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Andrew Cuomo raising his national profile, observers say

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo with engineers, translators, drone

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo with engineers, translators, drone pilots and National Guard members at Kennedy Airport before traveling to Puerto Rico on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

During his first term in office, you couldn’t pry Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo from his home state. Sound off about national politics? Not a chance.

It’s different now, several political observers said.

In the last few weeks alone, Cuomo has flown to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to review hurricane damage and offer New York’s help, traveled to Las Vegas to address the Transport Workers Union and waded into a number of national issues, including climate change, health care, tax cuts and the National Football League.

It’s not surprising to some who see Cuomo as a potential presidential candidate in 2020.

“Obviously, he has his eyes on the national prize and he is sticking his toe into the presidential waters,” said George Arzt, a longtime Democratic strategist. “It is way early, but I think there are people who are already out there... It’s obvious that his agenda in going around the country is a move to be part of the process.”

Cuomo, a Democrat, has said he’s only focused on running for re-election next year for a third term. But he has taken steps to raise his national profile this year, beginning in January and increasing in the last few months.

He began 2017 with a campaign-style rally to tout a proposal to make public colleges tuition-free — even appearing with the politician most associated with that idea, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He denounced President Donald Trump’s interim travel ban barring travel to the United States by residents of certain countries.

In March, Cuomo took a whirlwind trip to Israel, staying all of 15 hours, which he said was to show support for the Israeli people.

Recently, Cuomo joined 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and California Gov. Jerry Brown to promote a climate change accord among states. He flew to Nevada to tell union workers he stood with them in a “fight for the soul of America.” (He flew to Florida in March to make a similar speech to a different union.)

And he has stepped up his complaints about Trump on a Republican-led health-care proposal (saying it funds “tax cuts for the richest by cutting health care for the poorest”), global warming (“the most ignorant federal government we have ever had when it comes to climate change”) and hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico (“they are not doing anything”).

The governor also called it “lunacy” for Trump to be “arguing with football players” about taking a knee during the national anthem rather than focusing on helping Americans recover from disasters.

“It sure looks like the beginnings of a national effort,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “He’s feeling it out ... It’s classic.”

Though the election is three years out and candidate-declaration season is at least 18 months away, hopefuls are trying to get their names out now in part because “we now have a permanent campaign” for the White House, Muzzio said.

Cuomo visited the Virgin Islands Sept. 15 and Puerto Rico Sept. 22 to offer support and drop off supplies. The governor noted that New York has more Puerto Rican residents than any other place besides the island itself, saying the two have special ties.

“For politics, for vote counting, it’s a good thing. But I think he’s sincere and believes there is a moral obligation” to help, Muzzio said of Cuomo’s trips. “It’s good politics, but it’s also good work.”

“He beat the president there,” Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant, said of Cuomo’s trip to Puerto Rico and the president’s scheduled trip this coming week. Sheinkopf, who worked on Cuomo’s 2014 re-election, said it is part of the Democrat’s intention to be seen as an “action governor” who gets things done.

“Should it create speculation about 2020? Yeah, it should,” Sheinkopf said. “But first, it’s about 2018.”

He noted that several Democrats are openly considering running for the party’s nomination and that a handful of Republicans have said they are thinking about the race, too. Critics have noted that Cuomo’s public-approval ratings dipped during a “summer of hell” of subway woes in New York City and that his former closest aide is going on trial next year for allegedly rigging state contracts.

Sheinkopf said the governor’s efforts to raise his profile and sound off on issues key to certain constituencies (unions, Latinos) is foremost about next year.

“He can’t win the governor’s race in 2018,” Sheinkopf said, “by sitting in the governor’s mansion or in his office in Manhattan.”

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