New York 'tough guy' Cuomo center stage in US coronavirus fight

New York (AFP) –


America's coronavirus crisis has thrust New York Governor Andrew Cuomo into the national spotlight, his no-nonsense yet empathetic style contrasting with President Donald Trump's and developing him a fan following.

The Democrat has been a reassuring presence for many Americans during his televised daily updates on efforts to contain the outbreak that has killed 600 people across the United States.

"He's really come across as someone of presidential stature," Columbia University politics professor Robert Shapiro, told AFP.

"It's comparable in some ways to the 9/11 attacks when Rudolph Giuliani rose to the occasion and became the nation's mayor, so to speak."

The hard-nosed Cuomo is credited with keeping New York on the front foot in the battle against the coronavirus since the state, now the epicenter of America's pandemic fight, declared its first case on March 1.

The 62-year-old was quick to invoke executive powers to engage National Guard soldiers, boost hospital beds and order New Yorkers to stay indoors -- and even launched a government-made brand of hand sanitizer.

Cuomo has politics in his blood -- his father Mario Cuomo served three terms as the Democratic governor of New York state between 1983 and 1994.

- Kennedy dynasty -

The younger Cuomo was born in Queens in December 1957.

He married Kerry Kennedy -- daughter of former US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brother to assassinated President John F. Kennedy -- in 1990. They divorced 15 years later.

After practising law, Cuomo worked for Bill Clinton's adminstration in the 1990s and in 2006 he was elected Attorney General of New York.

In January 2011, he followed in his father footsteps by becoming the state's governor, a position he has held since. In 2018, he defeated a challenge by "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon.

Cuomo's daily briefings, which start at 11:00 am and are carried on major US TV networks, have become popular for his authoritative, but reassuring and understanding tone.

He has stressed the seriousness of the outbreak, imploring New Yorkers to stay indoors ("This is not a joke") and calling those still gathering outside as "self-destructive" and "insensitive."

But he has repeatedly urged residents not to panic, reminding them that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk, saying fear can be more dangerous than the illness itself.

Known as a bit of a bulldog, Cuomo has also revealed a softer side -- naming a virus order after his mother Matilda -- and talking about the mental stresses of self-isolating.

"I live alone and I'm even getting annoyed with the dog being in one place," he said.

Last week, Cuomo playfully bickered with his TV anchor brother Chris Cuomo about which of them their mother loved more during a segment on CNN.

And writer Rebecca Fishbein wrote on the website Jezebel that the "intense and reasonable dislike of Cuomo" she had developed over the years may be turning into a crush.

- White House material? -

Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College, says the briefings have transformed how voters view the "tough guy.

"It's a combination of press conference and therapy session and a little stand-up comedy," he told AFP.

The empathy contrasts with Trump, who insulted a reporter who asked what his message was to scared Americans, and who has contradicted the advice of his own health professionals.

At one point on Saturday, #CuomoForPresident trended on Twitter, with actor Mark Ruffalo tweeting that New Yorkers "are lucky" to have him as a leader.

Not everyone is enamored though.

Many New Yorkers accuse Cuomo -- who regularly clashes with the left wing of the Democratic party, including Mayor Bill de Blasio -- of blocking progressive legislation.

They also blame him for secretly negotiating an Amazon headquarters in New York City, later scrapped under intense opposition, and for the recent departure of the popular head of the Big Apple's subway system.

Cuomo is believed to have considered presidential bids during the last two campaigns but ultimately decided to let other moderates run.

Commentators note that in 2024 he will be considerably younger than this year's Democratic frontrunners: septuagenarians Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

But they caution that voters can quickly change their minds about politicians.

"It may be ephemeral, but for this one moment he stands out to be the national leader we sort of look for," said Muzzio.