The education of Eric Adams: New York's mayor is learning to govern, and schooling Democrats along the way

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Close-up of Eric Adams.

NEW YORK — About halfway through his State of the City address at the Queens Theatre in late January, New York City Mayor Eric L. Adams alighted on a subject that is a policy focus but also a personal passion, a subject that serves as a metaphor for his entire administration, now just a little over a year old: rats.

“Most people don't know this about me,” Adams said, “but I hate rats.”

This is probably not true. Lately, the 62-year-old mayor has made his distaste for the species Rattus norvegicus a centerpiece of his plan to restore New York’s luster and reputation. This campaign against rodent infestation has taken on an existential, philosophical quality. When we spoke several days after the speech, Adams explained that, in his view, the ubiquity of rats says something about the city’s human occupants — about their ability to dispose of garbage and maintain buildings, foster public health and, in the broadest sense, wrest the city’s streets from a near-infinite variety of unpredictable disturbances.

“Those are signals,” he says, speaking very much like the former cop he is. Adams served in the New York Police Department at a time when the Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, was implementing the controversial “broken windows” approach that highlighted minor infractions, such as street-corner drinking and panhandling. In case Adams’s campaign against rats seems quixotic, it is worth remembering that Giuliani tried to crack down on jaywalking.

Adams has no interest in replicating the tenure of Giuliani, who tarnished his reputation as a capable mayor by a steep descent into the conspiratorial fringes of national Republican politics. Although he does not always talk or act like one, Adams calls himself a progressive. In his view, progressive goals like economic justice and environmental sustainability demand addressing quality-of-life problems, not engaging in ideological sloganeering.

If New York can chase away the rats, clear homeless encampments and discourage criminals, Adams argues, the city will retain the corporations and tourists for which other cities are fiercely competing (as New York loses residents, cities like Boise, Idaho, and Austin, Texas, are overwhelmed with newcomers). The city’s tax rolls will swell, making it easier to build affordable housing and properly fund schools. There will be more jobs, and the jobs will pay better.

“We have a good product,” Adams told me. “We need to sell that product.” It is a relentlessly commercialist view of New York, but probably not all that different from how Peter Stuyvesant envisioned the fledgling Dutch colony he came to govern in 1647: that is, as a business enterprise whose cosmopolitan commitments were ancillary to its capitalist success.

Stuyvesant, though, didn’t have 8.5 million residents to contend with — or, for that matter, Fox News and Twitter. As Adams delivered his State of the City address, there were protesters gathered outside, making their case on a frigid morning to a row of stone-faced cops.

Some of the protesters wanted more affordable housing (Adams is very much for it) and others wanted him to close the dangerous Rikers Island jail (Adams is against it). There was also a lone protester against Drag Queen Story Hour, which Adams had endorsed. There had been no protests when Giuliani dressed in drag for a comedy routine, but those times can sometimes seem as distant as Stuyvesant’s lonely outpost. New York was edgier during Giuliani’s tenure in the 1990s, but New York politics also had less of a national edge.

Inside the Queens Theatre, Adams eased into his prepared remarks. He is not an especially gifted public speaker, preferring a style of retail politics that allows him to mix with ordinary people. His aides, though, insist that he is improving as an orator, and although the mayor seemed to sometimes forget the names of the agency chiefs and city councillors marked for praise, he seemed comfortable enough on stage.

A wide shot of the audience in the theater with Mayor Eric Adams at the podium.
Mayor Eric Adams gives the State of the City address on Jan. 26. (BauerGriffin/MediaPunch /IPX via AP)

The best-received line of the speech had him invoking the plainspoken populism that many Democrats say that the party leadership in Washington sorely lacks. “You can't have Whole Foods in Park Slope and junk food in Brownsville,” he said, comparing the tony Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood to one of the city’s most entrenched pockets of poverty.

“You can't have it this same way. Can't have it the same way,” Adams said, as his audience rose collectively to its feet.

Clean subways and safe streets

The city has been battered by the coronavirus and partially drained of office workers — desk-bound professionals have been spending 32% fewer days in their offices in Manhattan since the pandemic began. It is also struggling to house both a burgeoning homeless population and thousands of Latin American migrants bused north by Republican governors. So the mayor’s task can at once seem gigantic and specific.

