The multiple crises gripping the US – from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic to a deadly winter storm that left millions of Texans without heat and potable water – have jeopardized the once-bright futures of three of the nation’s most prominent governors who are trying to defend their judgment, preparedness and oversight to furious residents in three of the biggest states in the country.
Republican Greg Abbott and Democrats Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom, who are all up for reelection in 2022, are facing very different problems — and different degrees of blame in what their critics view as lapses in judgment. But the white-hot scrutiny on all three of them underscores the increasing accountability for high-profile, big state governors after four years in which former President Donald Trump espoused a decentralized approach to the nation’s most pressing problems and elevated the responsibility of governors to provide for their people by essentially telling them they were on their own.
A fourth governor, Republican Ron DeSantis of Florida – who was mired in controversy for his haphazard handling of Covid-19 for much of last year — is also in the spotlight again this week, facing new accusations of political favoritism surrounding the placement of a pop-up vaccination site that was set up to serve residents from two affluent zip codes.
The devastating impact of the pandemic and the near collapse of Texas’ power grid has revealed the nation’s lack of cohesive planning for disasters — whether it is US readiness to treat and vaccinate millions of Americans in the grip of a deadly virus or to protect them from the alarming severity of major weather events, including winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires that have unfolded in the midst of a climate crisis.
Governors are being asked to account for the pervasive problems that have been exposed by those events: gaping income equality, food insecurity, an appalling level of health inequity and the inefficiency of the nation’s health care delivery system. Even though governors cannot control the unpredictable path of a novel virus or the severity of a winter storm, weary Americans have no patience right now for excuses – much less a coverup when things go awry.
Abbott, Texas’ Republican governor, is quickly becoming the embodiment of the risks of the Lone Star State’s laissez-faire, anti-regulation ethos as he struggles to explain why the state’s power grid was not prepared for the winter storm that led some Texans to burn furniture and fences to stay warm as another 13 million remain under boil water notices. He aggravated his own problems by foolishly rushing on Fox News Tuesday night to blame green energy sources like wind and solar for the massive failure. But the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages Texas’ independent grid, later clarified that problems with the natural gas supply were largely responsible.
Newsom, California’s Democratic governor, is facing a well-funded effort by Republicans to recall him from office after he enacted restrictive stay-at-home orders to try to halt the soaring number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in his state — actions that his opponents say crippled small businesses and slowed the state’s economic recovery. While his leadership was widely praised for much of last year, he made himself a target for charges of hypocrisy by attending a November birthday party at aa fancy restaurant while he was urging Californians to stay home and avoid gatherings.
Cuomo’s administration in New York is under scrutiny for the handling of some of the data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities in New York, weeks after state Attorney General Letitia James revealed that the New York State Department of Health undercounted those deaths by approximately 50%, essentially by leaving out deaths of residents who had been transferred to hospitals.
The US attorney’s office in Brooklyn and the FBI are now looking into the handling of some of the data, as first reported by the Albany Times Union. It is unclear whether authorities are looking at Cuomo or members of his administration.
The profile of all three of those governors – and attention to their potential higher ambitions – was heightened over the past year during the pandemic when they were continually in front of the microphones. But that increased exposure has now magnified their missteps and potential pitfalls.
Douglas Brinkley, a CNN presidential historian who teaches history at Rice University and was still without power in Texas Thursday afternoon, said he was reminded of the old adage that the nail that stands the tallest gets hammered down.
“When something like Covid-19 hits in those states, it becomes a mad scramble that’s kind of hard to wrap your hands around,” Brinkley said, noting the size and complexity of New York, California and Texas. “It’s just a lot easier governing North Dakota or Arkansas than it is governing one of the big three like that.”
Brinkley added that the lack of federal planning under four years of Trump’s decentralized approach has created “a feast or famine environment around the country where people have had to go it alone without federal largesse and leadership, and it creates just a massive amount of confusion.”
Texans demand answers as Abbott promises to fix energy grid problems
In an effort to repair their statures, all three governors have followed the cornerstone principle of any viable public relations effort by stating that they take responsibility for the problems facing their states.
Abbott was the latest to take that step during a briefing on the Texas energy grid crisis Thursday afternoon, where he said that power had been restored to the majority of Texans after a week in which more than 4 million customers were without it at one point — and outlined the actions he is taking to ensure the situation “can never be replicated again.”
