In This Episode
As federal authorities have moved farther away from the frontlines of this virus, state and local leaders are left to manage the spread of Covid-19. How are they balancing the safety of their citizens with the economic realities of a widespread shutdown? How are they dealing with the Trump White House? And how are they getting any sleep? First, Alex speaks with Governor Steve Bullock of Montana about the delicate balance of being a Democratic governor of a deep red state (and an upcoming candidate in the US Senate race). Then she speaks with Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, who is literally taking to the streets to keep people safe in the third largest city in America.
[clip of President Trump] And I have to say, the media has been pretty good and the governors have been really good, except for a couple.
[voice] . . . words they’re saying they’re concerned about, it’s not that—
[clip of President Trump] I think they should be appreciative. Because you know what? When they’re not appreciative to me, they’re not appreciative to the Army Corps, they’re not appreciative to FEMA. It’s not right. I mean, Mike Pence, I don’t think he sleeps anymore. He calls all the governors. I tell him, I mean, I’m a different type of person, I say, Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan. It doesn’t make any difference what happens.
[voice] The governor of Washington—
[clip of President Trump] No, you know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.
Alex Wagner: Hi, I’m Alex Wagner. Welcome to Six Feet Apart. That was President Trump on March 27th of this year, talking about the nation’s governors and whether or not he feels like dealing with them on any given day. As the pandemic has spread here in America, we’ve witnessed a different kind of distancing. Federal authorities have moved farther away from the front lines of the virus, leaving state and local leaders to manage it spread largely on their own. In the age of COVID-19, mayors and governors have had to write the playbook for a once-in-a-lifetime black swan event as it’s unfolding in real time. That’s what we’re talking about today: government. What’s it been like in statehouses and city halls as a deadly new sickness has fallen over rural and metropolitan landscapes alike? Has it been lonely or frustrating or both, to operate in a national crisis without stronger federal guidance? Who gets those coveted phone calls from President Trump anyway? How have mayors and governors managed the emotional strain of this historic moment? Are they even sleeping? First, we’re going to speak with Governor Steve Bullock of Montana, who’s serving out the last months of his term limit this year. He’s a Democratic governor in a red state where the outbreak hasn’t been as severe as it has been elsewhere in the country. As of today, Montana has 456 confirmed cases and 16 deaths. In part, that may be due to the fact that Governor Bullock pursued aggressive isolation policies and closures relatively early compared to many other red states. He is one of the few Democratic governors who can get President Trump on the phone. You’ll hear more about that in our interview. And he has also announced that he’s running for the Senate this fall. Yes, he is. Bullock might just tip the balance of the upper chamber into Democratic hands as long as he can actually campaign at some point. And then we’ll talk to Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, who was sworn in as the city’s first Black female gay mayor in May of last year. Chicago is a very different story. There have been 25,809 confirmed cases and 1,054 deaths. And the latest modeling shows that unlike New York or Los Angeles, Chicago, the country’s third largest city, is just reaching the peak in terms of deaths and infections. That is one of the reasons why Mayor Lightfoot has been driving around her city urging residents to stand further apart. For real. She is actually doing that. But first, here’s Governor Steve Bullock of Montana.
Alex Wagner: When you watch, I don’t know if you’re still watching them, but when you have seen Governor Cuomo in New York talking about, you know, what is happening in his state, what is happening in New York City, when you’ve seen Gavin Newsom shutting down effectively the state of California, I think a lot of people, regardless of what was happening in their hometowns, watched those press conferences and were terrified. From a management perspective, from a leadership perspective, how have you processed what you’ve seen from other governors in America?
Gov. Steve Bullock: It has been a state-by-state management, and we as governors have gotten that much closer, and had our own both collective conversations, and individual conversations. I mean, there’s many a nights where, like Governor Pritzker of Illinois is an example—well, we’re dealing with different things, but we’ll get on the phone and just more or less commiserate or share experiences. And how I process that, both seeing other governors—look at every single loss of life as a result of this in Montana, largely, probably because of my position, but not just unique to the position, it hits hard. And being a governor, I’m receiving all of the data in real time in Montana. And as you’re trying to respond, the best way to keep your people safe, to make sure that our hospitals and doctors aren’t overwhelmed, that the toll of the, the awesome responsibility, I guess I’ll say, of leadership, there’s no governor in the country that wanted to be in this position by any measure. And your peer group is pretty darn small on this job. Even on a good day, and it’s 55 individuals counting the territories. In the hard days that we’ve been having, there’s nobody else having to make those calls that we are. And so it is good to both lean on and share some of the things that we’re doing.
