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Cuomo and Newsom: Portraits of Failure During COVID

In this image taken from video, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. Cuomo and his health commissioner offered a full-throated defense Friday of their March decision to require nursing homes to accept patients recovering from COVID-19, saying it was the best option for overwhelmed hospitals that desperately needed to free up beds. (Office of the Governor of New York via AP)

FILE – In this April 9, 2020, file photo California Gov. Gavin Newsom gives his coronavirus update at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in Rancho Cordova, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

In this image taken from video, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. Cuomo and his health commissioner offered a full-throated defense Friday of their March decision to require nursing homes to accept patients recovering from COVID-19, saying it was the best option for overwhelmed hospitals that desperately needed to free up beds. (Office of the Governor of New York via AP)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, two Democratic governors on opposite ends of the country were hailed as heroes for their leadership in a crisis. Times have changed, though.

Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California are embroiled in distinct political woes. For Cuomo, it’s a federal investigation into how his administration hid the true toll of the pandemic. For Newsom, it’s fending off a recall effort fueled by opposition to his lockdowns — and his own personal missteps.

“We’ve had too many mission accomplished moments,” said Rebecca Katz, a New York City-based Democratic strategist who ran a primary challenge against Cuomo in 2018.

The COVID-19 virus has been an especially painful illustration of that point. Cuomo and Newsom both seized the moment in their own ways. Cuomo went on television for daily briefings that were sharply critical of the Trump administration. The briefings were aided in part by Cuomo’s CNN news host brother. Newsom, meanwhile, instituted early lockdowns, and for a time his state avoided the worst of the virus.

But ultimately it was their actions, not their tone or words, that brought them down to earth.

“This is all a bunch of tough stuff,” said California strategist Rob Stutzman, noting that governors are judged on outcomes and the outcomes in this crisis have been bad everywhere. “At the end of the day, these different approaches the governors have taken have made very little difference because, well, it’s a virus.”

Several governors have managed to avoid major political backlash, like Republican Charlie Baker in Massachusetts or Democrat Jared Polis in Colorado. But the travails of Cuomo and Newsom show how big states are exceptionally tricky to run and always under the microscope.

While the coronavirus may have first landed on U.S. soil on the West Coast, it exploded into public consciousness in March as New York City was wracked by a hideous outbreak. As the epidemic spiraled, Cuomo on March 25 issued a directive barring nursing homes from refusing patients based solely on a COVID-19 diagnosis. Cuomo defended the directive as an effort to prevent catastrophic hospital overcrowding.

Despite his state’s death toll, Cuomo’s popularity soared. In October, Cuomo took an early victory lap, releasing a book titled “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” But the nursing home issue exploded onto the political scene with two recent revelations. First, the state’s Democratic attorney general chastised the Cuomo administration for minimizing the death toll at nursing homes by excluding certain fatalities from the count. Cuomo’s administration then revealed at least 15,000 people living in long-term care facilities have died of COVID-19, nearly double the number Cuomo had initially disclosed.

The New York Post reported that a member of Cuomo’s administration told lawmakers it had withheld the numbers for fear of them being “used against us.”

“The nursing homes story really exposed quite a bit about his leadership style and the success of his leadership during COVID,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “The governor wrote a book touting his accomplishments, and we don’t know if we’re halfway out of the pandemic.”

The meltdown in California has been more gradual. A month after Cuomo released his coronavirus book, an embarrassed Newsom was apologizing for attending a lobbyist’s birthday party at the posh French Laundry restaurant, even as he was telling Californians to avoid gatherings.

The restaurant scandal came as California’s image began to fade. Rising cases and shrinking capacity at hospitals prompted Newsom to reinstate stay-at-home orders between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Republicans had circulated recall petitions against Newsom months before, complaining about his handling of homelessness and the economy, but they shifted to include his COVID-19 response in their complaints and began racking up signatures.

In January, Newsom abruptly lifted the stay-at-home orders, sparking accusations he was abandoning science. He was then forced to retool the state’s vaccine distribution system. Now the state’s coronavirus numbers are dropping. His job approval rating has also.

Stutzman said Newsom is suffering for failing to provide the smooth, efficient government he promised when elected. But part of his fall, and Cuomo’s, was inevitable because they are no longer being compared to Trump and his often hands-off approach to the virus response.

“Any of these Democratic governors are going to come off these initial highs they got that were better than Republican governors,” Stutzman, a Republican, argued. “Democrats across the country got a false boost out of this because of Trump, but when it all nets out it looks the same.”

The governors’ troubles stand as a warning for Biden, a Democrat who has declared he now owns the pandemic response and will be judged by how he delivers.

“At least the Biden administration got to see how everyone else did first,” Katz said.

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Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.

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