Adams appears to grasp this. “You've gotta fix the potholes, you've gotta take care of crime in the streets, you've got to do everything,” he says of his hectic first year running the largest U.S. city.

Those might seem like crushingly obvious, uncontroversial proposals. But given his predecessor Bill de Blasio’s focus on correcting generational iniquities, the relentlessly practical approach of Eric Adams can seem like a rebuke to more ideological (and vociferous) factions of the Democratic base.

“Eric Adams says all the right things, and his rhetoric is very much in line with where the Democratic Party's rhetoric should be,” said a top New York-based strategist who works with moderate Democrats and wanted to remain anonymous, in order not to compromise professional relationships.

The problem, she added, was that rhetoric is not enough, not this late in the game. “He hasn’t really delivered in terms of his governing,” the strategist told Yahoo News.

The city remains full of potholes and rats. In fact, the mayor’s own private residence recently received a $300 fine for evidence of a rodent infestation.

Then there are the criminals he promised to vanquish with a dedication worthy of Batman. The most recent crime statistics are encouraging, but his insistent focus on public safety has made Adams anathema to his party’s left wing, who say he is fear-mongering.

“I feel like I’m in a time warp,” a Brooklyn state Assembly member told the New York Times as Adams’s public safety plans began to take shape in 2022. She likened those plans to the excesses of Giuliani.

“I know what I'm hearing out on the streets,” Adams counters, criticizing a party that he charges with listening to Twitter instead.

Adams talks about crime in ways that seem to make sense to New Yorkers who have to live not just newspaper reports, but with shootings as real-world concerns. Last week, Adams said that shoppers should take off their masks when they enter stores, because criminals were using the excuse of public health precautions to plunder shelves and avoid detection.

“We need to stop allowing them to exploit the safety of the pandemic by wearing masks, committing crimes,” Adams said in a media appearance. Social media lit up with criticism, and some New Yorkers also bristled at being told to unmask, but Adams seemed — not for the first time — to be speaking past his critics.

Adams has supported policies — more aggressive policing, tougher sentences — more in keeping with the Republicans’ law-and-order platform. The way Adams sees it, New Yorkers want someone to articulate their sense that the streets and subways are rife with violence and disorder.

An NYPD officer seen through a fare scanner in front of a subway elevator.
A New York Police Department officer patrols a subway station in Manhattan. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

But he can also go overboard, as when he reassured New Yorkers late last year, “Big Brother is protecting you” — a reference to surveillance technologies the NYPD has been using for many years. Proponents of such technology rarely deploy George Orwell’s infamous shorthand to make their case.

It is inarguably true that the city was much more dangerous in the early 1990s, and that that COVID-exacerbated inequities were behind the recent nationwide spike in crime, but Adams maintains that when a shooter is firing indiscriminately at N train passengers in Brooklyn, listening to the science of criminology is unlikely to comfort rattled New Yorkers.

“We knew we had to deal with the feeling,” Adams says, “and the best way to deal with the feeling is a blue uniform.” He ordered more cops into subways after several high-profile murders that caused anxiety among riders, who had been slowly returning underground. And he has reconstituted what was once known as the NYPD’s “street crimes” unit, whose plainclothes officers were known for getting guns off the streets, but also for outbursts of sickening misconduct, perhaps most notably the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, in the Bronx in 1999.

Adams also recently instituted a policy to involuntarily institutionalize homeless people if they pose a harm just to themselves — and not necessarily to others, as was previously required. The plan earned condemnation from advocates for the mentally ill and civil libertarians, who said it would violate the rights of the homeless.

“These kinds of short-term, carceral and expensive approaches to addressing mental illness do nothing for a person’s well-being or recovery,” argued Arvind Sooknanan of Fountain House Bronx, a residential mental health treatment center.

