Eric Adams and the Weapon of Identity

The Left doesn't quite know what could hit them

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, is as well-positioned as any candidate to be the next mayor of New York City. That does not mean he will win on June 22nd, but it does mean the coalition for a slim but significant victory could be coming into place if there are no more last-minute surprises or damaging news cycles.

Rising in the polls, Adams appears to be gaining great traction with Black voters and winning over more moderate whites in the outer boroughs, particularly older voters worried about rising crime. White liberals, increasingly wary of him, still may rank him on more ballots than Andrew Yang, who faced months of media scrutiny that Adams never endured.

In a recent media appearance, I was asked, quite bluntly, which candidate was worse for the Left: Eric Adams or Andrew Yang. Another person on the show argued Yang was worse, citing his ties to the left-hostile, tech-friendly consultant Bradley Tusk. I argued that Adams would be, in the end, more detrimental. Repeating a version of what I told New York Magazine, I said the Left can probably gain more from a Yang administration because he would enter office with weaker institutional ties and be more willing to engage with activists and organizers. Lacking a clear base of his own, Yang would be far easier to pressure, and his knowledge deficit could be used to the Left’s benefit if they organized well enough.

Adams, conversely, would be strong enough to tell the socialists, the progressives, the Working Families Party, the NGO’s, and the ordinary activists shouting outside Gracie Mansion that he does not need them to run the city. Adams does not have to listen to them at all. He would enter office with strong support from middle class Blacks, organized labor, and a large number of Democratic politicians and organizations. He is a former police captain who has stated he is willing to carry a gun on him at all times. He will not be intimidated and he will not be moved. He would be a machine mayor, with his own constituencies, far more insulated from outside pressure. Yang, for the Left, would be a manageable opponent. Adams would do his best to crush them  altogether.

Adams has another weapon to deploy: identity. Traditionally, the Left—the socialists, the elder Marxists, the unionists—too often neglected the struggles of nonwhite groups, insisting loudly that class—and only class—matters. This is not true, of course, not in the United States of America where Blacks were enslaved until the 1860s and did not gain full legal recognition from their government until the 1960s, when the federal government forced the end of Jim Crow brutality. This is not true in an America where de facto slave labor, much of it Chinese labor, built the national railroads, and Japanese Americans were later thrown into internment camps. America has come a long way from those dark days, but we cannot forget them either. Racism has not left us.

These days, all factions of the Left acknowledge and celebrate identity. This is necessary. To win power, multiracial coalitions must be built, and that means appealing to Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other groups of marginalized people on their own terms. It means recognizing difference and diversity. It means, to borrow a term from the faculty lounge, being intersectional. No version of the Left can succeed without that.

But you can sense, from my tone and my writings, I am skeptical of a politics that subsumes class, that centers itself almost entirely around identity. This is the kind of politics that allows large corporations to hire wealthy consultants to conduct diversity trainings that serve to shield them from discrimination lawsuits while further policing their beleaguered workforce. It is the kind of politics that allows Nike, Apple, and other mega corporations to be seamless social justice allies, even as they crack unions and rely on oppressed foreign labor. Unfortunately, in elite politics and academia, it is the kind of politics that is now ascendant. It relies on bosses and human resource departments, not collective action. It elevates language to the level of physical violence, constricts discourse, and increasingly disregards the First Amendment.

It flattens the reality of America. If identity is elevated far beyond class, there is no common cause to be made between poor whites, who still make up the large plurality of the nation’s impoverished, and poor people of color. Diversity consultants replace union drives. Candidates who seek universal, redistributive policy goals are shamed by elite liberal commentators for not talking enough about race. Instead of a politics of solidarity and working class uplift, there is woke capitalism, forever the preferable mode of operation for tax-skirting billionaires everywhere.

Yang, who is Asian American, has had an uneasy relationship with identity politics, but Adams has not. For Adams, a Black former police captain, the Left’s pivot to identity has been a godsend. These days, left-liberals and socialists alike are hyper-focused on it, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Adams is adept at taking this very real and worthy reckoning over race in America and using it for his own ends.

Like Yang, Adams has been willing to fundraise aggressively from the real estate industry and promote a developer-friendly agenda. But the two candidates, competing as moderates in the Democratic primary, have taken very different rhetorical approaches to the one area of housing policy the mayor does directly control: how much rent gets hiked on rent-stabilized apartments. Earlier in the year, Yang spoke out in favor of the Rent Guideline Board’s rent freeze during the pandemic and supported the eviction moratorium. In the last few days, I pressed both Adams and Yang on a particular, and very pertinent, question for the more than two million rent-stabilized tenants in the five boroughs: would they appoint members to the Rent Guidelines Board who would freeze or even rollback rent in the future?

Yang on Saturday told me he was open to the idea. Progressives, of course, are right to be skeptical of him with so many Michael Bloomberg alums hovering around—Bloomberg’s board hiked rents repeatedly—and should be prepared to aggressively hold him accountable if he wins. “We should not be raising people’s rents during this time. There are still a lot of people that are struggling, a lot of people that are out of work and we do have an ongoing homelessness crisis that we need to address,” Yang said. “I would be trying to keep New York City as affordable as possible.”

