How Cuomo managed a disaster and his image

Cuomo, with Anderson Cooper. ()
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In the days after the hurricane, Gov. Andrew Cuomo turned his administration's get-along-or-be-killed mantra against the local power companies.

"You can’t be any stronger or harsher than I have been on the utility companies," Cuomo said yesterday, after previously explaining the companies "were not created in the Bible," and promising he would "hold them accountable" for their slow performance. "Privately, I have used language my daughters couldn’t hear, so they’ve gotten the message," he added.

It's made for a welcome distraction from the damage and disarray of Hurricane Sandy. 

The New York Times wrote that Cuomo's style after the storm was that of the "hunky local fire chief," and it was a good look for him.

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"Cuomo!" wrote Jessica Pressler, a features writer for New York magazine, on Twitter last Friday morning. "Never liked him as much as I have during this storm. Maybe have a bit of a crush even. #stockholmsyndrome?" ("[Y]ou are not alone," replied NY1 traffic reporter Jamie Shupak.)

Cuomo was, at that particular moment, reiterating his threat against the power companies at a press conference in Manhattan, one of more than a dozen televised post-storm appearances for a governor whose public policy since being elected two years ago has been to avoid soliciting television coverage.

Hurricane Sandy's arrival excused Cuomo from a visit to Florida, where he was scheduled to campaign on the trail—finally—for President Obama's re-election

It also has allowed Cuomo, until now, to avoid taking any of the public blame for the very utilities he's been criticizing, whose performance since the storm has paled in comparison to that of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and which, like the M.T.A., the governor actually has a degree of statutory control over. (By statute, the governor's office controls the leadership of LIPA, and the regulatory body that oversees Con Ed.)

Howard Glaser, the state's director of operations, regularly tweeted photos of Cuomo attending to the crisis, and the governor's press aides supplied reporters with a steady stream of photos which supplemented the many briefings and appearances, carried live by the networks and online: on Long Island, seated in front of a line of camouflaged troops, deploying the National Guard; in Lower Manhattan, bravely touring the flooded Battery Tunnel; and, frequently, at his office in Manhattan, announcing the ahead-of-schedule opening of some new link in the New York City subway.

He played a similar part last year, during the upstate clean-up for Hurricane Irene, when he traveled to storm-damaged communities and invited reporters—who he normally keeps at arms' length—to tour the devastation with him by helicopter, earning praise from a skeptical Albany press corps.

But New York City was that much more visible.

The governor even broke his moratorium on national television interviews, sitting for interviews with Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams, and walking the World Trade Center site for a CNN segment with Anderson Cooper.

Larry Schwartz, who serves as the secretary to the governor, was quick to explain that the appearances weren't about the governor.

“It was a disaster," Schwartz told New York Post state editor Fred Dicker on Dicker's radio show. "He went on there to bring attention and to ask for help for the people of New York State. So the first time you see the governor on national T.V., it was because New York was hit with a disaster, it was about helping New York, helping New Yorkers.”

The governor also helped his national profile by acknowledging that the frequency of devastating storms represented a "new reality," with shifting weather patterns.

"Climate change is a reality," he said yesterday, and while he said earlier he didn't want to engage in a "political debate" on the issue, the mere acknowledgement drew praise from environmental advocates across the country, who could provide an important, left-leaning validation if Cuomo were ever to run in a national Democratic primary. 

Managing disaster-response is a familiar role for Cuomo.

As the governor is fond of reminding reporters, he headed the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton, which handled a number of disaster relief efforts around the country, including the Red River floods in the Midwest, and earthquakes in California.

"I had a lot of experience in those eight years," Cuomo said at a briefing on the eve of the storm's arrival. "I never thought it would come in handy, but it's come in handy."

Cuomo praised President Obama for signing off on a pre-landfall declaration of emergency, and the governor marshaled federal resources wherever he could, from a national Unwatering SWAT Team, to out-of-state National Guard troops, to additional federal aid for counties and homeowners.

At a briefing on Sunday morning, the director of FEMA, Craig Fugate praised Cuomo as someone who "knows all the resources that the federal government has to bear."

He sent a letter to President Obama requesting that the state be reimbursed 100 percent for its costs, and excused himself from one briefing because he had a pre-scheduled call with the president, saying the conversation represented "money for New York State."

Cuomo even invited Mayor Michael Bloomberg to one of his briefings last weekend, a surprise appearance after the two squabbled over whether the former MTA chief could appear alongside the mayor during Tropical Storm Irene.

"Andrew and I aren't working more closely today than we were before, because we've always worked very close together, we just have more contact cause there's more to do together," Bloomberg said, pre-emptively addressing any question about their working relationship. "But I can't fault anything the state has done. They've been very helpful to the city and we appreciate it." 

Now if those power companies could just get the lights and heat back on.