Eric Adams (photo: Erica Sherman/Brooklyn BP's Office)
[This article is part of a series on the leading Democratic mayoral candidates' strengths and weaknesses.]
As he had said was his intention for years, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams entered the 2021 mayoral race last month as a top-tier Democratic primary candidate to replace the term-limited Mayor Bill de Blasio. Adams is one of the few elected officials in a crowded race with several first-time candidates and he has an initial fundraising lead.
While Adams is widely considered among the early frontrunners, it’s impossible to make many intelligent predictions about the race that is about to unfold in a six-month sprint to the all-important June primary, with an incredibly diverse and still-growing field and a new balloting system, ranked-choice voting, set to debut. The two-term president of the most-populous borough, and home to 1.2 million Democrats at that, brings a variety of strengths and weaknesses to the race.
Those strengths include his fundraising prowess, two borough-wide election wins, and a strong base in vote-rich central Brooklyn, home to many Black and Orthodox Jewish voters who are key voting blocs and elected Adams to four terms in the State Senate, where he served from 2006 through 2013, when he was elected borough president.
Previously, Adams was a police officer for 22 years, rising to the rank of captain in the NYPD. That police department tenure, and Adams’ approach to public safety and police reform, is central to his bid to become the next mayor and the vision he’s pitching to New Yorkers. His experience in the NYPD, how he talks about what led him to the department as a young man and how he would lead it as a veteran who just turned 60, are indicative of the balancing act Adams is trying to perform as a candidate for the city’s top office at a time when calls for racial justice are surging and gun violence is spiking.
He speaks viscerally about having been the victim of police brutality as a teenager and passionately about how he was part of the department’s contributions to the city’s 1990s turnaround. He talks in detail about the need for further police reform and how he would root out cops who shouldn’t be on the force, while he calls himself “conservative on crime” and expresses opposition to calls to ‘defund the police’ — though he has a plan to significantly alter what responsibilities are given to officers with guns.
Central to Adams’ pitch to voters is that he knows far better than any other candidate how to keep the city safe from both regular street crime and police abuses; that he helped bring modern, proactive, data-driven management to the police department and he’s best suited to bring it to the rest of city government that he argues is in desperate need of a shift to “real-time governance.”
While Adams appears mostly ready to eschew the vocal and growing far left of the Democratic electorate, he’s going for just about everyone else with his sensible cop-CEO platform.
He’s running as a law enforcement expert in an election happening amid a major spike in gun violence; as a first responder in an election happening amid a pandemic. He’s promising to make government more efficient and effective amid a fiscal crisis; to give significant attention to management and public safety and quality of life issues amid a mayoralty seen as unable to run city bureaucracy or successfully lead the NYPD and too focused on national politics. He says he’s the candidate of the small shop owner but he’s also pro-big business and critical of those who disparage the real estate industry, citing its importance to the city and its bottom line. He wants to reinvent public health and public education; an evangelist for healthy eating and exercise after beating back his own diabetes and for concentrating resources on mothers and babies after studying the importance of neonatal and early childhood development.
But as much as Adams’ profile and platform may meet the moment, particularly if the Democratic electorate is at all eager to elevate only the city’s second Black mayor, there are major questions about his candidacy.
Borough president is not necessarily a training ground for being mayor. Adams is disliked by some on the left for being too pro-policing and for propping up a Democratic successor in the State Senate who allied with Republicans, factors that could hurt him in ranked-choice voting. He’s been in elected office for more than a decade but it’s not particularly clear where he stands on a number of issues. He’s a charismatic and affable retail politician but his penchant for off-the-cuff remarks has often invited controversy. He’s had several brushes with ethics investigations. He appears full of conviction and self-righteousness, but can be especially sensitive to criticism and prone to flip-flops. The 2021 mayoral race will bring greater scrutiny than Adams has ever faced and it is his first truly competitive election after he easily won his State Senate and Borough President seats with minimal if any competition.
How Adams will perform under this intense spotlight is to be seen, but he’s already raised more than a few eyebrows for comments he made when stepping further into the citywide spotlight early this year and, more recently, for holding in-person, indoor fundraisers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
To Adams’ aid, perhaps, is that there are few other experienced politicians in the race: he’s one of just three elected officials in the Democratic primary among a crop of roughly 10 candidates currently running formidable campaigns. Several have never even run for office before; several have not managed anything the size of even a borough president’s office. While Adams has ties to the political establishment, no one would accuse him of being much of a clubhouse politician. He can be refreshingly frank, and he makes it clear he takes the work of government seriously.