At an Ole and Steen coffee shop by the subway, under a sign saying Celebration Cakes and Hot Roasted Coffee, a man in a wool hat and a hard stare sits with a small suitcase by his side, under a heap of bedding.
A homeless person sits on the street in Manhattan on Feb. 4. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

Yet many New Yorkers were clearly fed up with the profusion of homeless encampments on the streets and homeless riders on the subways. Adams calls himself a progressive, but on many social issues, it is progressive voices that he most readily discounts. “The loudest cannot hijack your policies,” he said. “We are listening too much to the noise.”

He similarly regarded the coronavirus from the vantage point of the blue-collar outer-borough resident who never had the luxury of remote work, and the coffee cart operator who could not sustain his operation if the Financial District remained as empty on a Monday afternoon as on a Sunday evening.

Yes, there was the science to listen to, Adams suggested, but there were nonscientific considerations, too. He harbored no evident distrust of masks or vaccines, but he also told New Yorkers to stop “wallowing” in COVID and bring “swagger” back to the city. “You can’t stay in your pajamas all day,” the mayor told the city’s millions of homebound white-collar workers.

'The least ambitious mayor'

Unlike de Blasio, Adams does not have a sweeping vision of the city as a progressive beacon, the way it was under Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s.

"He very clearly understands the task at hand here. There's no doubt about that," said Bradley Tusk, a political strategist and venture capitalist who served as a top adviser for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a wealthy moderate who wanted New York to transcend the vestiges of ethnic and economic parochialism.

“To a certain extent, it's fine for Eric to focus on blocking and tackling, because that's what being mayor is anyway," Tusk told me.

Critics say that with the city facing several overlapping crises, New York needs big-picture thinking, not a chief executive preoccupied with rats.

“Adams might be the least ambitious mayor New York has had in a half century, maybe much longer,” complained Ross Barkan, a progressive political commentator and former state Senate candidate from Brooklyn. He and others have criticized Adams for spending too much time at Hamptons parties and expensive midtown restaurants. His forays to celebrity-packed nightclubs like Zero Bond can stoke suspicions that he enjoys the trappings of the mayoralty, as if it were nothing more than a ceremonial position. (Before becoming mayor, Adams held precisely such a position, serving for seven years as the borough president of Brooklyn, a role that involves little more than civic boosterism.)

At times, Adams can show an almost Trumpian disregard for the basics of American democracy. “When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” Adams said at a recent event with religious leaders, maligning the separation of church and state as if it were nothing more than an importunate snag. It may be that Adams, like former President Donald Trump, has a good understanding of his base, but it was a discordant message from a mayor who had promised to focus on the practicalities of city life.

In his bid to reinvigorate New York’s reputation as an East Coast rival to Silicon Valley — a City Hall effort dating back to the mid-1990s — the mayor became a Bitcoin cheerleader, taking his first several paychecks in cryptocurrency. As a matter of personal finance, this quickly proved a bust. As a matter of policy, well, the images of disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried heading into Manhattan federal court don’t exactly help make the case.

“Adams has yet to show much interest in governing,” Barkan wrote.

Aides to the mayor bristle at the notion that he has no broader policy agenda, a criticism they see as fundamentally condescending to the Black ex-cop raised in the outer boroughs. More to the point, they say the criticism is inaccurate. "I think it's categorically and intentionally false to say he doesn't have a vision for the city,” the mayor’s communications director, Maxwell Young, said in a City Hall interview. “He has a vision for a city that is safe, clean, livable and a hub of innovation."

Adams has also continued to face questions about his own ethics. He tried to hire his brother Bernard for a $210,000-per-year position. After sustained criticism, Bernard took the job for only a $1 salary, but he recently announced that he is stepping down. Adams's close relationship with the Brooklyn “Bling Bishop” pastor Lamor Whitehead, who has been federally indicted for allegedly trying to extort a businessman by claiming he had influence with the Adams administration, has also come under scrutiny.

The mayor’s first chief of staff, Frank Carone, never managed to allay concerns that his private legal practice presented an array of ethical conflicts that could not be possibly resolved. He lasted only a year, but some wondered why someone with so little management experience had been in such a prominent position in the first place.

