Frank Bruni: The squabble of the Italian American governors

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo addresses the media during a press at the State House in Providence. At rear right is Behind the Governor is Col. Christopher P. Callahan of the Rhode Island National Guard. (Sandor Bodo/Providence Journal via AP, Pool)

When every other Democrat in America was swooning over Andrew Cuomo, Gina Raimondo was sparring with him.

I can’t say I’m surprised.

Raimondo, the second-term governor of Rhode Island, is blunt and sometimes contrarian. That’s what I’ve always liked about her.

I can’t say I like how she singled out New Yorkers, stopping cars with New York license plates at the border and ordering any drivers who planned to remain in Rhode Island for a while to quarantine themselves for 14 days. Cuomo, the New York governor, blew a gasket.

But I understood the epidemiological logic of it. The coronavirus was raging in New York. It wasn’t nearly as prevalent in Raimondo’s state. One strategy to limit a contagion is with checkpoints and barriers. She did on a state level what the United States was already doing with Americans returning from hot spots abroad.

The New York Daily News called her policy — which also involved having the National Guard visit and talk with people in vacation homes and rental properties where cars with New York plates were spotted — “authoritarian.” An editorial in The Providence Journal said it was “reminiscent of police states.”

There were rumors — false ones — that visitors were being turned back at the border.

And Cuomo threatened to sue.

That was last Saturday. Hours later, Raimondo changed course. But she didn’t let New Yorkers off the hook. She just gave us company there, decreeing that all out-of-state motorists would be treated the way New Yorkers were. That’s where things stand now.

It isn’t pretty. She conceded as much when we talked on the phone Wednesday night. But it’s necessary, she said, at least if she’s to honor her obligation to save as many Rhode Islanders as possible from death, illness and economic devastation.

“This is a different time,” she told me. “I was asked last week during my daily news conference, ‘Do you worry about the image that you’re creating with National Guardsmen knocking on doors of renters and stopping cars at the border?’ Absolutely! I care about civil liberties. I care about equal protection. I do not like that image.”

“Having said that,” she continued, “the image that I worry a lot more about is hospitals overflowing with people. I’m focused on outcomes, not optics. Regular politics and political considerations are out the window right now. Am I doing things that I would prefer not to and I’m uncomfortable with because we’re in a state of emergency? Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that.”

She told me that Cuomo’s ire didn’t prompt her policy revision; evolving data about infection rates in nearby states other than New York did. After she made the change last weekend, Cuomo quickly sent out an exultant tweet. She scoffed at it.

“If he feels it’s important for him to take credit, go ahead,” she said when asked about it at a news conference. “I will say I think it’s odd that Governor Cuomo is focused on this sort of politics at a time that we’re fighting disasters.”

I just hate it when my fellow Italian Americans squabble. And I hate that these two did, because they’re more alike than different, and they tell the same story, which is that everyone’s flying blind here. No one has a playbook.

It’s better to acknowledge the horror before us and take extraordinary (if imperfect) measures than to peddle misinformation and wallow in happy talk, which is what a certain denizen of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has done.

“This is about acting quickly based on facts, acknowledging that your decisions have to change when the facts change and that when you move quickly, you do make mistakes, and you just have to correct them and move on,” Raimondo said.

So was the focus on New Yorkers a mistake — a needless stigmatization?

“Maybe,” she said. “I don’t know. I did it because Rhode Island is so close to New York and I was hearing from my constituents in coastal towns that they were really, really afraid because rental properties were being rented out at a rapid rate by New Yorkers.”

Many New Yorkers with means have indeed fled the city for less congested places where coronavirus infection rates are lower — for now.

“Here’s a thing I’ve learned,” she told me. “In uncertain times, there are no easy answers.”

Friends of mine in Rhode Island tell me that the state’s residents, including many who weren’t previously fond of Raimondo, have been impressed with and comforted by her.

They point to the steady flow of unvarnished information that she has provided, to how and when she closed schools and issued social-distancing directives, and to the energy with which she has up rounded up resources for a state that as of this writing had 711 confirmed cases of infected people and 14 deaths. (New York, in contrast, had 92,743 cases and 2,473 deaths.)

They praise her for her manner — sometimes tough, other times tender, almost always candid — at the daily news briefings that she, like Cuomo, holds. They say that she’s more popular than ever.

And while there’s no polling to support or refute that, there’s The Providence Journal Election Panel, a group of more than a dozen ideologically diverse Rhode Island voters who periodically weigh in on events. Asked several days ago to assign grades to Raimondo and Trump for their handling of the pandemic, most of them gave her an A and him, a C, D or F.

She’s also being validated by novelty clothing. A Providence gift shop named Frog & Toad has sold thousands of T-shirts that say “Knock It Off,” words that she has directed so often at Rhode Islanders who flout her distancing directives that they have become her signature catchphrase.

One of the owners of Frog & Toad, Asher Schofield, told The Boston Globe’s Edward Fitzpatrick: “We all need an Italian mother right now. Break out the wooden spoon.” (The shirts are sold only online, and some of the proceeds go toward coronavirus relief efforts.)

Raimondo, 48, told me that “Knock it off” was a frequent reprimand from her mother, 88, from whom she is staying away, as a precaution and an example.

“It’s hard for me not to see my mom,” she said. “I’m used to seeing her all the time.”

She added that it’s also hard being unable to go to her Roman Catholic parish.

“I had to call the bishop and say, ‘I’d like you to cancel Mass indefinitely,’” she marveled. “Whether it’s church or synagogue or mosque or whatever, all these things that you rely on for community and faith and grounding and structure are suddenly gone, and that’s what people are struggling through — all of us.”

At her news conference Thursday, she answered questions that she’d solicited from children in the state and spoke directly to them. She admonished those who, doing their lessons at home, might be slacking off.

“Teenagers, this is school,” she said. “Don’t get out of bed at 11 a.m. This is not time to chill out. This is real school. Do your work.”

But she also commiserated with the class of 2020.

“This stinks,” she said. “I know this isn’t the senior year you hoped to have. All I can say is I’m sorry. It’s really unlikely that you will have prom in the same way. But I promise you we will find new ways to celebrate your accomplishments and make sure you have some fun.”

It’s fascinating, in this era of profound political cynicism, to watch some public officials play such central roles in our lives, embrace such difficult judgment calls, and dole out terrible news and tentative reassurances in equal measure.

It’s just as fascinating to see the response. Polling in various states has shown remarkably high marks for the handling of the pandemic by governors such as Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican; Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat; and of course, Cuomo.

Raimondo likes and respects Cuomo, she told me.

“He didn’t want his constituents to be singled out,” she said. “Very reasonable, I give him credit. He’s speaking up for New Yorkers. I’m sticking up for Rhode Islanders. And forget it. We moved on.”

She’s racing to set up field hospitals. She’s trying to figure out how to help all the desperate Rhode Islanders with shuttered businesses and lost jobs. It can be overwhelming.

“I will be very, very honest,” she said. “It goes in waves. You have waves where you think, ‘I’m on top of this. The system is working. We can do this.’ Then there’s the downside of the wave where you think, ‘Wow, this is so enormous, we have to do so much so quickly.’ But then you get right back on it. There’s no option to stop. There’s no option to stop.”

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.