This new type of sharp-dressing, crime-fighting Democrat — who can sound like Donald Trump when denouncing “woke” progressives while also preaching deep blue values of expanded health care, workplace diversity and childcare tax credits — has emerged at a time when his party is searching for its next generation of leaders.
But the results of his typically-bold approaches to intractable urban ills like crime and homelessness are uneven. Adams vowed to reduce homelessness and improve public safety, but only with dramatic sweeps of encampments and forced hospitalizations. He revived a controversial NYPD unit that’s helped reduce gun violence, but robberies and felony assaults have continued to increase. Still, Adams isn’t backing off his brand at home — or in his quest to give national Democrats a model for how to reduce crime while ensuring just policing practices.
“We have not been bold enough to say this is what we stand for with quality of message. If you say, ‘Oh, hey, that guy Eric Adams, the mayor of New York,’ they’re going to say: ‘Public safety. The guy believes his city should be safe,’” Adams said in an interview.
Rev. Al Sharpton said Adams’ message is getting across.
“One of the things I hear in the city and around the country is, ‘Eric is not intimidated by the right or the left,’ which is refreshing to a lot of people,” Sharpton said in an interview.
“He’s taken on both sides and I think he’s earned a lot of national respect for that,” Sharpton added. “This guy is not a punk.”
A credible messenger on safety and justice
Sharpton, who didn’t endorse in the mayoral race but has lately become a vocal supporter of Adams, extolled the mayor’s credibility on matters of public safety and justice — even as the progressive wing of his party battles him at every turn on his anti-crime strategies including changes to bail reform.
While working within the NYPD in 1995, Adams helped found 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, an advocacy group that took on misconduct, brutality and racism in policing. The unusual role earned him unwanted nicknames from “Uncle Tom to sellout to…Negro to oppressor,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2016 when he was Brooklyn borough president.
Adams’ mantra in the crowded Democratic mayoral primary promised that police could reduce crime without using abusive or discriminatory tactics. He offered a full-throated defense of the controversial stop and frisk policing tactic, but only when used correctly to get guns off the streets.
“I think that has become a national model that people in the base, Black and white, want — somebody that will protect them and their rights at the same time, not having to choose between the two,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton acknowledged that the NYPD’s own progress report isn’t great for Adams. Overall, crime has climbed 25 percent since he took office, according to police statistics.
“But he’s only been there a year,” Sharpton said. And there’ve been no major instances of police misconduct.
What Adams has proven is this: He can be both a critic and fierce defender of the nation’s largest police force, showing how Democrats can embrace policing and win an election after an unsuccessful party shift leftward on criminal justice.
“I am going to stand up for those Democrats who strongly believe we can have public safety and justice,” Adams said in a City Hall interview this week.
His rhetoric — welcomed by police leaders who went to war with de Blasio — has also set him up to be judged on an issue he can’t entirely control.
The ‘Contain the chaos’ lane
Some fellow Democrats criticized Adams for stoking crime fears used by Republicans in the midterms as he constantly called attention to violence around the city. But one political observer said the midterm election results show how Adams could resonate with voters beyond the five boroughs.
“People were really coming to candidates on, ‘The city needs to be cleaner, and we need to stop the madness,’” Democratic consultant John DeSio, who was communications director for former Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., said about the midterms in New York — where Republicans picked up three House seats and came unexpectedly close to taking back the governor’s office.
The single biggest issue for voters was crime.
“I’d see why he would want to say, ‘If I can contain New York City, imagine what I could do nationally. If I could do it here, then this model could work anywhere,” added DeSio, who was not involved in any midterm races.
“You don’t have to go totally down the far-left, progressive path, you could take this middle road,” added DeSio.
It’s a similar path tread by other moderate Democrats that Adams feels a kinship with — from President Joe Biden to Senator-elect John Fetterman and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Beyond crime, Adams is facing the same problems of the nation’s other urban areas: rekindling the economy after Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns, building new housing and finding relief for working families during record inflation.