Voters are looking to the next mayor to put the city on a path to recovery from the coronavirus, the worst emergency in decades, killing tens of thousands and deeply sickening many more, depleting the city’s coffers, creating levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression, and magnifying interconnected crises in housing, homelessness, health care, education, and more that underscore the city’s racial and ethnic inequities.
Adams is positioning himself as the candidate “that has gone through a lot that would help people who are going through a lot right now.”
Democratic consultants and elected officials say that Adams could have broad appeal among the primary electorate, especially because of his ability to speak to different constituencies and build upon a base of support among Black voters essential to winning New York City elections. But some also say that his message can be muddled and that, to run a successful mayoral campaign, especially under ranked-choice voting, he needs to hone a unifying pitch.
“A diverse group of more than 7,000 donors and hundreds of committed volunteers are already supporting Eric’s campaign for mayor because he has been fighting side-by-side next to New Yorkers for decades,” said Evan Thies, a spokesperson for Adams campaign, in an email. “The breadth and depth of his coalition is a result of his leadership on and commitment to the issues that matter to voters in communities across the city.”
In his time in office, Adams has forged key political relationships and built support among voters that will be pivotal in the primary. He successfully courted the Orthodox Jewish community, which has played an influential role in past mayoral elections. He is popular among Black residents of Brooklyn, who tend to be the most loyal voters in the Democratic primary and he’s making inroads in other predominantly Black areas of the city, like Southeast Queens. He’s also made it a point to woo white ethnic voters who delivered successes for former Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani – according to a New York Times report, Adams told donors at a fundraiser that he intended to “out-white” Stringer in the race — as well as the tonier white voters of upscale Manhattan neighborhoods who are most concerned with crime and the economy.
Adams has said he wants to be the first “blue-collar mayor” of New York City, reflecting both his humble upbringing and career in the police department, and his effort to appeal to working class and middle class voters. He's a regular subway rider, though he's also drawn criticism for allowing his staff to park their cars all over Brooklyn Borough Hall plaza. He’s pitched himself as a candidate who can relate to the problems and issues that affect lifelong New Yorkers, including homeowners trying to make their mortgages and build generational wealth — some of whom may be small landlords like him.
City Council Member I. Daneek Miller, a Democrat from Southeast Queens with strong labor ties who endorsed Adams at his launch, said that will be an attractive message in the mayor’s race. “It always comes down to those who really understand the needs and the values of the communities that they serve,” he said. “Understanding who these communities are, they really shape how you govern. I truly believe that he has embraced that and he also has the ability to speak truth to power.”
As a current elected official, Miller said Adams also understands how to improve city governance, as opposed to the many outside candidates who are seeking the mayor’s job. “Not to knock on anyone but I don’t think if you come from the private sector, you understand these nuances or value the services that get delivered and how they get delivered,” Miller said.
There is the risk that voters may not want another entrenched politician in City Hall and will look for new blood in the Democratic primary, however. Adams has a long and somewhat complicated association with the Democratic county party in Brooklyn, and though it may not have the kingmaking power it once employed, it nonetheless can provide helpful resources in an election, chiefly through endorsements. Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, who was recently elected to chair the Brooklyn Democratic Party, is also an ally of Adams. “As the Brooklyn Democratic Party leader, Rodneyse is very proud of her borough and believes that Eric Adams is an accomplished Borough President with a great track record of progressive achievements,” said George Arzt, a spokesperson for Bichotte and the party, in a statement. “While it is simply too early for her to make an endorsement for next year, she is happy to see a diverse array of mayoral candidates.”
But, as one Democratic consultant who wished not to be named pointed out, “Establishment politicians haven't been the flavor of the month.” The consultant said an effective mayoral candidate needs to assure New Yorkers that they have the right experience to run a tight ship, but they also need to offer a bold progressive vision for the city’s recovery.
“There is a strong number in this city that believes in the ideology of Democratic progressive politics,” the consultant said. “And I think that candidates are going to have to lean in to both things, because I think there is a way to project a well-managed city that also takes care of its citizens.”
Being borough president gave Adams few powers to broadly affect city policy but it did give him the advantage of a bully pulpit and name recognition in the city’s largest borough, home to more than 2.6 million people, including the aforementioned 1.2 million registered Democratic voters who are eligible to cast a ballot in the June primary — 32% of the city’s registered Democrats as of November 1 of this year.
