NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on Tuesday cast himself and the state that he leads as progressive beacons and a bulwark against President Donald Trump, taking the oath of office while standing on Ellis Island.
In his third inaugural address, Cuomo pledged to pursue a “new justice agenda” that would confront a “cancer” of hatred and division that he said threatened the nation.
Cuomo conspicuously avoided invoking the president by name, even as he sharply rebuked a federal government that he said “has sought to demonize our differences and make our diversity our greatest weakness rather than our greatest strength.”
“America’s only threat is from within: It is the growing division amongst us,” Cuomo said. New York, he vowed, would be “the light to lead the way through the darkness.”
Cuomo has said flatly and repeatedly that he is not running for president in 2020, even as he has leaned in to cast himself as a leading Democratic foil to the Republican president.
Cuomo, 61, was determined to deliver his inaugural address on Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants arrived at what became the symbolic gateway to a new life in the New World in the early 20th century.
The fact that Cuomo’s administration is currently footing the bill — $65,000 per day — to keep Ellis Island open during a federal government shutdown, sparked by Trump’s insistence that Congress fund a border wall with Mexico to keep immigrants out, made the location all the more poignant a contrast.
“Let New York say that the federal government may shut itself down, but it will never extinguish the Statue of Liberty’s torch. It will never erase the words of her poem,” Cuomo declared. “They will never close our harbor. They will never close our hearts. They will never close this hall of dreamers.”
It was a highly produced evening, complete with a campaign-style five-minute video introducing Cuomo and touting his life achievements. His half-hour speech was followed by a live performance of “Rise Up” by singer Andra Day. A full gospel choir also performed. The inaugural speech was followed by a reception on Ellis Island for Cuomo and his supporters, paid for by the state Democratic Party.
Much of New York’s political class — friends of Cuomo, labor leaders, lobbyists, elected officials and party functionaries — had piled into big boats at Battery Park for a rare ride to Ellis Island after dark. Attendees whipped out their cellphones and opened windows wide for a clearer shot of the glowing Statue of Liberty, as cold winter air gushed in.
This was Cuomo’s third inauguration and the sixth for a Cuomo governor — his father, Mario Cuomo, also served three terms. So thoroughly has the Cuomo family dominated New York politics that for those born since 1980, a Cuomo has been governor for a majority of their lifetimes — even before the younger Cuomo embarks on his new term.
Cuomo had labored intensely on the inaugural address for weeks, drafting passages by hand as he spent the holidays in the Executive Mansion in Albany, according to people familiar with his preparation.
While he never mentioned Trump by name, he did pointedly invoke that Ellis Island was “the harbor where Frederick Trump arrived from Germany,” noting that his “grandson would become the president of the United States.”
Cuomo said that his own family members had come through Ellis Island and that the ancestors of so many others, including Vice President Mike Pence, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court and former secretary of state Colin Powell had marched through “this sacred place.”
“Never forget where you came from,” he said.
Cuomo blamed those running the federal government, and thus Trump, for taking advantage of deep divisions in the country, if not creating them. “Like looters during a blackout, they didn’t cause the darkness but they exploited it,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo won his third term resoundingly, capturing nearly 60 percent of the vote in the general election and nearly two-thirds of the primary vote, campaigning consistently against the Trump administration.
Like the nation, New York has become increasingly polarized between its urban liberal base in New York City and its more conservative rural areas. Cuomo won only six counties north of Westchester County in 2018 — and those were mostly counties with urban centers like Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Albany. Cuomo carried fewer counties than four years ago, even as he finished 10 percentage points farther ahead of his Republican challenger in 2018 than in 2014.
The tenor of Tuesday’s swearing-in was a far cry from Cuomo’s first inaugural address, in which he offered an olive branch to Republican lawmakers in New York, promising, “I say I will not govern in a partisan way and my administration will not be a partisan administration.”
The coming term will be Cuomo’s first with a Legislature fully controlled by Democrats, presenting a new set of challenges for a politician who initially campaigned as a centrist but who now describes himself as a “pragmatic progressive.”
“I feel liberated,” Cuomo said of working with a Democrat-run Legislature.
Notably, neither Democratic legislative leader, Assemblyman Carl Heastie or Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, chose to attend Cuomo’s inauguration.
The governor has already outlined an ambitious agenda for his first 100 days, invoking the frenetic start to the presidency of a former New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as his inspiration.
“As our nation once confronted a great economic depression, we now confront a great social depression,” Cuomo said, adding, “Just as FDR turned the frustration of the economic depression into a movement to pass the New Deal, let New York use the frustration of the social depression to pass a new justice agenda “
The Cuomo prescription for 2019 included a wish list of liberal policies: legalizing recreational marijuana; making Election Day a holiday; ending cash bail at the state level; enacting more restrictive gun laws; strengthening abortion rights protections; banning corporate money in state elections; tightening rent-control protections; and instituting automatic voter registration.
Few are underestimating a governor who approaches everything from event staging to the wording of a news article about him as a win-at-all-costs battle.
“He’s no day at the beach,” Diane Savino, a veteran Democratic state senator from Staten Island, said of Cuomo. But, she added, “Over the last eight years, whether you love him or hate him, no one can say Andrew Cuomo doesn’t get stuff done.”
Third terms have historically been challenging, and Cuomo has benefited heavily from governing during robust and almost continuous economic growth.
And, as he enters his ninth year in office, Cuomo’s tight inner circle of advisers has shrunk to the point of concern among even his close allies. His relentless pace, intense management style, stubbornness and reluctance to trust newcomers have made him ever more reliant on a select few aides. He survived two corruption trials in 2018 involving senior administration officials that resulted in convictions, including of Joseph Percoco, once one of Cuomo’s top lieutenants.
He was sworn in Tuesday evening by Janet DiFiore, the chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, surrounded by his mother, his longtime girlfriend, Sandra Lee, and his daughters.
The speech marked Cuomo’s first full Inauguration Day without his father, who died exactly four years ago. In a twist fit for a novel, the 56th governor was informed of the death of the 52nd governor just moments after finishing his second inaugural address in Buffalo.
On Tuesday, he called the anniversary “bittersweet for me.”
“I can hear his voice and I can imagine his pain and anger if he could see his beloved country today,” Cuomo said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.