Alex Wagner: You were aggressive and early in a lot of the precautions you ordered for the state, the state has begun to open up. But though it shouldn’t be, politics seems to have infiltrated some of the state-by-state responses. Talk to me a little bit about your decision making, knowing that the sort of pandemic response seems to have been cutting along partisan lines in a lot of ways. You made a decision to say, you know, I’m going to keep the people of my state a red state, a state that President Trump won by 20 points in 2016, I’m going to, I’m going straight ahead with the most sort of precautious measures we can take.
Gov. Steve Bullock: Yeah, we closed down our schools before Washington State, New York, New Jersey. We entered to stay at home order real early. But how we have to be, or we ought to be doing this at least, is listening to the health care experts and people on the ground in our hospitals and the epidemiologists. And that’s what guided the decisions that I made, knowing that there be some pressure, meaning that there are folks that are going to be saying, why are you doing this? But in a time now where we have the lowest hospitalizations per capita in the country, the lowest positive cases per capita in the country, that didn’t happen by accident. That happened by taking those aggressive steps and getting community buy-in. I mean, standing up at those events, like press conferences, things saying, I know this is difficult on our communities and our kids, but this what we have to do to keep people safe. And then as we start opening things up, let’s hope that around the country that it’ll be actually the science that guides that, not just sort of that—if this becomes political, unfortunately, we will get, we may well get back to the same place we were at the start of this.
Alex Wagner: I guess I just wonder how is it not already political, right? You have armed protesters, you have protests, small ones, but they’re happening across the country. Some, you know, the president of the United States is tweeting out all caps, you know, LIBERATE MICHIGAN, so politics seems to already be part of this. And I want to talk a little bit about your relationship with the president, because famously, if one can say that, at the end of March this phone call leaked with you effectively begging the president for more testing, and he says this is the end of March. You know, I don’t know of any problems with testing.
[clip of Gov.’s phone call] That literally we are one day away if we don’t get test kits from the CDC, that we wouldn’t be able to be testing in Montana. We have gone out time and time again to the private side of this, the private market, and where the private market is telling us is that it’s the national resource that are then taking our orders apart. Basically we’re getting our orders cancelled. And that’s for PPE, that’s for testing supplies, that’s for testing equipment. So while we’re trying to do all the contact tracing, we don’t have adequate tests to necessarily do it, we don’t have the [PPE?] along the way, and we’re not finding markets to be able to do that. We do have to rely on a national chain of distribution or we’re not going to get it. But we are doing our best.
[President Trump on the phone] All right. Tell me, you can answer it if you want, but I haven’t heard of about testing in weeks. We’ve tested more now than any nation in the world. And we’ve got these great tests and we come out with another one tomorrow where, you know, it’s almost instantaneous testing. But I haven’t heard of that testing being a problem.
Alex Wagner: Give me a sense of your exasperation in that moment and sort of how you see your relationship with a president who so often at odds, not only with public health officials, but governors and many other members of the American public.
Gov. Steve Bullock: Look, I’ve had my frustrations like every governor when the president tweets something that is contrary to exactly what we’re trying to do, or when he says, when—and it wasn’t just me, like The National Governors Association collectively have been for weeks before saying that we’re still having problems getting testing supplies and testing kits. You know, the suggestion that all is rosy—now doesn’t do in any, it’s in no one’s interest to be pointing fingers at the time that you’re in a public health crisis.
Alex Wagner: Sure.
Gov. Steve Bullock: But federal support also needs to be supporting then what the governors are doing, not saying, oh, this governor should be doing something differently when they’re not on the front lines managing this. When we were literally one day away from running out of testing supplies. And you’re working like every single day, you know? I said that part of the job of every governor right now, it’s not to manage, it’s to be a supply clerk. Figure out how we can get more N95 masks. I’m literally reaching out to my hospitals each and every day. I know what the supplies that they are. You know the suggestion back then that, oh, there are no testing issues out there? Well, there’s still been testing issues. The way that I think that we can maintain our state’s credibility is being open and honest with folks and saying this is a challenge, here’s how we’re trying to address that challenge.
