The Listless, Very Consequential Election
Eric Adams wins. Now what?
On Tuesday, Eric Adams, the next mayor of New York City, held two public events. He cast his vote and greeted Brooklynites shortly after that. Until his victory party at the Marriott in Downtown Brooklyn, he was nowhere to be seen or heard, save for a couple of radio appearances.
It wasn’t as if Adams needed to do much. After the Brooklyn borough president narrowly won the primary in June, he behaved as the mayor-elect, declaring himself the “face” of the Democratic Party and largely taking the summer off. He vacationed in Monaco. He pared back his schedule to a point where most reporters couldn’t locate him on any given day. His campaign boasted of his intense work ethic, improbable near-24-hour days, but the available evidence suggested something else. Adams knew the math. As long as he was a warm body in November, he was going to beat Curtis Sliwa, and that was that.
First, let’s not undersell history. Adams, a former police captain who rose from poverty in Queens, will be only the second Black mayor New York has ever had. He is the first in decades to come from the city’s public schools. He is the first in decades to have risen from the rank-and-file of a union. In the primary, he built a working-class coalition of Blacks and Latinos that defeated, just barely, New York’s rising electorate of affluent, left-leaning voters. He aligned himself fully with the city’s finance and real estate elites, befriending Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg, and his ability to charm bus drivers and investment bankers alike should not be readily dismissed. For the Left, for anyone, Adams will be a wily opponent, and it’s possible he will find a way to marry the best qualities of the last few mayors, ushering New York into a silver or golden age. The policy agenda of Adams was ill-defined enough to allow for all kinds of guesses.
For now, we have the election data. Compared to 2013, when Bill de Blasio was elected mayor, the Adams victory was not overwhelming or particularly compelling. After surviving a high turnout primary—the raw vote total was the second highest in any NYC Democratic mayoral primary ever—Adams opted to campaign as little as possible in the general election. The election in New York reflected that. It was a day of disinterest. The turnout on Tuesday marginally outstripped what New York saw on primary day. In the five boroughs, 1,016,663 voted in-person yesterday, compared to 942,031 in the primary. Eight years ago, in a race that saw de Blasio pitted against Joe Lhota, the former MTA chairman who was perceived as much more credible, 1,087,710 voted overall. With absentees, the 2021 vote total will probably surpass what was seen in 2013, but not by very much. Some of this may reflect the nature of how far apart the primary and general elections now are—de Blasio won in September, and again in November—and the way New York voters have wised up to how much primaries now count. A genuinely large number of people came to vote in June and a much smaller number, relative to the electorate and population growth, showed up Tuesday. Many Democratic voters calculated they didn’t have to come.
Or, more damningly for Adams, they didn’t feel motivated to cast a vote at all. The Adams victory, in every sense, is weaker than de Blasio’s. Against Sliwa, the Guardian Angels founder and small-time celebrity who was never taken seriously, in the media, as a contender, Adams could not win more than 70 percent of the vote, a feat de Blasio accomplished against Lhota, a better-funded opponent with decades of experience in government. Before Tuesday, my guess was Adams would finish with around 68 percent of the vote against Sliwa and he failed to meet my lower expectations, netting 66.5% across the five boroughs. Since Adams treated victory as a foregone conclusion, there was little energy surrounding the campaign in the final days. The rallies were smaller than de Blasio’s and election night lacked the electricity that most history-making campaigns are able, in those last moments, to muster.
Much maligned in the media these days, the 2013 version of de Blasio was nevertheless a boon for Democrats down the ballot. In competitive City Council districts, Democrats overcame Republican opposition or, in the most conservative quarters of the city, were able to win without the liberal standard bearer dragging them down too far. In defense of Adams, Tuesday was a miserable national environment for Democrats, and some of that undoubtedly trickled into New York City. Joe Biden’s approval ratings are now dismal. Terry McAuliffe lost in Virginia and Phil Murphy could lose in New Jersey. In Nassau and Suffolk Counties, moderate and conservative Democrats were routed, just as progressives suffered defeats elsewhere. The 2021 cycle is a mirror of 2017, when anti-Trump fervor powered Democrats across America. Biden’s struggles, coupled with diminished turnout in some areas, probably cost Democrats everywhere.
What Adams did not do was defy this environment or do anything to uplift the Democrats beneath him. And it was quietly a bad night for Democrats across the city. The nationalization of local politics is a long-running trend that has finally caught up with New York. The era of ticket-splitting in conservative neighborhoods of the city is coming to a close. In Staten Island, the PBA-supported Sal Albanese, who ceaselessly rails against de Blasio and much of the younger Left, was easily swatted away by Republican David Carr because Republicans showed up to vote for Sliwa and they weren’t in the mood for any Democrats. The police union could not save Democrat Steve Saperstein in Southern Brooklyn, where Russian and Orthodox voters, long accustomed to voting for Trump, handed an easy victory to the right-wing Republican, attorney Inna Vernikov. In eastern Queens, Tony Avella, a former city councilman and state senator who made his name as a NIMBY conservative, lost to a Trump Republican, Vickie Paladino. Avella had represented the area in government, on and off, for almost 20 years and it did not matter. Two conservative Democrats, Bob Holden and Kalman Yeger, also ran on the Republican lines and gathered many more votes there. Both could switch parties and few in their districts would condemn them.
Other issues might have been at play. De Blasio, in a bid to boost the city’s vaccination rate further, unwittingly set a deadline for a vaccine mandate for city workers that nearly coincided with Election Day. A small number of firefighters, sanitation workers, and police angrily protested, refusing to come to work. In my own City Council district, roping in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, Republicans fearmongered about the closure of firehouses. Trash piled up in the streets for several days as garbage pick-up noticeably slowed. Justin Brannan, the incumbent lawmaker, can win when absentee votes are tabulated but currently trails his Republican rival, Brian Fox. Republicans seemed more motivated to show up. The passion and anger was on their side.
Adams’ New York is going to be a more unpredictable and divided place. An era of political strife may be upon us. De Blasio, for all his ills, presided over a period of relative Democratic comity. A more incendiary figure, Adams will have to reckon with emboldened Left and Right flanks, both within his party and beyond it. The new City Council will have seven de facto Republicans, with Yeger and Holden feeling greater allegiance to a party that handed them more votes. These seven conservatives, many of them proud Trump backers, will be matched up against outright socialists and socialist-adjacent lawmakers. Vernikov, who could be the Marjorie Taylor Greene of this body, and Paladino, best known for partying indoors during the pandemic last year, will share a chamber with Tiffany Cabán, Chi Ossé, Julie Won, and Shahana Hanif. The ideological diversity, and penchant for tumult, is quite real. Adams, who is deeply skeptical of the young left and seems poised, at the very minimum, to return Bloomberg-style policing to the city, might revel in all of this. We don’t really know what to expect. It was a quiet election night, but also, in its own way, a momentous one. Pay attention to what’s to come.