NYS update: At “press time” (for my usual evening update) last night, two things were going on: the emergent third night of rioting unfolding in Minneapolis and other cities, and the chaos descending on Upstate regions that had just been inexplicably told by the governor’s office that Phase 2 was not starting tomorrow because Cuomo — always needing celebrities by his side to deliver messages — somehow needed to call in newly hired “international experts” first. (More disturbingly, North Country officials, on their control room phone calls last evening, may have been told that Cuomo was scrapping the “phase” system altogether.) First, before you do anything else, if you haven’t already — take 10-15 minutes to observe Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, last night at around 9 p.m., taking Cuomo’s office to school.
Legitimacy is a funny thing. One moment it’s there, the next moment it vanishes forever. The Soviet Union became defunct before Yeltsin climbed on the tank, but no one saw it vanish. Everyone just instinctively knew it had gone. When county officials begin checking to see what other county officials and top local business owners are doing before they check to see what Cuomo is doing, that moment is not far off. While Picente’s emergency briefing may not be a Yeltsin-on-the-tank moment, he credibly put into words every frustration that county leaders across the state have been experiencing for weeks on end (and perhaps longer).
A few hours earlier, as Ryan McMahon was in the middle of his regular 3 p.m. briefing — perhaps even right as Cuomo was governing via the media in his usual manner — he was being asked if CNY really had the green light to go ahead, which McMahon (and every other Upstate CE) believed we did, since nothing conflicting with that had been communicated to them by “Regional Control” in the days leading up to yesterday.
If someone says, at another level of government, that Central’s not ready for Phase 2, there’s going to be a serious disagreement. If this gets to the point that nobody’s comunicating and Phase 2 is supposed to start, businesses will open up no matter what I say. Or what the state says. Businesses are going to go, “Of course we’re going to go, how is this possible? Look at the data.” If you want to deviate from the process, mid-process, there’d better be a really good explanation… You lose credibility from this microphone if you say “These are the rules,” and you follow the rules and do everything you’re supposed to, and then on the day when people reap the benefit of following the rules, you change the rules. I don’t come to this microphone any more if I do that. Because I’ve lost all credibility.
There was something else plainly obvious on display last night, which we already knew but could hear in Picente’s comments: Unlike Cuomo, the county executives have friends. They have a local support network. They have good relations with their neighbors. They have pre-existing practical relationships — not necessarily just within their own party — with other local leaders. This is probably one of the major reasons they aren’t having nervous breakdowns, foaming at the mouth and falling prey to destructive national red-blue rhetoric at a time when no one can afford that any more. This is the flip side of the cronyism that we so often are presented with in local politics. Relationships can be used for good, and in times of crisis, usual barriers must be broken down.
If only Cuomo’s bizarre mishandling of the crisis had something to do with red-blue rhetoric, it would be easy to explain. But the governor’s main issues however have to do with his style of governing — which has given New York State the crisis of governance it has reached this morning. Strip away Trump’s absolute psychological hollowness (something you honestly can’t say of Cuomo) and open racism and sexism, and add some basic embrace of political reality and principle, and in terms of style you don’t have that much of a difference between our governor and our president. He is profoundly isolated, spends more time talking about (and to) his immediate family members than the New York State family, and has to govern by press conference and WAMC because he has no real relationships on the ground. Like Trump, he has a rapt daily audience of national listeners who mistake lofty rhetoric for sound governing. What kind of social and political currents have given New York State this kind of leader at just the worst possible moment?
We’ll have to come back to that later, because McMahon already explained what the county leaders were already facing yesterday before Cuomo dropped this bomb on them: a struggle to wisely and efficiently manage a crisis and a reopening impulse that cannot be held back by them or by any proclamations. To that end, McMahon appears to be ready to play good cop to Picente’s bad cop. Our CE could not have delivered the message that was delivered by the Oneida CE to Cuomo last night — he has the wrong impromptu public speaking skill set, and maybe even the wrong last name. What McMahon is good at is playing straight-man, standing at the podium day after day and forcing Cuomo to live up to his own book of rules. This is why I fully expect today’s briefing to occur at the usual 3 p.m., with the usual numbers recitations and all the trimmings, and with the good news that Onondaga County can now present the state’s guidance for all those businesses realistically were always going to go ahead and open up anyway.
While Minneapolis burned last night, and as county executives got off the phone with the state and with each other — at some hour which nobody actually saw happen, yet already happened before Picente gave his briefing, initiative escaped from Cuomo’s lonely court and is now on the side of local leaders. Let’s hope they prove to be good ones, because they’re pretty much all we’ve got left.