Adams links arms with others at a march organized by Bishop Lamor Whitehead in Brooklyn in 2020.
Adams (second from right), then Brooklyn borough president, at a march organized by Bishop Lamor Whitehead (second from left) in Brooklyn in September 2020. (mpi43/MediaPunch /IPX via AP)

Then there are the lower-level positions across the vast municipal bureaucracy, with an average of 15% empty positions across the city’s more than 50 departments. Adams’s insistence that city employees return to the office may have led some to leave their posts. Considering that de Blasio had overseen an unprecedented growth in the city’s municipal workforce, some downsizing may have been necessary.

But nothing could entirely account for the 437 empty positions at the Department of Buildings, making for a 22.7% vacancy rate at one of the city’s most important agencies. In a report highlighting the depletion of the city’s bureaucratic ranks, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander — who is probably assessing his own mayoral prospects — wrote that the shortfalls “are putting our city at risk.”

From 'Murder Avenue' to City Hall

Adams “strongly believes in lived experience,” his communications director Young told me, in what was presumably intended as a contrast to predecessors whose lived experience was less than helpful in governing a huge city roiling with unimaginable wealth and grinding poverty, ambition and despair.

The city’s first Black mayor since David Dinkins, Adams is also the first since Rudy Giuliani to be born in New York (Bloomberg and de Blasio are both from Boston) and the first since Ed Koch to have experienced real poverty, in the way hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers do daily. Adams grew up in such destitution that he and his brothers adopted one of the rats that infested their Brooklyn apartment.

Bloomberg went to Johns Hopkins, de Blasio to NYU. Adams studied at the far less prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice, an NYPD feeder school tucked away behind Lincoln Center. His formative experiences came in Brooklyn’s 88th Precinct, where one thoroughfare was known as “Murder Avenue.” He later founded a group called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, which called out the NYPD for brutality and discrimination.

In 1994, Adams challenged Rep. Major Owens in a Democratic primary, attacking the incumbent for disavowing Louis Farrakhan, the notoriously homophobic and antisemitic Nation of Islam leader whose help fighting crime Adams welcomed. He also accused Owens of stealing petitions from his campaign office; the Owens campaign said the break-in was a stunt engineered by Adams himself. Adams lost and briefly became a Republican.

In 2006, now a Democrat again, Adams won a seat to the state Senate in Albany. One quintessentially Eric Adams crusade from his time as a state senator was a public campaign urging young men of color not to wear their pants low, with the slogan “Raise your pants, raise your image.” Adams was mocked for his retrograde racial politics, as he not infrequently is today. But, in fact, the nation’s first Black president had said much the same thing.

Stylistically, though, Adams has less in common with Barack Obama than with the man who served as Obama’s vice president.

The Biden of Brooklyn

Outside the White House, Eric Adams addresses the media alongside local and law enforcement officials.
Adams outside the White House on July 12, 2021, after a meeting with President Biden on reducing gun violence. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

“You know they call me the Biden of Brooklyn,” Adams said after visiting the president in the summer of 2021. He had just won the Democratic primary, narrowly defeating Twitter favorite and MSNBC mainstay Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney who had worked as de Blasio’s counsel in City Hall.

Adams had no Twitter game to speak of, but he dominated in working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods by keeping his focus on a single issue: crime. And in a city where crime was suddenly soaring — and hurting Black and brown residents the most, as it invariably does — the narrow message proved enough.

The invitation from the White House was useful to both parties. Adams basked in the presidential glow as Biden embraced one of the few Democrats willing to talk about public safety in a way that spoke to the concerns of the party’s blue-collar base rather than to the more abstract anxieties of professional activists and urban elites.

“I’ve known Joe Biden and Eric both over 30 years,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told Politico at the time, “and I think that they will probably, on a personal level, get along because they’re both kind of straight shooters and they both are what is commonly known as centrist Democrats.”

Invariably, the visit spurred talk that Adams was himself eyeing the White House, which has continued to this day.

“No, no,” he protested recently. “I’m happy.”

