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'We Will Not Surrender Our City': Eric Adams' Tough First Month as Mayor

tough month first

Mayor Adams at the scene of a deadly Bronx fire (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Eric Adams had a hectic and tragic first month in office, responding to several devastating deadly incidents, establishing a new tone out of City Hall, and overseeing a shaky transition beset by questions about several appointments and punctuated by praise for others.

In the wake of a Bronx fire that killed at least 17 New Yorkers, the murder of a teenage cashier during a robbery in Harlem, a deadly subway pushing in Times Square, an 11-month-old baby shot in the Bronx, and the fatal Harlem shooting of two police officers, the mayor finds his young administration tested, particularly on the promise he made on the campaign trail of ensuring public safety. The tragedies dominated his first month, while Adams spoke repeatedly about creating a safer city, at times in the context of restoring New Yorkers’ faith in city government.

It wasn’t long after Adams was sworn in that he was quickly confronted by crisis as, just on his first day, he rushed to the side of a police officer hospitalized after being shot in Harlem -- the first of five NYPD officers shot in Adams’ first month as mayor. Earlier that day, on his way to City Hall, the mayor reported an assault in progress from a subway station, a familiar role for the once-transit cop and 22-year veteran of the NYPD.

In the weeks since, Adams has crisscrossed the city, oftentimes using public transit or biking, part of his promised approach to be among New Yorkers and bring a different style and tenor to the job than his predecessor, Bill de Blasio. And, somewhat in the same vein, he has responded to emergency after emergency amid a packed schedule of public announcements and media appearances. The new mayor, embracing the job he has wanted for decades, has alternated between tears and joy.

“It's hard for me to believe it's only been a month, you know,” Adams said at a news conference at City Hall on Monday. “And if you haven't recognized it, I am just having the fun of my life, outside of the tragedies of people taking the innocent lives of people.”

Adams, a Democrat and the second Black mayor in the city’s history, has appointed prominent figures from the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, and several former elected officials, including Republicans. He has, to some degree, restructured the top levels of city government, shifting deputy mayor positions; naming new chief officers over technology, housing, and climate; and streamlining some of the city’s org chart, as he promised he would on the campaign trail. He has mixed substance and bluster, releasing a detailed plan to tackle gun violence and at times dismissing questions by citing his “swagger” or simply saying “I’ve got this.”

Adams has forged relationships with Governor Kathy Hochul and President Joe Biden, two fellow Democrats who could be key to the new mayor’s success, but he’s also alienated members of the City Council and State Legislature by interfering in the Council Speaker race and repeatedly publicly criticizing state criminal justice reforms.

As the omicron variant surged through the city amid the mayoral transition, Adams continued the de Blasio playbook and credited his predecessor's policies. But he also emphasized that the city must learn to live with covid and keep recovering. His first week was heavily focused on reopening city schools and keeping them open, without offering a broad remote learning option, despite calls for such a shift from teachers unions, some elected officials, and some parents.

And he pushed for companies to bring their workers back to the office, particularly in major Manhattan hubs, as Wall Street firms began to delay their return-to-work plans. “​​We have to open up," Adams said on CNN on January 4. “What we must understand is the resiliency of returning back to a normal life. If we don't open our cities, there are almost a million people that are behind in their rents right here in this city. We have low-skilled employees who can't do remote employment from home or telecommuting. That's not a reality in a city like New York and America. I need my cities to open.”

On Monday, Adams struck a positive note as he pointed out that covid indicators have been consistently trending downward in recent weeks after omicron peaked. The city can’t keep living “in a state of terror,” he insisted, flashing some of both his trademark optimism and bluster. “This is a real W for us,” he said. “You know, you can be so used to getting the Ls that you just wake up every day and hoping you're getting the L. No New York. Eric is your mayor. We’re getting Ws now. We are going to win.”

But on covid reopening and more, Adams has yet to lay out more detailed plans and proposals, in part because he has been consumed by emergencies, his administration is still young and being put together, and he did not appear to spend the transition period with much sense of urgency.

