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In a nation desperate for leadership in this time of peril, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo has risen to the occasion, delivering reassuring daily press briefings in a no-nonsense style that contrasts sharply with Donald Trump’s nonsense in his own daily appearances at the White House.
Cuomo’s performances, in which he says “we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life,” have catapulted him to national prominence. He is being widely promoted as the Democrat who should replace disappearing frontrunner Joe Biden to face Trump in November.
Mainstream media has been piling on the praise. The New York Times reported:
“His briefings — articulate, consistent and often tinged with empathy — have become must-see television. On Tuesday, his address was carried live on all four networks in New York and a raft of cable news stations, including CNN, MSNBC and even Fox News.”
MSNBC gushes over Cuomo:
But Cuomo’s bubble is about to burst if the policy behind the rhetoric becomes common knowledge.
More Than One Face
Cuomo’s present regard for the well-being of every New Yorker, rich or poor, and his lyrical demands to ramp up the number of hospital beds and ventilators is undermined by an ongoing record of drastically cutting back on the state’s assistance to public medical facilities that serve the poor.
While he is now frantically trying to add hospital beds in the state (which has lost 20,000 in the past 20 years), Cuomo, over the past decade, agreed to close and consolidate numerous public hospitals, mostly serving the poor, to save money. For instance, in 2013 he approved the closure of the 500-bed Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, despite objections from the community.
Even in these extraordinary circumstances his budget proposal to shave $400 million off the state’s $35 billion Medicaid bill—which provides care to the poorest New Yorkers—was accepted by the state Senate on Thursday and the Assembly early Friday, when both passed Cuomo’s 2020 budget. It comes precisely as Medicaid recipients need it most.
“So determined is Cuomo to slash Medicaid spending that he’s prepared to reject more than $6 billion in matching federal aid approved earlier this month because it would force him to alter his austerity strategy,” The Nation reported on Monday.
“If Cuomo gets his way with the state budget [which the Legislature has now given him], many of the city’s most besieged hospitals will lose money at a time when Covid-19 is threatening to crash New York’s health care system. Central Brooklyn hospitals, serving many of the borough’s working class and poor, could lose $38 million a year. Manhattan hospitals could lose up to $58 million a year.
Naomi Zewde, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy at CUNY, told the magazine: “’The proposal to cut funding to public hospitals during a pandemic reflects really poor decision-making.’”
Making it worse, is that Cuomo’s budget did not include rises in property or wealth taxes, despite a $10-15 billion shortfall. “There were no new taxes on the ultrarich, a measure many liberals had clamored for,” The New York Times reported.
Cuomo’s budget also included a measure that makes it harder for third parties to get on the state’s ballot. The Working Families Party blamed him for “using the pandemic to silence his opponents, expand his executive power and pursue an austerity agenda.”
New Image Challenged
In spite of his newfound superstar status, some state Democrats and alternative media are starting to take notice of his contradictions.
Reacting to his Medicaid cuts, State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Senate Health Committee, told The Nation: “It’s obscene. These are immoral actions that the governor is taking.”
The Nation article by Ross Barkan on Monday, headlined, “Cuomo Helped Get New York Into This Mess,” has so far been one of the sharpest critiques. Barkan wrote:
“…the same Cuomo who is racing to expand New York’s hospital capacity and crying out for more federal resources is quietly trying to slash Medicaid funding in the state, enraging doctors and nurses, and elected officials of his own party. The same Cuomo who holds press briefings at a major New York City convention center, now the home of a temporary 1,000-bed hospital, presided over a decade of hospital closures and consolidations, prioritizing cost savings over keeping popular health care institutions open.”
In an article on Monday under the headline, “Media Need to Scrutinize Andrew Cuomo’s Record, Not Crush on His Words,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) wrote:
“Yes, he is projecting both empathy and competence in a way Trump never will, filling a leadership void that people desperately need filled at the moment. But particularly in times of crisis, when executive power tends to expand dramatically, media should be holding the powerful to account, not settling for ‘better than Trump.’ And there is plenty to hold Cuomo to account for.
Cuomo was not only slow to react to the growing crisis, he continues to make decisions that prioritize his neoliberal agenda over the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable: As he battles Trump with one hand, with the other he is continuing his longstanding efforts to cut healthcare and hospital funding and education support, roll back bail reform, and give himself the power to unilaterally slash government services rather than raise taxes on the rich to deal with budget gaps.
As local activists have pointed out, there are many other ways to close the budget gap that don’t involve cutting essential services—at least 14 concrete options for new taxes on, or an end to various subsidies for, the ultra-rich and corporations. But Cuomo is so committed to his corporate-friendly deficit-busting that when the emergency federal Covid-19 aid package to states (including $6.7 billion to New York) included a clause prohibiting changes to Medicaid programs, Cuomo declared that he couldn’t accept it (Politico, 3/27/20). Stop and think about that: Cuomo’s instinct is to forego billions of dollars of desperately needed aid because he is unwilling to give up Medicaid cuts which themselves will directly jeopardize the lives of those most at risk of dying from Covid-19.”
And then comedian Jimmy Dore took a prolonged swipe at Cuomo.
Cuomo has clearly filled a void left by Trump for a frightened nation desperate for leadership.
Given everything he has said in his briefings that run contrary to his Medicaid cuts, Cuomo should have acknowledged his mistake in the current circumstances, and reversed his position, including raising taxes on the rich to help pay for the coronavirus crisis in the hardest-hit state.
That would only have enhanced his image as a leader. Instead, in the budget the Senate has now passed, he stuck with cutting medical assistance for the poor and letting the rich off the hook.
Cuomo inherited from his father, the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo, both presidential ambitions and a marked talent for oratory. But if the mainstream media catches on, and that’s a big if, to his persistent hypocrisy on medical treatment for poor New Yorkers it might not be easy for Cuomo to talk his way out of this one.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Sunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @unjoe