Adams, in response to my question, had a very different answer. “The greatest wealth of Black and brown people in this city is in their property. So when we start making any decisions on small property owners, we need to factor that,” Adams said. “Because if we’re not going to freeze mortgage payments for small property owners, if we’re not going to rollback their mortgage payments, then we need to be careful.”

“Those who are idealistic about this issue must be realistic,” Adams continued. “Because Ms. Jones at 80 years-old, trying to pay her mortgage—you start talking about freezing her rent, you start talking about rolling back, you start talking about no rent, she’s going to lose her home and you’re going to see the greatest loss of wealth of Black and brown immigrant people in this city and that is going to be a problem for me.”

“So we need to have smart people on the Rent Guidelines Board making the right decisions, protect tenants, and protect those small property owners at the same time.”

Adams’ answer is both brilliant and deeply wrong. Rent-stabilized units that the Rent Guidelines Board sets the rent for have little, if anything, to do with the kind of single property-owners—the theoretical Ms. Jones—that Adams cites. Rent-stabilized apartments are typically in buildings built before 1974 that have more than six units. Would Ms. Jones, at 80, be trying to pay her mortgage while owning six or more apartments? Not likely.

Like other real estate-aligned politicians, Adams continues to spread a favorite myth of landlords—that any kind of law helping tenants punishes blue collar property-owners who are just trying to get by. The talking points Adams employed were wielded repeatedly as Democrats fought successfully in 2019 to strengthen tenant protections in New York, including repealing a destructive law that allowed landlords to rip units from the rent-stabilization program.

Adams and the landlord lobby are lying because most owners of rental properties in New York City are not small. They are behemoths. The average apartment in the five boroughs belonged to a 21-property, 893-unit portfolio, according to city data crunched by JustFixNYC. Landlords owning more than 20 buildings were associated with more than half of these apartments across the city. Large landlords carry out evictions more aggressively than small landlords.

Roughly half of all rent-regulated buildings were owned by landlords with 21 or more buildings in their portfolio, a staggering number. For landlords with more than 60 buildings, rent-regulated properties represented more than 50 percent of the homes that they owned collectively. Less than one-tenth of the properties small landlords owned, conversely, were rent-regulated.

Adams, though incendiary, is a very smart man. If he doesn’t know these statistics off the top of his head, he is at least aware of them. But to espouse such logic—an elderly woman paying off her mortgage is somehow also a landlord of rent-stabilized housing—is to engage cynically with municipal politics in a way that is very familiar to him. Without any prior knowledge of how housing works in New York City, Adams’ opinions on rent-stabilization seem to make sense. There are a lot of Black, middle class homeowners, especially in outer borough Brooklyn and Queens. They do care about property taxes and may be less moved by issues facing tenants, since they themselves are not. Very few of them, though, would be impacted by any decision made by the Rent Guidelines Board. Their mortgages would not be affected. Adams is aware. It does not fit his politics, though, to evince such awareness.

Why would race come into a discussion of rent-stabilization as a way to safeguard the interests of inordinately wealthy landlords who, by and large, are not Black at all? The most powerful landlords in the city are white men like Steven Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone, and the Related Companies’ Stephen Ross, a Trump supporter who owns the Miami Dolphins and remains one of the world’s leading real estate developers. These are the men who have the most to lose from a large and incredibly organized tenant movement that hopes to, one day, socialize a great deal more of housing in New York.

Equating rent-stabilization with anti-Blackness is dangerous and deserves far more attention. The millionaire and billionaire landlords hungrily waiting out Bill de Blasio’s second term would want nothing more than a prominent person of color defending their predatory practices and tactics, a person who can speak up for their interests against an ascendant Left movement that has prioritized the struggles of working-class tenants in New York, many of whom are Black, Latino, and Asian. Mayor Eric Adams would be the apotheosis of woke capitalism. Stephen Ross could ask for nothing more.

All policy criticisms of Mayor Adams, in the coming years, can be reduced to race if he so chooses. This is the terrain many liberals wanted to play on, and now they will compete with a master. Do you care about transportation issues, like how cars with city-issued placards can park illegally, creating dangerous hazards for pedestrians and cyclists? Adams thinks you’re a white supremacist. Do you wonder why he sleeps at Borough Hall and spends time at an apartment in New Jersey? You’re a racist. Concerned about Adams’ oversight of nonprofits that seem to have created glaring conflicts-of-interest? Well, you’re unfairly maligning a Black man when there are plenty of white politicians who get away with corruption. Adams will be a far more deft opponent than the Left realizes. He is schooled in the logic and the rhetoric. He is ready for this fight.

Running with the strong support of the city’s tabloids—he won the New York Post endorsement outright and nearly nabbed the backing of the Daily News—and tailoring a tough-on-crime message that appeals most to the “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage from local television news, Adams will have media organs to bolster him in these coming clashes. They will be there to validate his narrative, to mock the Left as white, wealthy, and out-of-touch. Imagine tenant activists marching on Adams’ Gracie Mansion, demanding a rent-freeze or a rent-rollback. They will be diverse, as tenant activists are, but Adams need not see them that way. He will amplify another message, one of tremendous cynicism and cunning: these organizers are attacking Black wealth. They are here, at the gates of a Black mayor, to steal what it is the middle class, over time, has struggled to accumulate. It will be a message, delivered in Adams’ baritone, entirely divorced from reality. But a relationship with reality, in this age, is not a prerequisite for success.