“Over the last month, Mayor Adams has lived up to his personal mantra of ‘Get Stuff Done’ — laying out a comprehensive Blueprint to End Gun Violence and improve public safety, taking action to spur economic development across New York City, winning in the fight against COVID-19, keeping our kids in school, and more,” said Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Adams, in an email. “He’s put together a diverse and qualified team made up of some of the city’s most dedicated public servants, who are streamlining city government and making it run more efficiently. And amidst a challenging month for New York City, Mayor Adams has also shown up when communities need him most, at all hours, in all five boroughs, to provide the symbolic and substantive leadership New Yorkers elected him to provide.”

Tragedy After Tragedy
On January 9, a deadly fire in the Bronx took the lives of 17 people, one of the worst fires in the city’s history. Adams was promptly on the scene, holding two news conferences within the first 24 hours of the fire with Fire Department officials and local electeds to brief the public. Soon after, on January 18, an explosion in a residential building, also in the Bronx, killed one person and injured eight others. Adams was again at the spot to hold a public briefing.

Other high-profile incidents have also commanded the mayor’s attention. On January 9, a 19-year-old cashier at a Burger King in Harlem was shot and killed in an armed robbery. On January 15, Manhattan resident Michelle Alyssa Go was pushed in front of an arriving train and killed at the Times Square station, the apparent “random” victim of a homeless man with serious mental illness. Three days later, an NYPD officer was shot in the leg while struggling over a gun with a teenaged suspect. Then, on January 20, an 11-month-old infant was shot in the face in the Bronx, a stray bullet piercing the car she was sitting in with her mother.

Then, on the evening of January 21, NYPD Officers Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora were shot while responding to a domestic disturbance call in Harlem. Rivera died that night while Mora passed away from his wounds several days later.

“Unfortunately, the tragedies that we’ve had with so many police officers being shot and those who have died, I think the person who could understand it the best is someone who was a police officer himself,” said Dr. Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University.

After several of these incidents Adams held press briefings to decry the violence, pledged to create a safe city, and called on partners at other levels of government to help him achieve that promise. “I don't agree with all the things he does, but as far as showing up and showing that he wants to be mayor and wants to tackle some hard questions, so far he’s been there,” said Greer. She pointed out that Adams’ constant communication with New Yorkers and his omnipresence around the city has earned him significant goodwill.

“We don't realize just how, I would say, more or less traumatic it is to have a mayor that doesn’t seem interested in being mayor,” Greer added, contrasting Adams with de Blasio. “So the fact that Eric Adams is showing up and saying, ‘I'm really excited to be here and I want to work for you all,’ I think that goes a long way.”

Even before Go’s murder, Adams had outlined a plan to add more police officers and patrols to the subway system (there were officers on the platform, the NYPD said, when she was killed), and he’s offered several ways in which the NYPD will become more present and more assertive, with, he promises, careful attention to avoid overcriminalization.

“Our recovery is dependent on the public safety in this city and in the subway system,” Adams said at a briefing after Go’s murder. “We can do that with the right balance, a balance of safety and a balance of proactively giving people the assistance they need when they're in mental health crisis.”

“I don't think you can reopen the city without doing something about public violence and guns and the gangs in those parts of the city that have them,” said George Arzt, a veteran Democratic consultant. “He’s very much focused on them…He'll be going after those areas that are key in the quality of life of the city.”

Soon after Officers Rivera and Mora were shot, Adams unveiled his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence,” the release of which was apparently sped up by the incident. It includes many measures the mayor can control, and several that he can’t, but for his advocacy: reinventing a disbanded plainclothes NYPD anti-gun unit; changes to the state’s bail and youth offender laws; and additional resources to mental health services, youth employment programs, and gun violence prevention strategies, among many others.

“New Yorkers feel as if a sea of violence is engulfing our city. But as your mayor, I promise you, I will not let this happen,” Adams said at the January 24 announcement. “We will not surrender our city to the violent few. We are not going to go back to the bad old days. We are going to get trigger pullers off the streets and guns out of their hands.”

