomo’s 2018 primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, told me. “And Cuomo fundamentally understands this in a way that de Blasio frankly refuses to.”

Cuomo and de Blasio have also differed markedly in their approach to Trump. While the governor has tangled with the president at times during the crisis, he’s also praised him and largely directed his demands and criticism at “the federal government” rather than at the president himself. “Andrew is a four-pitch pitcher,” observed Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College and a longtime commentator on New York politics. “He’s got a full range of pitches, and he’s used several of them in his relationship with the president. It’s more indirection than frontal assault.”

Until the past few days, by contrast, de Blasio has been throwing only fastballs at Trump, with little visible effect. “It looks like a political stunt,” Lis Smith, a Democratic consultant who worked for both de Blasio and Cuomo before steering Pete Buttigieg’s presidential bid the past two years.

“He was the loudest, most strident, most provocative,” Paterson said of the mayor, surmising that de Blasio might have toned it down after watching Cuomo’s performances win raves.

Yet for all of their difference in tone, the substance of de Blasio’s and Cuomo’s public response has been more aligned than it might seem. Neither Democrat was particularly quick to order major shutdowns; both were initially reluctant to close schools, and as recently as mid-March, both waffled on whether to scrap the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City. And it was the mayor, not the governor, who began calling for a “shelter in place” order days before Cuomo ultimately acted.

“The governor is a genius at deflecting blame, and the mayor is a genius at attracting blame,” the New York elected official said. “That has been true for a long time.”

Katz told me: “For the most part, they’re saying a lot of the right stuff now. Cuomo in particular is rising to this moment. The biggest concern now though is, was it too late?”

Despite a few notable disagreements, aides to both Cuomo and de Blasio told me the two are working well together during the pandemic, speaking nearly every day and sometimes multiple times. And while de Blasio’s spokesperson, Freddi Goldstein, noted that the mayor had changed his tone toward Trump after speaking with him Sunday night, she said he would not hold back if the president did not continue to deliver. “This is life and death in New York, and our tone and rhetoric and response will match that,” she said. “We just don’t have time for niceties.”

And even de Blasio’s critics acknowledged that in a dire situation, the mayor’s stridency might be a necessary complement to Cuomo’s more nuanced approach to the mercurial president. A good cop, bad cop routine, though certainly unintentional, might be effective, and de Blasio’s repeated shaming of Trump on national television did ultimately get the president’s attention.

“Maybe America needs both of them,” Katz told me. “Maybe the best thing for New York right now is for de Blasio to sound the alarm and for Cuomo to come in and be soothing. Maybe that’s not great for de Blasio in the long run, but this may be the only thing standing between New York and tens of thousands of deaths.”