“We can be pro-business because that feeds jobs. Wee can lean into quality education — all those things that we stand for, we have to be loud and clear for,” Adams said.
But as he projects outward control, his management style has prompted internal chaos in some wings of City Hall. The political division is beset with infighting underscored by murky lines of authority. Two of his top aides — Chief of Staff Frank Carone and First Deputy Mayor Lorraine Grillo — are leaving after just one year, which both said was always their plan. And he has withstood continued public criticism for several high-profile, controversial hires.
‘There’s never going to be another mayor like me’
Despite the blue-collar cred he shares with Biden, the inability to box him and Fettermen into neat political categories and a similar hardscrabble upbringing as Turner, Adams has taken to saying, “There’s never going to be another mayor like me.”
In a city full of made-for-TV characters, Adams has gushed about his love for rose petal-strewn bubble baths while sowing doubts about where he actually lives.
POLITICO first reported during the mayoral primary that Adams kept a residence in New Jersey, welcomed late-night visitors to the Brooklyn Borough Hall office where he slept during the pandemic and repeatedly revised tax forms about his supposed primary residence in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
It’s unclear how much time Adams spends at Gracie Mansion, the city’s official mayoral residence, but he does occasionally crash at the Trump World Tower pad of a close pal who pleaded guilty in 2014 to conspiracy to cause the filing of false currency transactions reports in a money laundering scheme.
The once-avowed vegan — until POLITICO discovered he frequently dines on fish— often holds court at an Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan with that same friend, Johnny Petrosyants. The duo also frequents Zero Bond, a members-only downtown club favored by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Tom Brady.
Adams recently took his “nightlife mayor” guise abroad, partying in Qatar while attending the World Cup earlier this month.
When critics questioned the international jaunt, Adams said he paid his own way.
“When I do my dime, I can do my time and I don’t want to hear anyone whine,” he rhymed to reporters at a press conference.
Last time he gave a similar explanation at a Puerto Rico junket after his general election victory, it turned out he had bummed a ride on cryptocurrency billionaire Brock Pierce’s jet. Then apparently reimbursed him. Through a travel agent. With a check.
The mayor’s nightlife aside, his future depends on how well he does his day job.
“If he solves the problems in front of him it’ll be like, ‘He’s this charming rogue fixing the city by day and enjoying it at night,” DeSio said. “If you don’t accomplish your agenda you create the hit piece talking point for people running against you — you’re too busy running around at clubs.”
White House aspirations
The day after narrowly winning the mayoral primary in June 2021, Adams declared himself the ‘face of the new Democratic Party.’ A month later, he accepted an invitation to the White House to discuss gun violence and renamed himself the ‘Biden of Brooklyn’ for the “plain-talk” ways he shared with the president.
In February, shortly after Adams was sworn into office, Biden visited NYPD headquarters for a summit on gun violence with the mayor, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Since then, Adams has penned op-eds for national publications on how to shore up support among Black and lower-income voters, including a CNN column on why it would benefit Democrats to make South Carolina the party’s first presidential primary state.
He said in another interview with POLITICO last month that he wants to make sure his party retains the presidency in 2024 and said he told party leaders: “Any way you guys need to use me, I’m willing to help.” he recalled during the sit-down.
In the interview this week, Adams suggested he could be an evangelist for Democrats who are portrayed as weak-on-crime even though they’ve pushed for laws restricting guns and advocated for more money for policing.
“I think the Democrats have a good product. We’re just not selling it,” he said.
In the meantime he’s working to secure his own political future, fundraising across the country, putting his outgoing chief of staff in charge of his re-election campaign and bidding to host the 2024 Democratic presidential nominating convention in Manhattan.
But when Adams appeared in a national presidential survey of likely voters in August, he landed toward the bottom of a list of 25 Democrats that voters would choose in a primary election if Biden doesn’t run — landing between Sens. Joe Manchin and Tim Kaine.
A national urban agenda
Adams frequently speaks about the importance of a “new, national urban agenda” focused on treating the “pandemic of violence that holds our cities back.” The agenda includes a reliance on law enforcement and programs like youth mentoring. It’s what he calls “intervention and prevention.”