Indeed, he appears to enjoy being mayor much more than de Blasio ever did. Bloomberg relished the technocratic aspects of governing, but his cold, analytic personality sometimes seemed to clash with New York’s innate exuberance. Adams, on the other hand, seems to embrace his role with a near-touristic zeal. He clearly loves the job, and the city. But is that enough?

Winter of discontent

The mayor’s own satisfaction does appear to contrast starkly with New Yorkers’ assessment of his tenure. Adams’s approval rating has fallen to 37%, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month.

The mayor may be succumbing to his own messaging: By highlighting how unsafe the city had become, and how safe it would become under his rule, he at once managed to heighten New Yorkers’ fears and expectations.

“When the city is safe, the voters never think about public safety at all. When it's dangerous, it's all they think about," said Tusk. His former boss, Bloomberg, drove crime down to historically low rates, but did so by using police methods (such as the controversial practice of "stop, question and frisk") that have since been discredited as discriminatory. Adams must now accomplish more or less the same feat, only with less money and leeway.

According to the Quinnipiac poll, crime remains New Yorkers’ top concern in 2023; 66% saw crime as a “very serious” problem and 39% percent felt less safe than a year before. “A law-and-order mayor confronts a cold winter of discontent as crime far eclipses all other voters’ concerns,” one pollster, Tim Malloy, concluded.

The rate of major crimes in New York City continued to rise significantly during Adams's first year in office, although parsing the aggregate statistics tells a more nuanced story. Murders and shootings are down, while robberies and burglaries are up.

Adams appears to be largely in sync with his police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, the first black woman in charge at One Police Plaza. But he could not be more different from Manhattan's progressive district attorney, Alvin Bragg, the first Black person in that position. Bragg was elected on the same day as Adams, all but ensuring that the city would suffer from a natural tension over criminal justice.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg at the microphone, flanked by New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Adams after signing two bills designating new boundaries of a Times Square sensitive location banning concealed carry permit holders, on Oct. 11, 2022. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

“We may have different methods, but we want the same results,” Adams said of Bragg. The two recently partnered on an effort to root out illegal cannabis dispensaries, but otherwise have found scant grounds for collaboration. During his State of the City speech, Adams sometimes looked almost pleadingly at Bragg, but the district attorney remained inscrutable behind his N-95 mask.

'Dinkins would be proud'

“He’s starting to get results,” said former New York Gov. David A. Paterson, an ally of Adams. Asked to grade Adams, Paterson gave him an A-, acknowledging that the high grade had something to do with how he thought Adams was being treated by the media.

Paterson was the state’s first Black governor, an office he assumed after Eliot Spitzer resigned (Paterson had been chosen as Spitzer’s lieutenant governor). Like many other prominent Black leaders in New York, he sees the establishment turning on Adams the way it turned on Dinkins.

A courtly presence unsuited to the vicious racial politics of the 1980s and early 1990s, Dinkins had described New York as a “gorgeous mosaic” when he was inaugurated. Adams invoked the phrase when he assumed the mayoralty on Jan 2, 2022. “That ‘gorgeous mosaic’ lives on in New York City,” he said in a taped message shared on social media. “Mayor Dinkins would be proud.”

Biden recently appointed Adams to serve on an advisory board that the Washington Post described as rife with “party stars” likely expected to serve as surrogates for the president’s soon-to-be-announced reelection campaign. It was a sign (if a minor one) that Adams remains an important national voice on issues like crime and post-pandemic recovery.

President Biden, in mask, listens to New York City Mayor Eric Adams speak.
President Biden listens to Adams at an event on gun violence at New York police headquarters on Feb. 3, 2022. (Alex Brandon/AP)

In his State of the City address, Adams, fittingly enough, espoused a more quotidian vision of the city. He noted that a dolphin had recently been spotted in the Bronx River, a waterway described by the New York Times in 1971 as an “urban junkyard,” “scarred with shopping carts, hulks of cars, washing machines, mattresses, bicycles and the jagged flotsam of affluence.”

And now there were dolphins. Or, well, at least a single dolphin. An image of the lonely animal, its rostrum poking through the surface of the river, appeared on two large screens behind the mayor.

“That's the future of our city,” Adams said. “More dolphins, fewer rats.”