The Power of Eric Adams
What an emboldened mayor looks like
The Eric Adams mayoralty was always going to be eventful. A former borough president, state senator, and police captain, Adams has survived plenty of scandal and controversy throughout a singular career that is, at last, getting national notice. Now the mayor of the largest American city, he is a man who millions must heed. “When a mayor has swagger, the city has swagger,” Adams declared.
Indeed, not since Ed Koch, or maybe Rudy Giuliani, have New Yorkers witnessed a mayor so in motion. He has, in one short week, fulfilled the longing of every journalist, operative, and close-watcher of the political process for whom “optics” is a mantra, a raison d’être. He bikes out of Gracie Mansion, rides the subway, races to the scene of a tragic fire, and comforts wounded police. This is the “get stuff done” mayoralty, never mind that Adams has announced no serious policy goals, beyond flooding the subway with more police. Adams has undeniable appeal, both to people who barely follow politics and those deeply locked into it. His predecessor, Bill de Blasio, was so unenthused about the job that Adams, in merely flashing his smile, is able to gobble up all kinds of low-hanging fruit.
When Adams finds himself challenged, as he did last week over his comment about “low-skill” workers in Midtown, he demonstrates he is well-schooled in the art of twenty-first century political warfare. Adams had said he needed corporations to end remote work so white-collar professionals could patronize local businesses again, especially since he claimed the “low-skill” workers lacked the “academic” pedigree to “sit in the corner office.” This, understandably, provoked outrage on the left, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lodging her first tweet against Adams since he became mayor. “The suggestion that any job is ‘low skill’ is a myth perpetuated by wealthy interests to justify inhumane working conditions, little/no healthcare, and low wages,” she tweeted. “Plus being a waitress has made me and many others *better* at our jobs than those who’ve never known that life.”
Adams did not back down: “Listen, I was a cook, I was a dishwasher,” Adams said on CBS. “People are going to try to take everything I say and distort it, but I’m focused, I’m disciplined, and I’m grinding to bring my city back.” He is right and he is wrong. His phrasing was odd and offensive, but it’s also true that he was making a defense of the working-class and acknowledging that corporations in Midtown and the Financial District employ people with undergraduate and advanced degrees, offering work that is not available to many bike messengers, dishwashers, or bartenders. All workers deserve dignity and those in precarious blue-collar fields need better pay and job protections, while Adams’ approach looks only at a short-term solution that doesn’t address New York’s ongoing struggles with COVID-19.
But if AOC and those who side with her—politically, I’d be in this camp—think they can outflank Adams on this issue, they may be mistaken. The right-wing critics of AOC get much wrong about her, but she did not grow up like Adams. He is a product of Jamaica, Queens, and knows the challenges of Black working-class life firsthand, even though he eventually transcended all of it to become a police captain, a landlord, and a politician. He knows the cadences and rhythms of that world quite well. Ocasio-Cortez grew up in a comfortable Westchester town, attended a private university, and worked for the National Hispanic Institute. She was a bartender but she had the college degree and academic skill set to show up at the corner office. Her political base, which remains potent, is now mostly confined to the rising professional class of Brooklyn and Queens, a voting bloc big enough to swing a citywide election. As a Latina, she can probably rival Adams in Spanish-speaking communities, but it was the Latino working-class that helped deliver Adams his primary victory in June.
Challenging Adams on Twitter won’t be sufficient. He can repel outrage news cycles and move on. One AOC tweet was enough to help destroy the Andrew Yang mayoral campaign. Adams, though, is made of sterner stuff. This is a problem for leftists and progressives who wish to stand up to Adams when he eventually wields his machine against them. It was why they were wrong, as I argued over the summer, to obsess over the allegedly unique threat Yang, the celebrity politician and former entrepreneur, posed to their project. Yang was making a fundamentally weaker bid as an outsider attempting to usurp a process he didn’t understand all that well. He was Mike Bloomberg without the billions, or without the inclination to study up on policy, and that made him someone who was both malleable and rather easy to oppose. The Working Families Party, various activist groups, or even Democratic Socialists of America could find a way to intimidate Mayor Andrew Yang. They could wage, at the minimum, symmetrical warfare against him, and demand policy concessions like a more tenant-friendly Rent Guidelines Board or less aggressive policing. An inexperienced mayor lacking institutional ties—and one already inundated with negative press—would have been the kind of opponent any activist craves.