Alex Wagner: It’s hard giving people either inconclusive information or depressing information, you know? Setting the economy aside, the sort of basic mechanics of prevention here require people to walk around in American life in masks. It’s just not something we do as a country. And then if you look at the economic impact, it’s very uncertain, depends on how much we keep this in control and it could get even worse. How do you, I mean, how do you keep giving people not great news every day?
Gov. Steve Bullock: Well, no. And it’s hard. Like, I can give the great news on the one hand, last night of all the test run in the state, we had zero positives, right?
Alex Wagner: That’s good news. That is good news.
Gov. Steve Bullock: That’s great news, but then it’s also with the reminder that as we open things up, we are going to see more positives, and how we act is going to define what happens. What we have to do is actually look at the data and the science, not sort of people’s hopes.
Alex Wagner: In the middle of this pandemic where you are closing out your governorship, you decide literally at the 11th hour that you’re going to throw your hat in the ring for the U.S. Senate for one of the seats in Montana. Can you just talk to me about the timing of all of that?
Gov. Steve Bullock: Well, yeah, I literally filed on the last day and I had said that I wasn’t going to run for Senate for personal reasons. I’ve been 12 years in public office. It does have a substantial impact on the family’s lives. There’s great opportunities but great sacrifices so, I said that I was going to step back from public office. And oddly enough, about 10 days before the filing, it was my wife and my oldest daughter that said this is no time to step back. So filed on a Monday, and as things were ramping up I think by Thursday, I declared a state of emergency, so—
Alex Wagner: I think that’s called being a glutton for punishment. [laughs] I don’t know.
Gov. Steve Bullock: Well, I think it is. But you know, anybody that says, well, how’s the campaign going? Look, there will be a time for that, but my each and every day is trying to make sure that we’re keeping people safe and then figuring out ways to start reopening our economy, so . . .
Alex Wagner: Yeah, you got a full plate.
Gov. Steve Bullock: That’s exactly right. The challenges have been plenty but we also have to remember that, you know, in some ways we’re graced to get to have to face these challenges. And the moments of gratitude are plenty as well.
Alex Wagner: Well, Governor, may the days of gratitude outnumber the bad days on the road ahead. Thank you for your time.
Gov. Steve Bullock: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Alex.
Alex Wagner: We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors.
Alex Wagner: And now here’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago.
Alex Wagner: So, Mayor Lightfoot, you’ve been in office less than a year and boom! You have a major global virus on the horizon. How did you process all that?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Welcome to being mayor, there’s a pandemic coming.
Alex Wagner: Exactly.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Well, you know, we started engaging with our public health departments around this really starting in about mid-January, and they started presenting information that they received and it just felt like this slow moving tsunami was coming across the world to our shores. And where I really started to get involved, recall at the end of January, when on a Friday afternoon—I remember it like it was yesterday—the White House issued a declaration that all flights from China we’re going to be diverted into seven airports across the country. Well, Chicago O’Hare was one of those airports.
Alex Wagner: Yeah, you weren’t happy about that, as I recall.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Well, here’s why. Here’s why. The reason is because they did that without talking to the public health experts at the federal level we learned. They did it without really thinking about how do you operationalize this problem. Remember if you came from Wuhon or Hubei province, mandatory, 14 day quarantine. Mandatory. Well, as a practical matter, what if somebody came from one of those provinces and was asymptomatic? No, I’m good, I don’t have a fever, I don’t have body aches, I don’t have any of the symptoms, I just want to get to my last destination. What was a power that we had locally to enforce the federal order? Particularly because they didn’t accompany the directive with any powers of enforcement. So there were a lot of nuts and bolts practical issues that they didn’t think about. And over the course of a lot of discussion with the federal authorities—DHS, HHS, CDC—it became clear to me they didn’t have a clue on how to operationalize this. We were begging them for a directive, that, by the way, never came. And then what was clear, because I organized a call with L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C.—we were hearing different things from the same person. So I might talk to HHS, Eric Garcetti—L.A.—might talk to HHS, London Breed might talk to HHS, Jenny Durkan might—and we would all get different information from the same person. And then going across those federal agencies, it was a mishmash of conflicting and different information and that really brought home to me: we’re going to have to get this for ourselves here in Chicago.
