‘Dictatorial powers’: Andrew Cuomo took massive executive authority to deal with the coronavirus. Some state lawmakers feel sidelined.

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was granted new executive powers by the Legislature in early March to respond to the coronavirus.
  • Cuomo’s new authority goes beyond an existing provision allowing New York’s governor to supersede state and local statutes to respond to a disaster, with a “disease outbreak” added to a budget bill.
  • State lawmakers told Insider they feel sidelined by the governor, who’s able to issue “directives” that would normally be under the Legislature’s authority.
  • Another new provision allows Cuomo to make budget cuts unless the Assembly and Senate vote them down within a 10 day review period.
  • “I don’t really believe in giving anyone dictatorial powers,” Democratic Assemblyman Phil Steck said.
  • “He’s a bully, but he’s a bully with 85% approval ratings,” a longtime Democratic lawmaker told Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After debates in Albany were waged until nearly midnight on March 2, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo emerged from the capitol with enhanced executive powers to combat the coronavirus.

While New York State law already had provisions allowing the governor to supersede state and local statutes to respond to a disaster, Cuomo’s new powers – which were bundled in three bills on the budget instead of as separate provisions – have left lawmakers feeling rankled and sidelined.

Cuomo has already changed more than 260 laws since the vote went down.

The mood in the Legislature, according to lawmakers who spoke to Insider both on the record and on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from the governor’s office, has been a mix of grim and helpless.

“We were doing things by Zoom, and he assumed power that, under a normal circumstance, would be completely unacceptable – but at the time, I did not see any formidable opposition,” a longtime Democratic lawmaker told Insider.

“He’s a bully, but he’s a bully with 85% approval ratings,” the veteran Democrat added. “The other thing is that he’s taking responsibility for solving the crisis.”

Others were less forgiving.

“[Cuomo] really took this opportunity to consolidate power and take power,” another Democratic lawmaker told Insider.

The legislator recalled being explicitly threatened with an emboldened primary challenger if they did not vote for the executive powers, but they voted against them anyway.

“You’re literally told that if you vote this way against what they want, that you’ll lose your race – you will lose your seat and suffer the consequences of ‘you’re not voting for COVID relief’ or for things that were in the budget,” they said.

“That’s kind of the warning shot in the air.”

Governor Cuomo’s office did not return requests for comment.

In upstate New York, many Republicans have voiced longstanding grievances of the rural area of the state being ignored by Cuomo in favor of the more densely populated area to the south around New York City.

The ability to issue directives has been described by some as akin to enacting law by decree.

“You’re giving the governor power to write legislation on his own. That is the very definition of a dictatorial action,” Republican State Sen. George Borrello of Chautauqua County told the Wall Street Journal shortly after the budget passed.

Even some upstate Democrats have bristled at Cuomo’s new powers, citing concerns beyond the upstate-downstate dynamic.

“I don’t really believe in giving anyone dictatorial powers,” Democratic Assemblyman Phil Steck told Insider.

Steck, who has been in the Assembly representing an upstate district in Schenectady County since 2013, noted that while he thinks Cuomo has done an overall good job responding to COVID-19, it can be frustrating to tell constituents “we don’t have the power” in the Legislature.

“So, much as I disagree that anyone should have a dictatorship, I’m of the principle the reason you have democracy is that many heads are better than one, and you might get better outcomes – as much as I feel that way, I think the governor has been responsive to many of the concerns of upstate members,” he said.

Cuomo’s plans to reopen the economy by region have been a major plus for upstate lawmakers, Steck added.

Downstate, where the virus has ravaged areas of New York City, Long Island and the commuter suburbs in Westchester County, lawmakers like Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou – a Manhattan Democrat whose district includes Chinatown and the Financial District – have been calling for a 9/11-style relief package.

So far, more than 21,000 New Yorkers have died from COVID-19, with the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties being the hardest hit. The Empire State’s death toll and new hospitalizations have been falling

Niou, who voted against all of the bills that gave Cuomo his authorities, told Insider she has been pleased with the governor’s overall response and some targeted measures he’s taken, like moving the state toward absentee voting.

But with the great power Cuomo has taken on, Niou said she would like to hear some answers on what will be done to save Chinatown, from rent forgiveness to a more comprehensive relief package.

“So one of the things that didn’t go well has been the fact that I haven’t really gotten a lot of response from the jump on some of the concerns that I have had with how our government has been dealing with the actual crisis that’s hitting Chinatown in particular,” Niou said.

A freshman Democrat who campaigned for Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 primary and is already facing a well-funded primary challenger, Niou described “two epidemics.”

“One is the actual virus, the other one is hate and xenophobia,” Niou said, citing a sharp decline in businesses in Chinatown – as much as 50% – before there were even any reported cases of COVID-19 in the Big Apple.

Even if Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal is enacted to close off streets from cars and open up room for outdoor dining, Niou noted that the intimate appeal of family-owned restaurants in Chinatown coupled with anti-Asian sentiment will be tough to overcome.

A grim harbinger for Niou came on Wednesday, when the Paris Cafe announced it would close its doors for good after 147 years in business at the historic South Street Seaport.

“It survived the Great Recession, survived 9/11 and it survived multiple hurricanes,” Niou said.

“And I think our restaurants in Chinatown have even less runway than Paris did, and if they opened like day three after 9/11 … if they can’t make it, then I want to know what possibility we’ve got.”