ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent trips to the hurricane-hit islands of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands along with his new willingness to criticize President Donald Trump are boosting speculation he has his eyes on a White House run in 2020.
The Democratic governor told reporters in Westchester County on Tuesday — the same day that Trump had visited Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory — that the president should have been more prompt in getting to the U.S. territory.
“I think it would be better if he had gone there earlier,” Cuomo said of the president. “Showing up when you are in a position of power, president of the United States, would give such a reassurance to the community.”
Cuomo on Wednesday further amplified his connection to hurricane victims on those islands by urging State University trustees to extend in-state tuition at New York’s public colleges to college students whose studies were interrupted at schools in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
And following the weekend killings of 59 people attending a concert in Las Vegas, Cuomo took a hard slap at the Trump administration and unnamed congressmen who have not moved to tighten gun-control laws.
“I think it is ludicrous for the White House to say now is not the time to talk about it,” Cuomo said.
But if Cuomo does harbor White House ambitions, it would be an awkward time to confirm such interest. He has made it known he plans to seek a third term in Albany next year.
Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University, suggested Cuomo has to be at least tempted to seize the opportunity to mount a White House candidacy.
“The timing may never be this good again because if a Democrat wins (in 2020), then you’re potentially out for two cycles,” Reeher said.
Cuomo, who turns 60 years old in December, is being talked up by a number of Democrats, including former Rep. Charles Rangel, the Harlem politician who was among the first to make the case in 2000 that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton could win a U.S. Senate seat simply by moving from Arkansas to New York. She did.
When asked by the Observer, a Manhattan publication, two weeks ago if he thought other New York Democrats should be considered, Rangel replied: “It’s too early, but it’s no question that no matter what the mix is, Governor Cuomo would be included.”
State GOP Chairman Ed Cox said he is convinced Cuomo craves seeking his party’s nomination for the presidency.
Cox said Cuomo’s trips to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were justified on “humanitarian grounds,” though added “there is a political aspect to it.”
As for signals that suggest the governor is interested in the nation’s top office, Cox listed Cuomo’s push to boost New York’s minimum wage to $15 and his administration’s stance against fracking for shale gas and the proposed build-out of natural gas transmission lines, as well as his stated support for a single-payer health care system.
“He’s doing a lot of knee-jerk, far-left things just to please that portion of his party,” Cox said in an interview.
But one upstate Democratic county chairman, Richard Abbate of Otsego County, said Cuomo has demonstrated that he is a national leader.
“Right now the governor has his eyes on the governorship,” Abbate said. “I think he sees the gridlock in Washington and perhaps in the back of his mind he sees how he could move us forward as a country and that he could do a good job. But right now I don’t think he is going to step away.”
By raising his national profile in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College in New York City, Cuomo is “setting himself up to be the No. 1 contender” in the presidential primary in 2020.
Muzzio also said that Cuomo hasn’t hurt himself politically by stepping up his criticism of Trump, with polls showing New Yorkers having an unfavorable view of the president.
“Some may see the things he is doing as politically expedient, but on the other hand he is showing a commitment to principle,” Muzzio said of Cuomo.
Reeher said that if Cuomo is interested in a White House run, a prudent course may be to limit mention of his role in enacting the gun-control measure known as the New York SAFE Act, passed in Albany after the schoolhouse slaughter in Newtown, Conn. He noted Democratic contests in the path to a nomination begin in Iowa and New Hampshire, both states where voters tend to support gun rights.
“He has pushed that about as far strategically as a Democrat would want to push it,” Reeher said. “I’m not sure this isn’t going to be a little bit of an albatross around his neck,” in light of the fact that gun rights are also important to voters in the Southern states.
With his own gubernatorial re-election on his immediate calendar, Cuomo will likely avoid joining other White House aspirants on the chicken dinner circuit in early primary states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, at least through the next year, said Steve Greenberg, a Siena College pollster.
It is also a distinct possibility that Cuomo could face a Democratic primary next year, with Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and former state Sen. Terry Gipson of Rhinebeck among those testing the waters for such a challenge, he noted.
“For the next 13 months, Greenberg predicted, “the governor’s focus is going to be on the governor’s election.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. You can reach him at email@example.com