Some of Adams’ proposals received praise from moderates and conservatives, including business leaders, and pushback from progressives who fear that the city will ramp up aggressive policing that disproportionately harms New Yorkers of color. Many Democratic state legislators indicated little interest in revisiting landmark criminal justice reforms of the last few years, with some accusing the mayor of fear-mongering and getting his facts wrong. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, an architect of both the bail and Raise the Age laws, said Adams should focus on improving the city’s probation department.

“He's been where he's needed to be. From the fires to issues related to the police shootings, he has been there for the community. So I want to give him those props and that support,” said Camille Rivera, a partner at New Deal Strategies, a political consultancy. “That being said, I am very concerned that if you lean too much into the issues regarding just police safety, you're ignoring the issues around what's actually happening to our communities.”

The shootings of officers Rivera and Mora garnered focus from the White House as President Joe Biden announced he would visit New York on Thursday, February 3 to meet with the mayor “to discuss the Administration’s comprehensive strategy to combat gun crime, which includes historic levels of funding for cities and states to put more cops on the beat and invest in community violence prevention and intervention programs, as well as stepped up federal law enforcement efforts against illegal gun traffickers.”

In his eulogy for Rivera at the January 28 ceremony, Adams sought to soothe the public conscience about the city’s safety. “There has been a tremendous amount of sadness and grief in our city, but as I travel, I see something special about New York,” he said. “Inside the crevices of violence and uncertainty in covid, inside the uncertainty of what tomorrows are like — I see love and hope and opportunity.”

How He’s Doing
“What I think we're seeing is a pattern emerging where on the big issues, the macro issues, Eric Adams will tend to do very well, with a message that is what he actually believes. So there's authenticity but it also resonates with the public,” said Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic strategist with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, in a phone interview. “But we also see a pattern where on some of…the micro issues, of appointments and other things, the question is less about him than will his team be able to avoid…fumbles that could cost the mayor. Right now the mayor's dominance on the macro issues is his holding sway and he's off to a strong start.”

Biden’s visit to the city highlights how the killing of the two NYPD officers has grabbed national attention. It’s also proof, Gyory said, that Adams’ focus on public safety has struck a chord for Democrats. “[Biden’s] not going to Chicago. He's not going to Boston. He's coming to New York and that's because that Adams message resonates across a broad cross-section of voters not just in New York City, but in the larger metropolitan areas. And that is something a Democratic mayor hasn't had in quite some time.”

Adams has expressed kinship with Biden that speaks to their shared politics. “This is a great city, and I’m the Biden of Brooklyn,” Adams said at a news conference on Monday, when asked about the president’s impending visit. “And I love the fact that the president is coming here. I met with him after the campaign, and we spoke and we just connected, you know, and I'm sure if you were to ask him, ‘What is his favorite Mayor?’ He’ll clearly tell you it’s Eric…We just really like each other.”

Rivera, of New Deal Strategies, said Adams needs a “holistic approach” to public safety that goes beyond policing. For instance, greater resources for homelessness prevention and mental health services rather than increased police patrols. She also said that his rhetoric and potential over-reliance on the police are concerning for some people of color. “I think [it is] very nerve-wracking for someone like me or for many people who are saying, ‘We want to make sure that we're safe but we don't want to live in a police state.’”

“​​I want to make sure that it's OK for me to mourn the police and the people who died. It's OK for me to be sad and upset about what's happening to my city,” Rivera said. “But it's also OK for me to say that I also want to make sure that we're dealing with the real root causes of what's plaguing our city.”

Adams has promised a balance, and shown some commitment to that, organizing and attending multiple roundtable discussions with community activists focused more on non-police strategies for reducing gun violence. His “blueprint” has many pieces to it, and the mayor has said that the heavier policing focus will be on more short-term “intervention” while he scales up the medium- and long-term “prevention” programs.