Though Democrats have argued that Abbott bears responsibility for failing to make sure Texas’ power grid was prepared for the storm – a criticism that Republicans often leveled at Newsom when California was forced to deal with rolling blackouts during last summer’s heat waves – Abbott put most of the blame on ERCOT, which has operated Texas’ independent power grid since 1970. (The stand-alone nature of ERCOT meant that Texas was unable to borrow power from neighboring states in the midst of the crisis this week.)
Abbott said he is asking the Texas legislature not only to investigate what happened, but to mandate the winterization of generators and the power system. He angrily noted that a new chair and vice chair were elected to ERCOT’s board from outside of Texas in the weeks prior to the storm – though it was unclear how that would have affected the agency’s long-term planning. He noted that the agency’s annual winter assessment “assured the public that there would be enough power to meet peak demand this winter,” and that turned out to be very wrong.
When asked if he took responsibility for the crisis, he replied: “I’m taking responsibility for the current status of ERCOT. Again, I find what has happened unacceptable.”
“Texans deserve answers about why the shortfalls occurred, and how they’re going to be corrected and Texans will get those answers,” Abbott said.
But his initial instinct to politicize the crisis by misleadingly claiming that the nation’s transition toward renewable energy sources was at the root of the crisis. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity earlier this week.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Thursday night that it is clear that state agencies, ERCOT and the public utilities commission that oversees ERCOT “got caught completely flat-footed.”
He faulted Abbott for re-igniting a political debate over renewable energy in the midst of a crisis: “If you look at what happened most of the failure was with the fossil fuel production and delivery. Some of it was from the wind turbines,” Castro said. “But all of it was because the state government never prepared for this kind of weather event.”
Cuomo faces blowback on multiple fronts
The revelation that the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn and the FBI are now looking into the handling of some of the data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities was an ominous political development for Cuomo, because the investigation could shadow him as he positions himself to seek a fourth term.
The New York governor has come under fire both for his explanation of what happened and his behavior as he tried to mitigate the damage of the data reporting scandal.
Last week, Cuomo’s top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted in a call with state lawmakers that the administration tried to delay the release of the data on Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, wary of a federal Justice Department preliminary inquiry.
During a Monday news conference, Cuomo – who had engendered the trust of New Yorkers last year with his sober updates on the Covid-19 crisis – said the data requested by lawmakers about Covid-19 deaths was not provided soon enough, but he insisted the state’s death counts were accurate.
“To be clear, all the deaths in the nursing homes and in the hospitals were always fully, publicly and accurately reported,” he said.
Cuomo defended his administration’s delay in releasing data on Covid-19 deaths, explaining that the Department of Health “paused” state lawmakers’ request for Covid-19 death data while his administration was focused on a related inquiry by the Justice Department. The delay in responding to information requests, he said, created “a void” that has allowed conspiracy theories to flourish.
“The void we created by not providing information was filled with skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion,” he said.
“No excuses. We should not have created the void,” he said. “We should have done a better job in providing information. We should have done a better job of knocking down the disinformation. … I accept responsibility for that.”
Newsom focuses on accelerating pace of vaccinations
Newsom, who apologized profusely to Californians for going to the birthday party last year by pledging to “preach and practice, not just preach,” has tried to steady his political position in California by focusing on virus mitigation efforts while largely shrugging off the threat of a recall. After lifting the stay-at-home orders, he has focused on improving the rollout of vaccinations in California, which got off to a shaky start.
He has spent his recent days visiting vaccination sites in Los Angeles, Fresno, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara to highlight the state’s improving pace in administering more than 6 million doses of the vaccine.
On Tuesday, he appeared at the opening of one of the first community vaccination sites in the country in Los Angeles, which was created in partnership with FEMA and the Biden administration. He once again brushed off questions related to the recall by stating that he understands Californians’ frustrations with the havoc that the pandemic has wrought and that he is doing everything he can to help his state get back to normalcy.
“It’s been a difficult and challenging year for all of us,” Newsom said in Los Angeles, pointing to the downward slope of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in a state that has been among the hardest hit by the virus. “But the fact is, at scale, we are moving in the right direction, including in terms of the administration and doses of vaccine, in terms of getting people back to work, and putting our kids back to school. So those are objective, empirical truths.”
Voters in all three states will be looking for empirical truths as they judge how their leaders fared in these crises, and all three governors will be called to answer for them at the ballot box.