News Analysis: For Cuomo and Christie, Sandy Offers Peril and Possibilities

National disasters are fraught with peril for any leader. As Hurricane Sandy slams the eastern seaboard just a week before a national election, no one wants to make the wrong move.  Least of all the Governors of New York and New Jersey, both of whom are eying a possible 2016 run for the presidency.

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the dramatic shut-down of New York’s transit system, he did so in Bethpage, Long Island — well outside New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s jurisdiction — and an hour before Mayor Bloomberg’s own briefing. For Cuomo, it was a subtle but effective way of assuming the mantle of leadership. A year ago, Jay Walder, then the MTA chief, caused friction by standing with the Mayor, not the Governor.  Not so this time around — MTA Chief Joe Lhota stayed with Governor Cuomo.

When Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey held a news conference in New Jersey early Sunday afternoon, he praised President Barack Obama, instead of burying him. “I appreciated the president’s outreach today in making sure that we know he’s watching this and is concerned about the health and welfare and safety of the people of the state of New Jersey,” Christie said.

He couldn't help but offer a dig at environmental regulations, however, a favorite target of Republicans. When it comes to taking flood prevention measures, he said, "it's better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission" of regulators.

Neither Christie nor Cuomo had banked on spending their weekends this way. On Friday, Governor Christie was campaigning for Mitt Romney in North Carolina. Though campaign officials had yet to release a schedule, Christie has been out on the trail every weekend day, and there’s no evidence he had planned to make this weekend any different.

Also on Friday, Governor Cuomo was readying a trip to Florida, where democratic officials said he’d help pull out the senior vote and lesbians and gays. This was to have been Cuomo’s first campaign swing for the Democratic ticket, and a chance to raise his own political profile in a key swing state. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that both Governor Cuomo decided to stay in-state, instead.

When it comes to national disasters, both governors have had some practice in getting it right, a “cruel irony,” as Cuomo said Monday at a press briefing at his Third Avenue offices. Just over a year ago Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee ravaged parts of New Jersey and New York.

Flood waters washed away roads, devoured train tracks, and caused billions of dollars in property damage. Bridges in the Catskills disappeared, and power was disrupted for weeks. Along the AuSable river in the Adirondacks, ruined appliances and furniture were piled outside of homes.  But Governor Cuomo sprung into action — organizing bands of clean-up volunteers. He gave each of them a T-shirt announcing their membership in “Governor Andrew Cuomo’s volunteer corps.”

Across the Hudson, Christie was famously exhorting New Jerseyans to “get off the beach,” before, literally, rolling up his sleeves and barn-storming through hard-hit areas.

In states where the damage was devastating and lasting, both men managed to seem tough, compassionate, and purposeful. Neither has been blamed for what went wrong.

This is not a given. In 2010, Mayor Bloomberg bungled the clean-up of the blizzard of 2010, joking that snow-bound New Yorkers should take in a Broadway show, taking days to clean up streets, and most miserably, failing to give information in a timely fashion to New Yorkers, politicians, or the media.  The next snow-storm was rapidly cleaned up, and New York now has GPS devices on sanitation trucks to provide real-time information on clean-up.

In 2005, President George W. Bush lastingly reinforced the impression that he was out of touch after Hurricane Katrina, when he infamously applauded his FEMA director Mike Brown with the approbation “heck of a job, Brownie.”

When Andrew Cuomo ran for Governor of New York in 2002, he contributed to his own downfall by mocking Governor George Pataki as not displaying true leadership. “He stood behind the leader,” he said on his campaign bus, referring to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s role in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  Governor Pataki “held the leader's coat."

Though Cuomo afterwards tried to walk back the remark, it was, and remains, a window into his thinking on leadership.

Neither Cuomo nor Christie is holding anyone’s coat.