During the outbreak of COVID-19, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has consolidated his power more than ever before – and he doesn’t easily suffer local officials who step out of line.
The governor has unilaterally imposed a stay-at-home order that closed nonessential businesses and coordinated the transfer of equipment from one locality to another. He has been running the response to the new coronavirus pandemic almost singlehandedly, with little competition or input from the state Legislature.
Cuomo has long relished the broad powers granted to New York governors, and governors throughout the country are seeing their powers expanded because of the extended emergency. “This is a command situation,” said Gerald Benjamin, director of the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives at SUNY New Paltz. “It demands directive behavior, and he is suited to that.”
But this assertiveness, which has drawn widespread praise from the media, fellow elected officials and average New Yorkers, has brought him into conflict with some local government executives. And some experts question Cuomo’s broad assertions that only the state possesses certain powers and that local governments cannot do many things, such as manage their own school calendar, without his approval.
Cuomo’s leadership style has previously caused some friction with local leaders, most notably New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the other major executive in the state. The pair have famously feuded for almost the entirety of de Blasio’s tenure.
Even a massive public health emergency hasn’t changed that. “In many ways, it’s exacerbated the situation,” Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio said. Cuomo apparently believes that uniform messaging to the public is more important than ever, so he has even less tolerance for any contradiction. Most local leaders seem to have fallen in line behind Cuomo, with little public dissonance between the state and local governments.
De Blasio appears to be the most notable exception. When Cuomo announced downstate school closures on March 15, he did so with the county executives of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester, all of whom are Cuomo allies. Despite Cuomo also saying New York City schools must close along with the three neighboring suburban counties, de Blasio was not part of the call.
When de Blasio proposed a shelter-in-place order for New York City on March 17, Cuomo dismissed the idea out of hand, adding that the city would not have the authority. On March 18, Cuomo signed an executive order preventing localities from issuing their own emergency orders without state approval, apparently in an attempt to keep de Blasio from instituting a shelter-in-place order. Just days later, the governor announced the “New York on Pause” executive order, a shelter-in-place order by another name for the entire state. There was no mention of de Blasio’s prior suggestion on the need for more strict social distancing measures, despite the similarities.
Muzzio said that de Blasio and Cuomo have always competed for control in the state’s largest city, with the governor often swooping in to either overrule city action, as in the case of a citywide plastic bag fee in 2017, or taking the lead and the credit for de Blasio’s initiatives, like the $15 minimum wage. Now is no different. “There’s something in the DNA of both players that it just infuriates them,” Muzzio said. “I tend to think that (Cuomo) just simply likes working with (the suburban county executives), dislikes working with de Blasio and gives him a minor nose thumbing.”
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi told City & State that neither politics nor personal feuds played any role in the executive order limiting local emergency powers, but rather simply the recognition of the need for unity. “Yes, people started to make their own policies and it wasn't working,” Azzopardi said by email. “This public health emergency is no time for small politics or breathless palace intrigue -- we don't have that luxury." The de Blasio administration did not return a request for comment.
Cuomo may like working with most suburban county executives, who tend to be Democrats in Cuomo’s moderate mold, but not all of them.
Rockland County Executive Ed Day, a Republican, complained that Cuomo had tied his hands and didn’t provide the county with the ability to enforce state mandates as the number of COVID-19 cases rose. Day said that without the ability to issue local emergency orders, which Cuomo effectively took away from county leaders with the March 18 executive order, local police did not have the power of law to issue fines or other penalties to those violating state social distancing mandates. The Cuomo administration insisted localities had that authority, and asserted that Day was simply playing politics. Day spokesman John Lyon said that after the state rejected an emergency order that Rockland submitted to the state for approval to explicitly give local police that power, the county received clarification from the Cuomo administration on enforcement authority, allowing police to take action.
Publicly, at least, other county executives in hard-hit areas have not experienced similar issues regarding enforcement. Westchester Executive George Latimer, a Democrat, told City & State that his county never felt there was any question about local police authority to enforce the state executive orders. He saw the value in Cuomo’s decision to limit local emergency powers and agreed that statewide and regional decisions make more sense than individual policies.
The state has since rejected another proposed emergency order from Day, who sought the authority to require that grocery stores and pharmacies limit the number of customers allowed in. Anyone who has seen a sign from their local government on the wall of a restaurant limiting its capacity would assume that a city or county has this power, especially during a public health emergency. Normally, it would. But the March 18 executive order from Cuomo limiting the emergency authority of localities prevents counties from issuing additional public health safety rules without state approval. Lyon said the order was instead adapted into new guidelines from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, adding that the state is becoming more responsive to local requests.
More recently, de Blasio announced that New York City schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year, beyond the April 29 date the state had mandated. Immediately, Cuomo said the decision was simply the mayor’s “opinion” and that de Blasio had no authority to make decisions about schools. Cuomo’s administration pointed to the March 16 executive order from the governor closing schools statewide as giving only the governor the power over when they may reopen.
Roderick Hills Jr., law professor at New York University, questions that interpretation. State law gives the New York City schools chancellor the authority to shut down city schools during an emergency. City Hall doesn’t need the governor to approve every time it wants to order a snow day, for example. Cuomo never explicitly suspended that particular section of the law. Hills said that it would be easy for Cuomo to suspend it and overrule the city’s decision on schools, but he is uncertain as to whether the governor was legally correct in saying that the city no longer has any authority, or was instead trying to assert dominance over de Blasio with something of a threat.
The mayor’s office reportedly did notify the governor of the decision until shortly before de Blasio made the announcement, which may have provoked an even more bullying response than usual from Cuomo. A spokesperson for the mayor did not respond to a request for comment. But Cuomo’s reaction and assertion of his executive power also caused confusion for city parents looking for a degree of certainty about what the rest of the year holds. After all, the mayor was going further than what the state currently mandates, not attempting to roll it back. Given that the state’s pause order has been extended until May 15, and that epidemiologists predict months, if not years, of continued social distancing, it seems likely that Cuomo will extend school closures by the time April 29 rolls around.
Still, some political observers felt that Cuomo’s reaction to de Blasio was appropriate. Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said that at this time, Cuomo is rightly the person in charge, and it only makes sense that local leaders follow his lead, as most others in the state have done. “He is the overarching official in the state,” Levy said. “If a local official decides to go their own way without checking in with the state or getting approval, why should the onus be on Andrew Como to make nice?”
Benjamin has been critical of Cuomo and the degree of power he has tried to assert over his rivals in the past, but he commended the governor’s strong leadership now in responding to the coronavirus crisis. “He has a difficult relationship with some specific individuals, and it's been played out in a less than gentle way,” Benjamin said, “but I just can't be critical of this, the path he's taken.”