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Some governors have stepped up during coronavirus crisis, others not so much

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has "channeled the nation's yearning" for leadership, said one expert. But many Southern governors have stepped out of the way.
Image: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference on coronavirus at that Javits Center on March 27, 2020.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference on the coronavirus in New York City on Friday. Angus Mordant / Bloomberg via Getty Images

During a recent conference call with America's governors, President Donald Trump was pressed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to use his authority to ramp up production of badly needed medical equipment to combat the coronavirus.

But when Trump said the federal government was merely the "backup," Inslee, a Democrat, let him have it, according to an audio recording of the call obtained by The Associated Press.

"I don't want you to be the backup quarterback. We need you to be Tom Brady here," Inslee said, invoking the name of the football star who also happens to be a friend of Trump's.

Trump didn't like that one bit.

"They think Tom Brady should be leading the effort," Trump groused at a news conference later Thursday. "That's only fake news, and I like Tom Brady, spoke to him the other day, he's a great guy."

Fake or not, it was yet another example of a governor — frustrated by the Trump administration — taking charge while Washington is playing catch-up, several experts on leadership told NBC News.

Trump didn't declare a national emergency until March 13, by which point 20 governors — a dozen Democrats and eight Republicans — had already declared emergencies. That includes Trump loyalists like Ron DeSantis of Florida, who have also taken flak for not moving fast enough.

"Because the federal government was so slow to act, you saw state leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, stepping into that void and taking matters into their own hands," said Asher Hildebrand, a public policy professor at Duke University and a former chief of staff for Rep. David Price, D-N.C.

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And some governors, like Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, have really risen to the challenge, he said.

"More than any other governor, Cuomo has channeled the nation's yearning for sober, decisive and competent leadership during this time of crisis," Hildebrand said. "And his blend of cajoling and flattery in dealing with President Trump is a model for the times. Watching his candid yet reassuring briefings, one is struck with feeling that Cuomo has finally found his moment to shine."

Alvin Tillery Jr., a political science professor at Northwestern University, said Cuomo and several other governors, including Inslee, have performed exceptionally well.

"He gets an A-plus for raising the national alarm about community spread" in places like nursing homes, Tillery said of Inslee. "He has also been a leader in pushing the federal government to assist the states. He has also used the authority of his office to use creative ways to get triage hospitals built in the state."

Also deserving of top grades, in Tillery's estimation, are Democrats Gavin Newsom of California, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, as well as Republicans Larry Hogan of Maryland and Mike DeWine of Ohio.

DeWine "gets an A-plus for decisive action to delay the state's primary," Tillery said. "He has also done an excellent job communicating with his constituents about the potential need to have a long period of social distancing in Ohio."

Hildebrand said DeWine was among the first governors to require health screenings before people visit places like nursing homes and prisons.

Jaime Dominguez, who also teaches at Northwestern and is the founder of the Chicago Democracy Project, agreed.

"All of these governors have demonstrated through public statements and personal interviews that partisan politics will not — and never will — mitigate the state's response to this public health crisis," Dominguez said.

Other Democratic governors, like John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, have also been working effectively with their legislature and doing stellar jobs of keeping their constituents in the loop, Dominguez said.

Hildebrand also praised Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of his home state, North Carolina.

"With two major hurricanes in the past four years, it feels as if Cooper has been in crisis management mode for his entire first term," Hildebrand said. "Fortunately, this has prepared him well to act decisively, communicate effectively with his citizens and work cooperatively with his Republican Legislature and president during this crisis."

The experts largely agreed on which governors have not risen to the occasion.

"On the other end of the spectrum are two governors who placed their partisan allegiances and or anti-intellectualism above the safety and welfare of their constituents," Tillery said — DeSantis and Tate Reeves of Mississippi, a conservative Republican who is an ally of Trump's.

Tillery faulted Reeves for signing an executive order that effectively went against the advice of the state Health Department by declaring most businesses in the state "essential" and therefore exempt from restrictions on public gatherings. He also deemed most religious facilities "essential" just days after the state's top doctors told residents to skip church and avoid weddings and funerals to slow the spread of the virus.

"When the caseload in Mississippi explodes, he will bear the responsibility for it due to this ignominious action," Tillery said.

Parker Briden, Reeves' deputy chief of staff for external affairs, said that Reeves' office has been dealing with a lot of "viral disinformation" about the steps the governor has taken and that it has been working in tandem with state health officials.

"One of the first things the governor did was plead with people to stay out of the churches," Briden said. "However, the governor does not believe we have the right to shut down churches any more than we have the right to shut down the media."

As for DeSantis, "he earns an F for allowing the beaches in Florida to stay open to thousands of tourists from out of state over the past two weeks," Tillery said. "He also compounded this error by supporting President Trump's magical thinking about the possibility of ending social distancing by Easter."

Dominguez ranked Reeves, DeSantis and two other Republican governors — Kay Ivey of Alabama and Greg Abbott of Texas — at the bottom for failing to be proactive, for doing a poor job of executing their states' responses and for being "too concerned about making sure that their messaging aligns with the president's actions and recommendations on curtailing the virus."

"Social distancing has not been a priority," Dominguez said. "They have done a poor job on transparency."

Abbott has been criticized for not issuing a statewide stay-at-home order, although it was Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's suggestion that senior citizens would be willing to die for the U.S. to "get back to work" that made headlines.

"With the nation's second-largest population, the highest uninsured rate in the country and a Legislature that doesn't meet at all in even years, Texas is a state in which the governor's role during a time of crisis is indispensable," Hildebrand said. "Yet Abbott has been behind the curve in nearly every protective measure — declaring a state of emergency, activating the National Guard, ramping up testing capacity, closing bars and restaurants."

In addition, Hildebrand said, Abbott "has shifted much of the emergency response to local municipalities."

As for Ivey, as recently as Thursday she was also refusing to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. And it wasn't until Friday that she closed schools for the rest of the school year.

"Y'all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York state, we are not California," Ivey said. "Right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place."

Hildebrand also faulted Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican.

"Stitt not only resisted calls to close nonessential businesses and places where people congregate, he tweeted a photo of his family dining in a 'packed' Oklahoma City restaurant as the virus was spreading," he said.

The March 14 tweet has since been taken down.

DeSantis, Ivey, Stitt and Abbott did not respond to requests for comment.

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The pandemic has raised the national profiles of some governors, like Cuomo, whose daily briefings have at times gotten more attention than Trump's updates. But Amy Liu, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, said there's another way to measure the effectiveness of the governors' responses.

"Beyond judging governors' performance on cable talk shows or regular press briefings, one way is to evaluate governors on how well they are working with their state legislatures to get something done," Liu said. "In other words, are they passing laws to protect workers and families?"

Using that as a benchmark, Liu said, DeSantis and the other Republican governors, like Doug Ducey of Arizona and Bill Lee of Tennessee, have had some success.

Liu buttressed her assertion with research compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which listed all the states that have passed or are about to pass COVID-19 legislation.

"What's interesting to note is that nearly every governor, no matter their party, is taking this matter seriously," Liu said. "And what's particularly striking is that the GOP controls the governorships and state legislatures in 21 states, and many are stepping up."