Eric Adams is quite different. He narrowly won a primary victory on the strength of support from working-class Blacks and Latinos, the very voters left-wing groups hope to court and secure in their own coalition. The man who effectively ran the Brooklyn Democratic Party, a well-wired attorney named Frank Carone, is now overseeing the Adams City Hall. Like Yang, Adams was heavily supported by real estate and finance elites; unlike Yang, he was their de facto first choice, the man they actually trusted to see to it that their interests were protected. Opposing Bloomberg as a power-elite too aligned with the oligarch class was easy enough; Bloomberg was the drab white Republican presiding over a majority-minority city, insulated merely by his own money. Opposing Adams, a labor-backed Black Democrat from Southeast Queens, is not so simple, particularly when identity-first appeals have become so common on the liberal and progressive left. Adams knows how to point this rhetorical sword directly at the throats of those who come against him.
What does an emboldened mayor look like? Consider that Adams is currently attempting to hire his own brother, a retired NYPD sergeant who currently serves as the assistant director for parking at Virginia Commonwealth University, to be a deputy NYPD commissioner for governmental affairs, a job that would pay around $242,000 per year. The choice is brazen and ludicrous; even de Blasio, who was eager to include his family in his government, knew he could not legally pay his wife for the work she did at City Hall. City nepotism laws forbid politicians from directly hiring siblings. Adams may be able to find a loophole since it would be his police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, technically making the hire, not him. But Adams appointed Sewell. If Adams is desperate enough to get his brother a job, he could behave like a more slick and slightly less shameless politician and attempt to land Bernard on a private sector payroll elsewhere, with a consulting or lobbying firm, or maybe foist him on a sympathetic legislator. Adams is in the process of seeking approval from the New York Conflicts of Interest Board, which could deny the hire.
What’s notable here is that the appearance of conflict doesn’t bother Adams at all. “Let me be clear on this: My brother is qualified for the position. Number one, he will be in charge of my security, which is extremely important to me at a time when we see an increase in white supremacy and hate crimes,” Adams said on CNN Sunday. “I have to take my security in a very serious way.” Later, he said his brother Bernard would be needed to safeguard him against “anarchists.” Had de Blasio attempted to pay a sibling more than $200,000 to work for him, newspapers like the New York Post would have gleefully excoriated him, likely amplifying the remarks for days or weeks on end. Since Adams, a former Republican, has drawn close to Rupert Murdoch, the Post is effectively defanged. The coverage of the new administration certainly reflects this reality. “Adams defends brother’s NYPD job, says he’ll protect against white supremacists,” read their embarrassingly sober headline.
Adams, who also appointed a deputy mayor for public safety who has spent years under a scandal cloud, knows how the game is played in the 2020s. As a Black politician in a time of racial reckoning, with liberal white guilt fueling dramatic, identity-driven overhauls of media, education, and corporate America, it may be advantageous for him to invoke “white supremacy” whenever the critics get too loud. And by the unbendable logic established by smash-hits like White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist, who can blame him? As Brooklyn borough president, Adams defended the abuse of parking placards by arguing his predecessors, who were all white, were allowed to break the law too. “I fought my entire life to make sure men that look like me don’t have different rules than anyone else,” said Adams in 2019. “There’s one rule in this city, there’s not going to be a rule just for Eric Adams, the first African-American borough president.”
The outstanding question is how many times Adams, as mayor, can wield this playbook. One can sense—among the largely white, liberal press corps covering Adams—a certain amount of trepidation. Like the Post, they seem a bit more inhibited, their slashing tweets and furious stories toned down from their de Blasio-driven peak. De Blasio was the easiest of targets, after all, a gawky, affluent white man from leafy Cambridge who, like at least some journalists covering him, attended prestigious private universities, NYU and Columbia. Though de Blasio had a Black wife and biracial children, he could not, with a straight face, accuse the media of being racist against him. Eric Adams is nothing like most of the people, including me, who write about him. In the parlance of the new culture, he is in possession of lived experience many in media lack. When it comes time to debate, the terms can never be equal. Identity allows Adams to make the first and decisive move. Most left-leaning white reporters and editors in media, desperate to be good allies of the cause, dread being called out about these differences.
The goodwill Adams has generated so far among the media, whether guilt-driven or not, is political capital he gets to bank for later. Public outrage can only go so far when there are so many reports about how great it is Adams once called 911, rode a CitiBike, or deployed plows for a minor snow storm. At some point, the honeymoon phase will cease, but Adams might have the ability to drag it further than de Blasio ever could. This is a problem for all of those, in progressive circles especially, who hope to move Adams on an issue or get him to change his mind. He has no incentive to give ground when his position is so secure.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated Anthony Crowell is a current member of COIB. He no longer is on the board.