US governors’ political fortunes wane as pandemic pressure builds
‘People want recovery and they want it now’
Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, they won widespread praise. But the political fortunes of governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California have sharply reversed.
Cuomo, who literally wrote the book on his virus success, faces growing scrutiny of his handling of nursing-home deaths in his state. Newsom, elected with 62% of the vote two years ago, is under threat of a recall. Both have seen approval ratings retreat from mid-pandemic highs as many businesses and schools remain shut and the vaccine rollout keeps sputtering.
The shift underscores the complexities of navigating a pandemic in two heavily populated states that together generate almost one-fourth of the nation’s GDP. The persistence of the virus — and the criticism of how the Democratic leaders handled it — have hammered the political prospects of both men, who are widely believed to harbour presidential ambitions. And with a new White House occupant, they have lost Donald Trump as a foil in their heavily blue states.
“People blame the president, people blame the governor,” said Craig Burnett, associate professor of political science at Hofstra University. “It comes down to what is easier to do, and it’s always easier to blame a singular person.”
In the latest storm, Cuomo has come under fire since his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, admitted to legislators that the administration withheld nursing-home data from them after Trump’s justice department requested the information. On Monday, the 63-year-old governor for the first time accepted responsibility for the delay.
“The void we created allowed disinformation, and that created more anxiety for the families of loved ones,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo’s mea culpa comes amid talk of a recall, even though New York’s state constitution doesn’t permit them. But a recent online survey of 810 likely voters by Zogby Analytics asked respondents whether they would support removing Cuomo, and 40% were in favour. On February 10, Republican state leaders asked New Yorkers to sign a petition to allow recall of statewide elected officials — a move unlikely to come up for a vote as required in the legislature, given that Democrats hold a supermajority in both chambers.
Even contemplating a recall would have seemed unheard of less than a year ago, when the third-term governor drew praise as he navigated the state’s devastating outbreak, and became nationally known for his daily virus briefings watched by millions of viewers.
On January 28, state attorney-general Letitia James released a damning report that said Cuomo’s guidance on admitting coronavirus patients to nursing homes may have put healthy residents at risk. The state has since released data revealing thousands of nursing home deaths that occurred in hospitals or outside the homes. More than 12,000 patients from nursing homes, assisted living and adult care facilities have died since March, according to February 9 state data, about one-third of the total.
“It’s a real black eye for the administration that so many people died, that were basically trapped and probably not getting the support that they needed,” said Burnett.
In a Siena College poll released this week, Cuomo’s overall favourability was 56%, little changed from January; and his job performance rating was 51%, down from 56% in January. Both ratings had jumped to more than 70% in April 2020. The poll, conducted before DeRosa’s comments about nursing-home data became public, found nearly two-thirds of voters approve of Cuomo’s response to the pandemic.
“New Yorkers saw with their own two eyes how governor Cuomo worked day and night to get us on the other side of this pandemic,” Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi said in a statement “The governor’s favourability is rock solid and virtually unchanged and an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers approve of his handling of the pandemic nearly a year in.”
A recall is more likely in California, where 1.2-million signatures had been gathered by late last week, according to Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant who is advising the campaign. The effort needs 1.5-million signatures by a March 17 deadline to put the measure on a ballot, though they need to be certified to account for duplications and other disqualifications. So far, the California secretary of state has verified 410,000 names.
If the effort is successful, Newsom, would become only the second California governor to face a recall election. Less than a year ago, he was the first leader to order a statewide shutdown as the coronavirus spread accelerated, and was lauded for keeping infections relatively low. Then, cases surged after the fall and winter holidays, spurring new lockdowns through much of December and January. Last week, California surpassed New York for having the most deaths from Covid-19.
The outbreak has since improved, with hospitalisation down almost 60% from a month ago. Yet the on-again, off-again stay-at-home orders have hamstrung the small-business sector and frustrated voters.
“People want recovery and they want it now,” said John Kabateck, California director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “Small-business owners are confused, frightened and overwhelmed by what government is asking them to do.”
The federation hasn’t taken a position on the Newsom recall campaign, which got a boost late in 2020 when photographs posted online and published by news organisations showed Newsom mingling, without a mask, among guests at a dinner party at Napa Valley’s exclusive French Laundry restaurant. Newsom has apologised for attending the dinner and called it “a bad mistake”.
Newsom aides have called the recall effort a waste of taxpayer money and have touted his success in fighting the virus. The governor has said his focus is now on getting vaccines to residents.
“I don’t care that you’re Democrat or Republican — I care that you’re healthy and safe and you can live your lives out loud without fear of a pandemic and without fear of having to go back to the fits and starts this pandemic has impacted in terms of communities all across this state,” Newsom said February 10. “So, that’s my focus.”
While 45% of registered voters in a poll released this month said they opposed a recall, compared with 36% who said they favoured removing him, Newsom faces an uncomfortably large number of undecided voters, including 20% of Democratic respondents and 28% of independent ones, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the widely watched poll conducted by the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.
“That’s higher than you would expect to see, among voters who normally strongly support the governor,” he said.
Like Newsom, Cuomo has also confronted anger and lawsuits from owners of restaurants and other small business owners. New York City was slowest to reopen, and many of its restrictions are still in place, including limits on capacities and hours for restaurants, theatres and other indoor settings. “There’s growing frustration with the fact that we’re still dealing with the pandemic,” said Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association. “That goes well beyond the governor’s office. It’s just that everybody wants this to be over.”
Meanwhile, nine top health department officials have left, resigned, or retired in recent months, according to the New York Times. Cuomo’s office declined to confirm the report.
“I think you have to take a step back,” Cuomo said at a February 2 press briefing, when asked about the departures. “This Covid situation has been unlike anything we’ve ever dealt with. It’s highly stressful, highly challenging, highly exhausting. It’s not what a lot of people signed up for. It’s not what a lot of people want to do, it’s not what a lot of people can do.”
Both governors have heard the wrath of residents frustrated with slowness in distributing vaccines. Cuomo has faced criticism for New York’s strict eligibility requirements and use of hospital systems instead of local health departments, which some critics say allowed vaccines to go to waste.
California was slower than other states in the initial distribution of the vaccine, though it has since accelerated the pace to top more than 6-million total shots administered. Last week, hecklers disrupted the governor’s press conference at a vaccine distribution site in California’s agricultural Central Valley, as Newsom announced plans to accelerate inoculation efforts, especially among minorities for whom vaccination has lagged.
The state’s small business optimism index has dipped to historic lows in December and January as owners cite fatigue and anxiety about the future, said Greg Biryla, New York senior state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
Cuomo was able to contrast himself against the inaction of the Trump administration at the beginning of the pandemic, but lost the benefit of the comparison as the health crisis dragged on and worsened in his state, said Gerald Benjamin, a distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
“I think he just got ahead of himself on the credit claiming, and boxed himself that way,” Benjamin said.
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