“Adams is really smart. He's quirky. He's experienced. You can't put him into an ideological box. He is – this is a compliment – he's stubborn,” said another Democratic consultant who also wished to remain anonymous to more openly discuss Adams and the mayoral race.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests this year and the movement to “defund the NYPD,” police reform will be perhaps the thorniest subject in the mayoral race. It’s an issue that can play to Adams’ strengths, but like with all candidate characteristics, it can depend on the audience and whether there are enough primary voters who like his moderate, experienced approach. As a former police officer, he refrains from harshly criticizing the police as a monolith, which could earn him votes from more moderate Democrats who are wary of the defund movement and for whom public safety is a salient concern. Voters on Staten Island, in Eastern Queens, and in Southern Brooklyn, for instance, may be persuaded by the former cop who wants to tackle crime and improve quality of life.
But Adams has long acknowledged the problems of police violence and systemic racism in the department. It was what prompted him to become an officer in the first place, after an arrest and beating by officers when he was a teenager. He joined the department to effect change from within and even co-founded the advocacy group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, recruiting fellow officers to champion change.
“I think he's in a unique position to show how he can talk about police reform in the era of ‘defund,’” said the first Democratic consultant. “I think he has to be bold and aggressive about it. If he hides from it, I think he'll allow his opponents to define that area. And it can only hurt him, even in his own borough…People don't want to say this in the era of the progressive wave, but people enjoyed living the quality of life in Bloomberg’s city. So how do you bring back those elements without bringing back Bloomberg or stop-and-frisk?”
Adams has promised a greater emphasis on targeted policing without the pitfalls of overpolicing Black and brown neighborhoods. “We know who the shooters are in our city. We know where the gangs are, we know people who are perpetuating violence. And so by using precision policing, you can use an aggressive form of precision policing, without harming the justice that is associated with proper policing,” he said in an appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast last month.
What’s unclear is how many voters will make their decisions largely based on identity, and how far that would get Adams in an extremely diverse field. He is one of two prominent Black men in the race, along with former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire. City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is Mexican-American and openly gay. There are several women in the race including former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, who is Black, and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, who is Afro-Latina. Former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia is white, as is former veterans services commissioner Loree Sutton, who is openly gay. White men in the race include city Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Obama cabinet member Shaun Donovan, and military veteran Zach Iscol. There are indications that outgoing Rep. Max Rose, who is white, and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who is Asian-American, will be joining the field. There are also a number of other declared candidates and the potential for still others to jump in.
Adams is banking on crossover appeal.
“He could talk to every community, except for people who are ideologically stuck in their silos. He has probably the widest reach,” said the second consultant. But, it’s hard to definitively say what will convince voters. “Are we being tribal...ideologically? Are we going to replay national politics or are we going to try to figure out how to dig the city out of a hole?” the consultant wondered.
At a February news conference talking about the need for education around ranked-choice voting, standing with Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (who had not yet abandoned plans to run for mayor), Adams was asked about the expected tone of the mayoral race under ranked-choice voting, which is supposed to encourage more positive voter engagement. “Trust me, it’s going to be a dirty campaign,” he promised with a smirk and chuckles from those around him. The comment was both a peak into Adams’ brand of real talk that he thinks voters crave as opposed to often-bloviating politicians, but also an acknowledgement that he will probably be the target of some mud-slinging based on his past.
Adams has a colorful and controversial record, with a mix of positions that will make for highlights and lowlights in the upcoming campaign. In the State Senate, he was known for his fiery floor speeches, particularly when voting in support of legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, which failed in the chamber that year. He then voted again for its passage in 2011, when it was approved by the Legislature and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
But Adams can boast few major legislative accomplishments that originated with his own bill-sponsorship.
Meanwhile, in 2010, Adams voted against expelling fellow Democratic State Senator Hiram Monserrate after he had been convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. He explained at the time that he wanted the Senate to wait till Monserrate had exhausted any appeals to his conviction.
He has also been caught up in ethics scandals over the years that could come back to haunt him in the mayoral race. While in the Senate, when he chaired the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, a state inspector general’s 2010 report said he was one of several legislators guilty of “failing to fulfill their public duty” in overseeing the bidding process for allowing casino gambling at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. The report said Adams gave non-credible testimony and pointed out that he received large campaign contributions from the company that won the bid.
As borough president, Adams has also blurred the line by soliciting funds for his nonprofit One Brooklyn Fund from donors who also had business with the city. The fundraising prompted investigations from the city’s Department of Investigation and federal prosecutors. No charges were filed and rules around the operation of such nonprofits were tightened, though Adams also got into a new arrangement, questioned by some, whereby a local news magnate is publishing his One Brooklyn newspaper for free each month. Adams’ office pays for the postage while the news organization sells ads in the paper.
