Different moments thrust different types of politicians to the fore. Over the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, a number of state governors have attracted particular attention for their proactive responses to the crisis. The most prominent of these on the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle, respectively, have been Ohio’s Mike DeWine and New York’s Andrew Cuomo. They are the unlikeliest of folk heroes, but there are reasons why this particular moment plays to their strengths.
The 73-year-old DeWine has long been seen as a bland, nerdy embodiment of the Ohio Republican establishment. He’s been in one office or another almost continuously since 1977: county prosecutor, state senator, congressman, lieutenant governor, senator, state attorney general, and now governor, the office to which he was elected in 2018. He was ousted from the Senate amidst the “Coingate”-related 2006 rout of the Ohio Republicans (in which he was not personally implicated), and restarted his career four years later at a lower rung of government by defeating Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray. He would defeat Cordray a second time in 2018. To populist and movement-conservative activists, DeWine has long been seen as unexciting at best, a dreaded “squish” or “RINO” at worst: John Kasich without the quirky, messianic egoism. That hasn’t prevented him from winning six statewide elections in Ohio in eight tries.
Andrew Cuomo, in his third term as New York’s governor and son of another three-term New York governor, is an even less obviously appealing figure. Like DeWine, he has been in office forever: He was Bill Clinton’s HUD secretary (a role in which he promoted reckless mortgage-finance policies and groomed his deputy Kirsten Gillibrand for political office) and state attorney general before winning election as governor in 2010. Normally invisible in the state’s high-profile media environment, Cuomo is so abrasive and humorless that Jake Tapper wrote a scathing political obituary for Salon in 2002 after Cuomo got trounced in the Democratic gubernatorial primary by state comptroller H. Carl McCall:
[T]hose who have come in contact with Cuomo and seen how his grating personality has sullied what could have been a promising campaign… in the end all Cuomo seemed to communicate was that he is a very unpleasant person… Cuomo’s ability to alienate was almost unparalleled… the regrettable fact for Cuomo was that to a sizable number of voters he seemed like an a***ole. And sometimes a politician’s problems are truly that simple.
I omitted the really nasty parts. Cuomo is not just an establishment politician; he’s the ultimate Albany swamp creature, a guy who knows how to run the state government because he was raised in its corrupt environs and knows everyone’s pressure points. He is vividly loathed by his state party’s progressive wing and the Online Left for cutting deals to leave Republicans with a foothold of power in the state senate so long as they would do business with him. In 2018, he staved off a colorful left-wing primary challenge from Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon. His blood feud with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is legendary. My favorite Cuomo story is when a “source close to Governor Cuomo” was giving a stream of scathing quotes about de Blasio to the papers, and it turned out that the “source” was Cuomo himself.
And yet, in part because DeWine and Cuomo are so long accustomed to the levers of government power and so little concerned with the opinions of populists, progressives, or libertarians, both moved early and hard with great energy and decisiveness to address the coronavirus threat. They have bristled at any restraints. DeWine went to court to stop the March 17 Ohio primary, then shut it down himself when the courts wouldn’t do so. Cuomo has blasted his fellow New Yorkers Trump and Chuck Schumer over what he sees as inadequate federal assistance. Both have been tirelessly visible on television, to the point that Cuomo has some Democrats rethinking their tepid, elderly presidential nominee.
Normal times do not engender demand for unabashed career politicians with a quick trigger finger on state power. But moments like this one are good times to be a veteran establishment figure at ease with power. There will probably never be a better time to be Mike DeWine or Andrew Cuomo.