Why Andrew Cuomo makes waves

The black SUV rolled into the parking lot of Huntington Town Hall, on the north shore of Long Island in New York. This was the middle of the 1990s, and the passenger sitting in the back seat was Andrew Cuomo, the United States secretary of Housing and Urban Development. At the time, I served as a Huntington councilman, and I had been summoned to a meeting with my colleagues and Cuomo about a proposal to build low income housing in an area known as East Northport. It was an issue roiling our community.

Cuomo stepped out and smiled through all the obligatory handshakes and photos. He was warm and gracious. Then we stepped into the office of the town supervisor. Cuomo took a seat and wiped off the smile from his face. He asked the room why the housing development proposal had not been approved. The town attorney had told him that Huntington was complying with relevant state and federal laws. Cuomo was unmoved. He demanded that the town either do more or face grave consequences from the Justice Department. He walked out of the building, and his black SUV drove away.

One of my colleagues remarked that Cuomo bullied us. I thought about that moment as I watched his career advance from Cabinet secretary to New York attorney general and eventually governor. Today he is a leader whose daily coronavirus briefings command global attention. He is not a bully. But he is triggered when he sees someone standing in the way of a remedy to a crisis. He has an overpowering desire to fix what is broken.

Fixing what is broken defines New York. A few years ago, Vice President Joe Biden spoke about the inside of the LaGuardia Airport, “I must be in some third world country.” His metaphor was correct. LaGuardia Airport has emerged from an $8 billion modernization. The Tappan Zee Bridge and Kosciuszko Bridge have been rebuilt. A brand new Moynihan Station train terminal in Manhattan is underway. Arenas, highways, universities, and railways have been redeveloped, reengineered, and reconstructed from Long Island to Buffalo. Cuomo really puts the “new” in New York.

Fixing what is broken is why you see Cuomo dominating the media today. President Trump started his response to the coronavirus with denial and delay. It improves one day, and then it devolves the next. Cuomo, on the other hand, is a walking command center. He craves handling crises. In January, he left an event in Manhattan and saw a van on its side on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. He then directed his police detail to stop, climbed a concrete barrier, and helped free that driver from the truck.

He is like Superman with a Queens accent. I have had my occasional dust ups with Cuomo. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I once gave what I believed was an inconsequential quote to the New York Times. Yet it stirred his ire. The next day, a “senior New York Democrat” was quoted in the Daily News complaining that I was an awful chairman. But that is New York politics. It is like our roads, aggressive and loud, and if you do not move out of the way, you are bound to get dented.

Is Cuomo a bully? No. Is he perfect? No. But he has a bare knuckle way of repairing what is imperfect. It is how he rolled into Huntington Town Hall that day, and how he continues to roll now as the governor of New York.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Coronavirus Democrats Donald Trump Government Politics

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