Other somewhat controversial parts of Adams’ record can be seen as a strength or a weakness, depending on the voters evaluating them. The ascendant left wing of the Democratic Party will be a crucial bloc in the upcoming primary and Adams has not made overtures to them like some other candidates in the race, while his record would make it unlikely he would find many interested parties anyway.
Adams has played a role in the land use process in Brooklyn and he has been relatively pro-development during his tenure while the borough has seen widespread gentrification and a limited new crop of affordable housing. Unlike some other candidates, Adams has not refused contributions from the real estate industry, which has lost some of the political weight it wielded in the past but is certainly looking for a friendly next mayor and may seek to influence the Democratic primary for a favored candidate or two. At the same time, he did not use his bully pulpit or convening power to help get the Industry City rezoning proposal to a compromise between Menchaca, whose district the sprawling property is in, and the developers. It’s unclear at this point how exactly he would approach development as mayor other than broadly welcoming major projects that promise jobs.
He is friendly toward charter schools, saying they should be one piece of the educational puzzle.
Adams was a close ally of former State Senator Jesse Hamilton, who replaced him in the Senate with Adams’ backing. Hamilton became a member of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a breakaway faction which helped Republicans control the Senate and stymie progressive legislation for years. Adams even helped steer $1 million in public funds to Hamilton’s district when the senator unsuccessfully ran for reelection in 2018.
In 1999, Adams called himself a “conservative Republican” in an interview with the New York Times and was a registered member of the party till 2001. Asked about the comment he recently said he’s “always been conservative on crime.” But as he faces Democratic voters in 2021, he’s also staking out some of the most progressive stances in the mayoral field, particularly when it comes to public health and resources for children from before they are born through age three, when, as he regularly points out, so much brain development occurs.
The borough president has on multiple occasions changed his position on high-profile issues, including the use of the specialized high school exam and a more recent change of heart on ranked-choice voting. He supported RCV when it was proposed and later approved by voters as a ballot question last year. But last month, he joined several elected officials who want the implementation of the system to be delayed, raising concerns that it could disenfranchise Black and brown voters who are not familiar enough with the system and don’t take advantage of their ability to rank up to five candidates and have their second and possibly third choices counted in the instant-runoff that can occur if no candidate receives more than 50% of first-place votes.
Sometimes Adams can be his own worst enemy, though he appears to operate under the auspices of the old saying that all press is good press. He’s made a series of gaffes and questionable political moves, some relatively anodyne and others less so, that earn him headlines for all the wrong reasons.
“I think his biggest weakness is he has a penchant for the hokey thing that will just throw him off and make him not look serious,” said one of the consultants. In 2010, Adams launched his “Stop the Sag” billboard campaign to encourage young Black men to pull up their pants and reject racial stereotypes. “Let us not be the ones who make our communities seem foolish,” he told the New York Times.
He once said in an FAQ NYC podcast interview that he would forego a police detail if elected mayor and carry his own gun (he’s backtracked on both, to a degree). In late 2019, Adams turned a lot of heads and turned off an untold number of New Yorkers when he made bizarre and divisive comments at the opening of a center for LGBT seniors on NYCHA land. In January, at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, he launched into a tirade against gentrification and declared, “Go back to Iowa! You go back to Ohio! New York City belongs to the people that was here and made New York City what it is.” Soon after, as he outlined some of the essential planks of his coming mayoral campaign in front of the city’s business and civic elite, he called the comments a “gaffe” and tried to explain that he was really referring to people who move into communities and don’t respect their neighbors, and arguing that he was not necessarily talking about white people in Brooklyn communities of color.
His most recent foray into controversy came last month as he held a fundraiser at a small restaurant on the Upper West Side as the city was starting to see a second wave of the coronavirus and indoor dining was on the verge of shutting down again. The next day, he held another in-person fundraising event, this time in a designated “yellow zone” in Queens where new coronavirus cases were spiking. He said he followed all public health guidelines and was trying to ensure that while he did fundraising he was going to do anyway he wanted to help out small businesses in the city that have been hurting, rather than hold events in private homes.
“We reached out to restaurants that were hurting and said, ‘We want to help you while we're doing the fundraising, that's part of what we need to do as a candidate. How do we help you?,’” he said on the Max & Murphy podcast. “Those waiters, those cooks, those dishwashers, asked us to host our event at their establishment. So we were able to help everyday low-skill, low-pay employees, and at the same time continue what we must do to raise money for the campaign. We were extremely responsible.”
[This article is part of a series on the leading Democratic mayoral candidates' strengths and weaknesses.]
Ben Max contributed to this story.