The mayor’s emergency response to homelessness is catching on. Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness on her first day in office this month, a move aimed at quickly getting people off the streets before getting them other kinds of help. The approach is similar to the one taken by Adams, who often pledges both social services for long-term solutions but also immediate action to remove unhoused people encampments and subways.
Asked on “Meet the Press” if she might replicate Adams’ controversial plan to force some mentally ill homeless people into hospitals, Bass didn’t say no. Instead, she noted recent state legislation that allows institutionalizing “profoundly mentally ill” people.
A spokesperson for Bass did not respond to requests for comment.
Adams speaks regularly with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, another leading Democrat.
“The top priority for any mayor is to keep all residents safe,” Lightfoot said in a statement.
“I know Mayor Adams shares the same goal as I do, which is to make our cities some of the safest in America. As a former police captain in the NYPD, Mayor Adams recognizes preventing violent, dangerous people from causing harm is a core pillar of any public safety strategy,” she said in part.
Adams, Bass, Lightfoot and Turner — four Black mayors leading the country’s four largest cities, a first — are starting to collaborate on how to address similar problems their areas share, Bass said in a recent interview with WBUR.
Clashes with AOC
Adams’ loudest critics, left-leaning members of his own party, view him as an emperor with no clothes.
“The one thing that I think needs to be said is, Eric Adams’ brand of politics is Eric Adams, and I don’t think it’s shared by nearly anyone else,” said Bill Neidhardt, a progressive consultant who worked as press secretary to de Blasio and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Neidhardt questioned whether Adams even belongs in the Democratic fold.
“If you want a politician who talks like Eric Adams, you’re more likely to vote in the Republican Party,” Neidhardt said. “He wants people to think he’s the leader of the moderates, but I would even scoff at that. Joe Biden talks a far more progressive game, actually brings in progressive members of the Democratic Party, not outwardly declaring war on them.”
Adams has openly clashed with another New Yorker with cross-country appeal, Bronx Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The two have tussled since before Adams took office with the mayoral candidate warning donors at a 2021 fundraiser that “DSA socialists” were mobilizing against his campaign.
Then Adams panned Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress at the Met Gala, noting that the wealthiest New Yorkers provide over half of its income taxes – which is used to fund essential services.At a recent gathering of city business leaders, he lambasted those who “continually attack high income earners, where 51 percent of our taxes are paid by 2 percent of New Yorkers. It’s blowing my mind when I hear people say, ‘So what if they leave?’ No, you leave,” he said, to applause.
Ocasio-Cortez attacked Adams on Twitter for calling service sector employees “low skill workers.”
Most recently, the congresswoman took issue with the mayor blaming the state’s bail laws for the party’s midterm losses and his ongoing fight to limit who is released without bail.
“Nope,” she tweeted in response to Adams’ remarks Nov. 10 on MSNBC.
“The sooner we stop repeating false Republican talking points, the sooner we can flip these seats back blue,” she wrote.
Beyond New York, Neidhardt noted, Democrats’ “closing arguments” in the midterms, including messaging by Biden, did not focus on crime.
“It was economic, abortion rights, not a get-tough-on-crime message. No successful Democrat ran with his message,” Neidhardt said.
Progressive opponents are beginning to mull who could take on Adams in a 2025 re-election bid, with some reasoning his record on making New York more affordable could prove more damaging to his chances than his pro-police rhetoric — particularly if he can reduce crime.
While he successfully pushed for the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, he also oversaw one of the largest increases in rent-stabilized leases in a decade. One Democratic Socialist legislator ran the New York City marathon with a T-shirt that read, “Eric Adams Raised My Rent.”
Adams, at once prickly and tough, appears undaunted by his critics.
“2023 is going to be a Aaron Judge year for me,” he said at a recent press conference, referring to his first 12 months in office as “my rookie season.”
He added, “2023, we are going to a whole other level.”
Alex Nieves and Shia Kapos contributed reporting.