U.S. Governors Who ‘Bent the Curve’ Prepare for Even Bigger Test

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The Democratic governors of New York and New Jersey gained national profiles and saw their approval ratings rise at home by making tough decisions that helped quell the initial phase of thecoronavirus outbreak. Their states were the hardest hit when Covid-19 first reached the U.S., and their daily briefings, shared on national television and social media, were followed by people craving answers.

New York’s Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy weren’t the only governors to hold daily briefings on the emerging pandemic. But on April 1 their states combined had about 106,000 of the U.S. total of 213,000 cases. So they became de facto leaders in the fight. Their steady, science-based briefings offered a marked contrast to those of PresidentTrump, who has toutedunproven treatments anddownplayed the seriousness of the outbreak.

“What voters expect from leaders in this kind of crisis is constant communication, reliable and accurate information, a steadiness and calmness in your demeanor, and definitive decision-making,” says Ben Dworkin, director of theInstitute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University.

Now Cuomo and Murphy must steer their states through an escalating winter surge in coronavirus cases. As the second wave accelerates, they face a frustrated public, big budget holes, and pressure to deliver vaccine doses—twice—to millions in what will be thebiggest inoculation effort in U.S. history.

When New York and New Jersey began to recover over the summer, Cuomo and Murphy stopped their daily updates. Now, with cases back on the rise, their briefings have become more frequent. And this time the message is starker than washing your hands and keeping 6 feet of distance. It’s about reminding weary citizens they must wear masks indoors and out and avoid even smallish holiday get-togethers. It’s also about convincing people of the safety of a vaccine that was approved in record time underintense political pressure.

During the first wave of the pandemic, Cuomo’s 111 straight days of briefings drew 59 million TV viewers and earned him the nickname “America’s Governor.” Entertainment Weeklycalled him “the hero that America never realized it needed until he was on our television screens every night.” Rolling Stone put him on the cover of its May issue,praising him as “the blunt-talking adult in the room.”

Murphy, a retiredGoldman Sachs Group Inc. senior director and an ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, saw hisapproval rating jump by 30 points and his social media followers triple with the briefings. Murphy returned from cancer surgery in mid-March, weeks earlier than planned, to direct his state’s virus assault. He also scored praise forkeeping his cool as foul-mouthed restaurant patrons descended on him and his family when they were dining out.

Both governors deny aspirations for a job in Washington. Cuomo, who served in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has said he’s not interested in running for president or becoming President-elect Joe Biden’s attorney general. Murphy has said he wants to stay in New Jersey, and he’s running for a second term in 2021.

Their paths so far resemble those of two other former officeholders, both Republicans, hailed for their crisis leadership: New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after Hurricane Sandy, the state’s costliest natural disaster, in 2012. Giuliani and Christie rode a tide of national popularity to presidential runs in 2008 and 2016, respectively. But their campaigns fizzled out, with their subsequent actions overshadowing earlier heroics.

The Covid-19 outbreak has already changed political dynamics for the governors in their home states. New York’s legislature gave Cuomo broad emergency powers to fight the pandemic—and some lawmakers say it’s time to curb them. Cuomo also has asserted control over New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, sparking disagreements over the opening of schools and businesses. In New Jersey, Murphy was able to persuade lawmakers to enact tax increases and borrow billions of dollars, but cooperation may go south in 2021.

Cuomo is now the most followed governor on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter, according to data from his office. With a Queens accent and tough-guy attitude, he peppers his briefings with stories about life on lockdown with his three daughters and how he misses visiting his 89-year-old mother. He shared the Covid diagnosis of his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, who appeared via video at a briefing. On his brother’s prime-time show, the two traded jabs over who was the favorite son.

Murphy has his own routine. At each briefing he introduces his health commissioner, Judith Persichilli, as “the woman who needs no introduction.” He welcomes back reporters who missed briefings and asks about their health. And he pays tribute to New Jerseyans who died from the coronavirus by telling their stories to the nation.

Not all watchers are fans. Cuomo has been chastised for writing a bestselling book amid the virus struggle, for shutting down New York City businesses and limiting religious gatherings, and for his handling of the state’s nursing homes, where thousands died from Covid-19. Reaction was mixed in November when hereceived an Emmy for his “masterful use of television to inform and calm people around the world.” In mid-December a former aide accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, a charge he said was untrue.

In a Nov. 24 Siena College poll, registered New York voters gave Cuomo a job performance rating of 54%. Although that’s lower than the high of 71% he got in April, it’s well above his pre-pandemic level of 36% in February.

Murphy’s high approval in the pandemic’s early months has also slid. Protesters wanting businesses to open up and restrictions to ease have demonstrated outside the governor’s home.

Murphy has grown more comfortable speaking out against critics and blasting officials in Washington for not sending more stimulus to states. Last month, when a reporter asked for his response to people who complain about wearing masks, he bristled: “You know what’s really uncomfortable and annoying? When you die.” In early December he became national news after he called Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, a “putz” for attending a fundraiser in New Jersey that broke distancing rules.

For a guy unknown by a third of New Jersey voters in a mid-2019 poll, the publicity could be priceless heading into his reelection campaign. “Whether they like it or not, they’re probably more familiar with me,” Murphy said on Dec. 9, “given that we’re all going through this together.”

All the exposure, though, comes with risk. As the pandemic drags on, people may start to believe that the governor hasn’t done enough, says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Even widespread immunity six or eight months from now may lead to a good news-bad news scenario. “There is the danger for Murphy that all the goodwill he built up during Covid could simply disappear, as New Jerseyans turn their attention to more mundane issues like property taxes,” Murray says.

In mid-April, New York had more than 18,000 people hospitalized for Covid. That number dropped to fewer than 500 in August but has swelled again to 6,000 and will likely continue to rise.

Cuomo “bent the curve and claimed enormous success,” says Gerald Benjamin, a distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He has to keep “succeeding in this crisis, or his achievement is diminished.” —With Keshia Clukey
 
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