Alex Wagner: Yeah, I’m really interested in the sort of the Superfriend team of mayors, like this idea that you guys I mean, really, it’s become a state-level pandemic response effectively, right? So the governors who I’m sure are all talking to each other, and then there are the mayors, who are really ground zero because the cities are getting hit particularly hard just because of the density of population. Can you give me a peek behind the curtain in terms of what that communication was like with your fellow mayors of large American cities?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Well, it’s evolved over time, of course, but early on, it was kind of like, holy smokes! And we used—
Alex Wagner: I don’t think you said ‘smokes.’ Yeah, you used different words. You’re in Chicago. I know.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. We basically thought this is a total shit show. We’re getting conflicting information and no real guidance. And we can’t wait for the federal government because this is on our doorsteps. Now, of course, the mayors from the West Coast—L.A., San Francisco and Seattle—they got hit and they got hit hard and they got hit early. So I was in a lot of contact with them watching this disaster unfold in their cities, of course, offering any kind of support that we could, but also making sure that I understood the magnitude of the challenge they were facing because I knew it was coming to Chicago. I knew it. And so we have been, we had great relationships before then, but we’ve become even closer as a result of feeling like we had to be there for each other because we weren’t getting the support that we needed from the federal government. So offering those kinds of supports to each other and just being friends and being in a forum where you can let your hair down and let your guard down, that’s really very valuable and important.
Alex Wagner: Yeah, I would imagine so. I want to sort of, as we talk about communications that have made things easier, you’ve become a meme. You’re like one of the only public officials that has become a real Internet star in terms of just being a tough ass—pardon my French. There are people that are photoshopping your image to like closed Chicago landmarks and parks. When that first started happening, what did you think of it, and what do you think that reflects in Chicago?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Well, it’s been something that we’ve had a lot of fun with. The very first one I think I saw was right after I closed down the lakefront, and I had a press conference and I was pretty angry. People just weren’t taking seriously. You know, I have cameras, feeds all over the city in my office and I was watching the lakefront, and I would see people walking her dog, people having a little picnic, doing yoga and jogging. I mean, but all in a very tight, confined space. And I just thought to myself, dear Lord, what is wrong with these people? Why don’t they understand that they are putting themselves at risk? So I started out saying, OK, this is not a thing, this can’t be, you have to stop, you have to understand the risk, you’ve got to social distance. And then I had this press conference and made this very plaintive plea. I came back in my office and the crowds were even thicker than they have been before I had the press conference. And I thought, OK, all right, I know what to do about this, I’m going to shut down the lakefront. And, you know, we had this conversation with some folks outside of city government, one of our other governor partners, like whatever, that’s not a big deal. No, in Chicago? It’s a big deal.
Alex Wagner: Yeah. It’s a big deal.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Now, initially, they’re like, all right, the mayor’s watching, we’re going to be off the lakefront and we can’t go on these adjacent parks, but then we’re just going to move inland and do the same thing. I’m like: no, that is not going to be a thing that happens either. So we’ve been very diligent. But the memes have, I like the means, I think are pretty funny. And, you know, also very important.
Alex Wagner: You’ve also been driving around the city of Chicago and yelling at people. I mean, like, it’s like a scene out of “I’m mad as hell, I’m not going to take it anymore”. This is like a hands-on mayoralty that I have not seen in a major American city.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Well, I wouldn’t say yelling, I would say—
Alex Wagner: OK, heckling? What would you—
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Advice about social distancing.
