Two ambitious governors — one Republican, one Democrat — known for their no-nonsense, take-charge style in a calamity have set off a furor with their aggressive handling of the Ebola crisis, and how it plays out could shape their political futures.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won praise for their decisive response to Superstorm Sandy two years ago, and their reaction to Ebola seemed rooted in the same philosophy: They would take bold steps to reassure a jittery public with a display of bipartisan cooperation.
But their style this time has proved far more divisive.
“This is a big moment, and a lot of people are watching carefully,” said William Eimicke, professor of public affairs at Columbia University. “It’s about balance and judgment, and voters will remember if this was handled well or not.”
The two men hurriedly put together a mandatory, three-week quarantine plan for health care workers returning from Ebola-stricken West Africa that has come under fire from the White House, medical groups and some quarters of the media, even as the new guidelines were emulated by other states and seemed to influence the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tightened its recommendations.
Christie — who famously commanded New Jerseyans to “Get the hell off the beach” as Superstorm Sandy approached — strongly defended the quarantine measures.
“I’m going to be on the right side of this,” he said Tuesday on NBC’s “Today.” “And I will not submit to any political pressure in doing anything less that I believe is necessary.”
Cuomo, the Democrat, faces the voters next week, and Ebola appears to be the last act of a rocky re-election campaign in which he nevertheless holds a commanding lead in the polls.
While Cuomo is widely expected to sit out the 2016 White House race if Hillary Rodham Clinton runs, Christie is a leading contender for the GOP nomination, and the crisis has given him a cudgel to wield against President Barack Obama as he tries to put the George Washington Bridge scandal behind him.
“People are desperate for leadership, and they’re not feeling it from most of their political leaders,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. He called the Ebola quarantine move “classic Christie,” but suggested that it might not resonate during the 2016 Republican primaries.
“The New Jersey tough guy thing doesn’t play as well in Peoria as it does in New Jersey,” he said.
Cuomo is known for a more deliberative style. He avoids off-the-cuff comments to reporters, his public events are carefully scripted, and he takes a cautious approach to divisive issues. On the question of whether to allow fracking for natural gas, for example, Cuomo has said he will wait for a state health study. That is why the sudden quarantine move surprised many and triggered questions about national ambitions.
The two men enjoy a sort of bipartisan détente, with Cuomo refusing to criticize Christie over Bridgegate and Christie not helping Cuomo’s GOP challenger.
While reassuring to some jittery residents, the governors’ quarantine plan — unveiled with precious few details of how it would work — seemed to many to be at odds with science, since infected people are not contagious until they develop symptoms, and the virus is transmitted only through bodily fluids.
Withering media coverage soon followed, particularly after the first person quarantined under the new policy, a nurse from Doctors Without Borders named Kaci Hickox, complained that her treatment was inhumane. The tabloid headlines screamed (“Bungle Fever” read one, “Ebola Nurse’s Quarantine Hell” read another) while Jon Stewart mocked Christie, and editorial writers accused the governors of grandstanding.
“History isn’t kind to politicians who take short-term advantage out of public health emergencies,” warned Kenneth Sherrill, a retired political science professor at Hunter College. But he added: “There will always be something enticing about trying to appear to be a strong leader in a time of crisis.”
Associated Press writers David Klepper in Albany, New York, and Frank Eltman in Mineola, New York, contributed reporting. Colvin contributed from Des Moines, Iowa.
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