Overall, Adams has made many personnel appointments but given limited indication about policy direction beyond public safety, with a few exceptions. In his first week, he announced new funding to help bolster the city’s hospital system as it was dealing with the omicron surge. He then appeared with Governor Kathy Hochul to announce a plan to increase NYPD patrols on the subway system along with state homeless outreach workers. He signed an executive order to consolidate and streamline the city’s technology agencies and another to provide relief from fines and fees to small businesses. And, along with NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell and Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, Adams announced a pedestrian safety plan that includes design improvements to 1,000 intersections and increased police enforcement.

On Sunday, he announced his housing leadership team, raising some concerns by naming a chief housing officer and not making it a deputy mayor level role, and on Monday he announced his climate leadership team, creating a new mayoral office that merged several existing ones that oversee environmental protection and climate-related issues. On both issues, Adams promised bold action to address the housing and climate crises facing the city, and reiterated a few major planks of his campaign agenda.

Throughout his first month, Adams was in and out of mini-controversies and headlines over unorthodox behavior, including comments he made about “low-skill” workers (he said he meant “low-wage”) and deciding to convert his first paycheck into cryptocurrency. Both types of happenings were indicative of a mayor who is at once a great communicator and prone to gaffes, and who is spontaneous and experimental.

As Gyory noted, though Adams has received praise for his rapid responses to the crisis of the day, his fledgling administration has stumbled out the gate. He has been slow to make appointments to various city agencies and has also picked several people for his administration, or sought to appoint them, that have raised a series of questions about the ethical standards he will follow.

He appointed a prominent Brooklyn lawyer, Frank Carone, as his chief of staff even though his firm has a lobbying practice with business before the city and Carone has a variety of political and legal entanglements. He attempted to give his brother, Bernard Adams, a top position at an annual salary of $210,000 only to withdraw the idea amid questions about violation of the city’s nepotism law. Instead, he sought and received a waiver from the Conflicts of Interest Board to hire his brother at a nominal salary of $1 as a City Hall advisor. He installed a former top NYPD official, Phillip Banks III, as his deputy mayor for public safety despite Banks having resigned from the police department under a cloud of scandal. He let Banks push out the NYPD internal affairs chief who had investigated the former chief of department in the past, and he let the new correction commissioner, Louis Molina, fire that department’s inspector general, who had taken an assertive approach to investigating correction officer wrongdoing.

[Read: Adams Begins Mayoralty with Series of Ethics Questions]

But questions about his appointments are not the types of concerns that matter to everyday New Yorkers, observers say. “I think Eric has shown real leadership. He's out there everywhere. And he is blunt. He's willing to listen. He's willing to say that he's wrong on occasion,” said Arzt. “He very much reminds me of Ed Koch, as someone who goes out and talks his mind and is present all over the city. You didn't get that from Eric's predecessor.”

Adams has even earned praise for his performance from those who would usually be critical of a Democratic mayor, showing that at least on public safety matters, he is aligned with more conservative entities, as he has long acknowledged.

As Greer noted, on issues of public safety, the conservative press has focused its criticism on progressive lawmakers and especially Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, instead of Mayor Adams. “He's been able to sidestep some of the kind of month-one nitpicking that occurs because so much of that has been directed at Al Bragg…[Adams] is generally a good politician, but he's also had a little bit of luck.”

“I think he's inheriting a tough climate and he's inheriting a constituency that is different from that of a lot of legislators who are standing in his way on a number of issues,” said City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican and the Council minority leader. “I think it's public safety this month. It'll be other things next month, it'll be on the right and left. It's just the nature of having an eight-and-a-half million person constituency versus having a Democratic primary vote with a thousand people.”

Unlike de Blasio, Adams seems to enjoy his job, Borelli said, citing the new mayor’s willingness to tour the five boroughs during the bomb cyclone that hit the city over the weekend. Adams even went down to his Brooklyn home to shovel the sidewalk and later rode the Staten Island Ferry that day. “I just think that there is a lot to be gained from speaking to Joe Blow, the plow driver,” Borelli said. “The less time he spends in City Hall, the more time he spends in a sanitation garage or in the superintendent's office of a housing project, the better mayor he will be.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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