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Can Eric Adams Stay Popular?
The Kyrie Irving carve out leaves many fuming
On Thursday at Citi Field, where I sat with a huddled mass of journalists in the cold, Eric Adams thundered about war and how courageous he was. “Generals come during war time and peace time. This is war time,” Adams boasted. “I am a war time general.”
The occasion was his sudden reversal on New York City’s private sector vaccine mandate for a specific group of individuals—unvaccinated athletes and performers in the five boroughs could take the stage after all. The rule change was seemingly brought about by Kyrie Irving, the star Brooklyn Net who refuses to get vaccinated and was barred from playing at the Barclays Center, even though he was allowed to enter the arena and watch his teammates. Unvaccinated players coming from other cities always had an exemption. The farce of Irving watching unvaccinated rivals dribble up and down the court—and the resultant fan outcry—may have driven Adams to change his mind.
Or, more likely, it was baseball: specifically Randy Levine and Steven Cohen. Levine, the New York Yankees president, stood with Adams on Thursday. Cohen, the Mets billionaire owner, was not there, but Mets President Sandy Alderson was present to kick off the press conference and thank Adams. The Mets and Yankees each have unvaccinated players. Aaron Judge, the great Yankee outfielder, has probably never received a shot since he refuses to disclose his status. The Mets appear to have a significant unvaccinated minority. Baseball season starts next month and the Yankees and Mets are, quite simply, a bigger deal in New York than the Brooklyn Nets. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Cohen donated $1.5 million to a super PAC supporting Adams last year and Levine served as a deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani, another mayor with a pugnacious, reactionary streak. Neither man was going to let their stars not play home games in April.
Adams’ decision thrilled Yankee, Met, and Net fans while angering a significant minority of people from very different ideological factions. Republicans denounced Adams for making an exception for athletes and entertainers while refusing to end the private sector mandate entirely. An unknown number of private sector employees have been fired, along with more than 1,400 city workers. Right-wing and left-leaning labor unions were furious, with both Patrick Lynch, the Trump-supporting PBA president, and Michael Mulgrew, the head of the city teachers’ union, criticizing Adams. They rightly wonder why their workers need to keep getting vaccinated while Irving and others can do what they please. Adams has made it clear he values star athletes more than the ushers, vendors, and janitors who work in the stadiums. The mandate holds for them.
On the liberal-left, some of the anger came from the vaccine mandate being flouted at all. Pundits have been raging at Irving to get vaccinated and can’t stomach the idea of a carve out for a rule they’ve come to believe is absolutely necessary to combat another Covid wave. Adams’ Health Department officials want the private mandate to exist “indefinitely” and many liberals believe this is the correct course, given the lingering threat of Covid. The adult population of fully vaccinated New Yorkers hovers near 90 percent. Lately, journalists and pundits in favor of the indefinite mandate have called for a new version of what it means to be fully vaccinated, mandating booster shots. A booster shot requirement is unlikely, given Adams’ inclination to return New York to some sense of normalcy.
An additional mandate is also unlikely because New York is the only city in America that mandates vaccination for all employees, public and private sector alike. The Irving dilemma would not have existed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, or Detroit. With such a high percentage of New York’s adult population already vaccinated and the reality that Covid can spread among vaccinated and unvaccinated populations alike, it’s unclear why New York must stand alone. But that is a conversation many liberals still largely do not want to have.
For Adams, the waffling on the vaccine mandate—chest-thumping around a return to normal while maintaining stricter guidelines than any other city in America while making exceptions for the rich and famous—is yet another self-generated tempest in an administration that has had no shortage of them. Adams has already infuriated LGBTQ leaders with his anti-gay hires, attempted to land his brother a $210,000 a year job with the NYPD, and protected a well-wired chief of staff embroiled in various ethnics controversies. He has been slow to name agency heads and has rolled out few new policy proposals of note. Much of his tenure has been dedicated to his brand of unique showmanship.
Adams remains popular. More than 60 percent of New Yorkers approve of him so far. This isn’t all that surprising. He is a cheerleader for the city and after eight years of the dour Bill de Blasio, many residents are ready for the Adams swagger. His fulminating against rising crime rates resonates with older working and middle-class voters. The power elite are supportive, so media organs like the New York Post refuse to savage him. If Adams is able to maintain support from the business class and the outer borough Democrats who powered his victory last year, he will be a difficult mayor to oppose. As a Black man, Adams is adept at wielding his identity to intimidate critics on the Left.
There are stirrings of opposition. Progressive advocates and left-leaning City Council members are rallying around a “People’s Budget” to decry proposed cuts to the Department of Education, the Parks Department, public hospitals, and many other city agencies in the Adams executive budget. They’ve attacked Adams for championing heavy-handed policing and keeping solitary confinement at the city’s jails. And, like Adams, they’ve celebrated identity politics. “Gone are the days when white progressives can be the face of this movement, and I think to good measure,” an organizer of the People’s Budget told Politico.
Perhaps. But whether the budding anti-Adams movement foregrounds people of color or not may not matter all that much. Far more crucial is finding a message that sticks. Focusing on the budget makes sense, though for the average New Yorker, the $98 billion Adams proposes still seems like a large amount of money. Ultimately, it will be up to these organizers and elected officials to go to working-class voters and figure out what issues resonate with them most and see where Adams is coming up short. Housing could be pivotal if the Adams appointees to the Rent Guidelines Board decide to raise rents significantly on rent-stabilized tenants.
It’ll probably be most valuable for the various institutions and organizations on the left—the Working Families Party, for starters—to start thinking about who can primary Adams in 2025. The WFP failed to recruit a strong progressive standard bearer for the 2021 mayoral race and could not, once a few flawed candidates emerged, consolidate around a single Democrat until it was too late. Planning should begin now to take on Adams. Cutting into his working-class base will be a challenge. An insurgent will likely have to build a base among upwardly mobile and wealthier Democrats in Brownstone Brooklyn and Manhattan while dominating gentrifying neighborhoods in northern Brooklyn and Queens. This is not the ideal coalition for a left-wing candidate who would purport to speak for working people but it is one that can cause Adams many headaches. These are the kinds of people who will react viscerally to one or two cutting TV ads that remind voters of all the offensive people Adams has hired for his government.
None of this will be easy and it’s possible Adams coasts by. He’s already proven he can weather controversy. The anger over his Kyrie carve out might fade away. Restive unions could draw close to him again. He’s only been mayor for three months and the passage of time has a way of easing tensions. Perhaps Adams even hunts up a way to offer an olive branch to progressives.
What is clear, though, is that Adams won’t tire of starting or ending fights. “I want to be clear, I am unafraid of making the decisions.” he said yesterday. At least if his poll numbers eventually tank, he claims he won’t be scared too much.