Alex Wagner: How did that idea come to you to just be like? Was it just born out of frustration? Like, this is not a thing, Chicago, we are not doing this. Like, how did that, how did that hatched that idea?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. I started getting a lot of emails about a particular area of a city where people felt like they weren’t doing social distancing and we were starting to see a fairly significant uptick in the number of COVID-positive cases. So one night I said to my detail, hey, let’s go up, and it was the far north side. And as, you know, as I was driving, I saw these clusters, mostly men, kind of hanging out, having a cig, but like on top of each other. And so I rolled down the window and like, guys? Hey! And they looked at me like, wait, is that the mayor. And they’re like: Hi mayor. I’m like: hi, can you go home now? I don’t want to these your ticket, can you please social distance? And so yeah, and then at one point we were driving a little further west and we drove by, it was a very warm night, we drove by this garage and the door was up and there are a bunch of young people sitting around and it was clear they were having like a drinking party. And we drove by and I saw it and I’m like, I said, I said, back up, let’s go back. So we back up and [laughs] I’m laughing, just thinking about it. I roll down the window, I’m like: Hey, what are you doing? You’re too close. You got to, you got to break it up. And I heard this young woman say: oh, shit. [laughs]
Alex Wagner: They were like, not only is it an adult figure, it’s the mayor. Did, do you feel like, I mean, what surprised you about the city? I mean, I’m sure you have a lot of positive things to say about the city of Chicago. It’s an incredible city. But I want to know in this moment of crisis, what has surprised you about the population of your town?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Well, I wouldn’t really say that it surprised me, but the level of outpouring and care for total strangers has been amazing. I mean, I could cite you countless examples. Of course, people are paid to do it. The health care workers have been phenomenal. I have a friend who is a nurse at Rush and on Easter Sunday, she posted this video. And I just, it made me weep. The level of care and concern, also exhaustion, both physically and mentally. But these people are, they’re stepping up and they’re going back every single day into a really emotionally and physically and and risky circumstance because they care about delivering high quality care. And I have countless stories of policemen and firemen and EMTs really being there for people. I was up at at Wrigley Field and, you know, this time of year, baseball would be in full view. But one of the pantries in the area ran out of space because they’re seeing a need, it’s three to four times the amount that they normally have. And the Ricketts family, the owners of the Cubs said, hey, we’re not playing baseball, come and we’ll help you. So literally, these long concourses and runways are the perfect location for social distancing and and putting together assembly lines to package food. These are normal folks who have time and are out there in the cold—it’s still unfortunately cold here in Chicago—outside at Wrigley, packaging food for strangers. And I mean, just stuff like that is going on every single day.
Alex Wagner: I wonder how you yourself are dealing with this time. I mean, how much are you sleeping at night? I mean, what is your day like? How much do you see your child?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Well, it’s tough, I mean, there’s no question it’s tough. I’m moving from meeting to meeting, really trying to make sure that I have my hands on where we are on a moment-by-moment with bending the curve, or really flattening the curve—we haven’t quite bent it yet—which is all good stuff. But I’m anxious to see the number of cases start to go down. I carry that weight with me every time I get the daily report about the number of deaths. It’s devastating. And I’m starting to personally know people not only are sick, but who are dying. And that’s really hard. When I go home at night, I’m utterly spent. I walk in and I put hand sanitizer on because that’s how, that’s what we’re doing right now. If I can pull my daughter from her games of Fortnight or something else that she’s doing with her family, but we make sure that we have family time. And, you know, my wife and I just sit and we talk about what’s happened over the course of the day. It feels a lot in some instances like Groundhog Day. But what I also feel is there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It was a pinprick a couple of weeks ago. It’s getting, the aperture is expanding, but we still have a long way to go. And I’m hopeful by nature, because what we were in February is not what we are now. And it’s never going to be what we are going forward. This virus and what it’s done to our city, what it’s done to our soul, what it’s done to our infrastructure, what it’s done to our economy and our neighborhoods—this is a legacy that’s going to live with us for a long time. And it’s important, it’s deep, it’s fascinating, it’s scary and everything else in between. And as a person, I think I’ve always been a person of faith, I feel even closer to that now. I feel the need for something that gives me strength and really cleanses my soul and my mind on a regular basis. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with religious leaders across the city and a number of them, and a lot of our cardinal here. I’m not Catholic, but he’s a man that I really admire. And I’ve been looking to other people for strength and for support, I had, I always had the fire in the belly. I ran on that. I’ve governed on it. And I’m even more fired up now.
Alex Wagner: Mayor Lightfoot, may you find the support where you need it. Please keep driving around your favorite neighborhoods in Chicago and yelling at people to social distance. It’s the best thing happening in America right now. And thank you so much for your time and everything you’re doing to keep Chicago safe.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Thank you. Have fun and be safe.
Alex Wagner: That’s all for this episode of Six Feet Apart. Our show is produced by Alysa Gutierrez and Lyra Smith. Lyra Smith is our story editor. Our executive producer is Sarah Geismer. Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Stephen Hoffman and Sidney Rapp. Thanks for listening and stay safe.