Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Eric Adams, the Machine Mayor
His path to City Hall is clear, if he can just execute it
At no point in this Democratic primary have I doubted that Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, can be elected the next mayor of New York City.
Just as there are echoes of Joe Biden in Andrew Yang’s consistent polling lead, Adams’ durability reminds me of where the future president was in 2019 and 2020. Unlike Yang, Adams has very few fans online. Tweets about him do not get much engagement. I don’t get many messages defending him or attacking him. Press coverage, considering his consistent second-place position in the race, is rather sparse. At this point, you can find more deep dive Times profiles of Yang, Scott Stringer, or Ray McGuire than Adams, a former police captain and state senator.
Like Biden, Adams is the candidate the city’s many pivotal African-American voters will probably prefer. He is a known quantity to them. He has walked their streets, showed up at their churches, and attended their block parties. Since his days as the leader of the 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, Adams has been a man in the news, agitating for police reform. He became Brooklyn’s first Black borough president, a symbol of success for the middle-class residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, East New York, and Canarsie, who often gave over their votes to Democrats who didn’t look like them.
Adams can win because these voters will show up for him. He can win because he has a chance to compete for the 20 to 25 percent of the Democratic electorate that is Spanish-speaking, especially since the current and former Bronx Borough presidents, Ruben Diaz Jr. and Fernando Ferrer, are behind him. Puerto Rican votes don’t equal Dominican votes, but if you are the candidate consolidating Puerto Ricans, you’re ahead of most of the pack.
He can win, too, because he is a Black candidate who is unquestionably for law-and-order, for whatever the opposite of police retrenchment is. The outer borough white moderates, who still do vote in Marine Park and Staten Island and Throggs Neck, may like what they hear in Adams, a candidate who has spoken forcefully about combating the city’s new epidemic of gun violence.
Adams and Yang, as candidates who oppose the defund the police movement and speak warmly of the city’s business and real estate elite, are characterized in the press as moderates, not progressives. Yang is a unique political creature who defies easy categorization—he is Bloombergian with some left impulses—but Adams, fundamentally, is not. There are progressive policies in his campaign platform and he speaks about fighting income inequality, as many Democrats do. But he is more of the center than the left, and running as a candidate of old-world, but still potent enough, institutions. Large labor unions are behind him, as are elected officials decidedly not of the young left. The leader of the ailing Brooklyn Democratic Party supports him. The Bronx Democrats, informally at least, are with him.
Much of the left, from the socialists to the left-liberals to the activist organizations, is consumed with halting the rise of Yang. Yang is presented as a trojan horse for revanchist neoliberals, Bloomberg acolytes, Big Tech libertarians, and alt-right podcasters to have a say in the direction of City Hall. One of his rivals, Maya Wiley, compared him to Donald Trump. The Nation, where I write, recently dedicated a piece to solely stopping Yang. For New Yorkers who care about whether their candidates engaged in the city’s political life before seeking office, Yang is nothing more than a celebrity dilettante, deeply unqualified for this powerful office.
If some of this rhetoric is overheated, it’s certainly understandable. Yang has been a font for some dubious ideas. But the broad left doesn’t always understand how power works in New York City. It’s those who pulled the levers before, after all, who know exactly how to use them when the stakes are much higher. Outsiders do not magically become insiders unless they are obscenely wealthy, like Michael Bloomberg. Outsiders cannot cow ascendant movements. The left, certainly, did not get any weaker with Trump in office. If you belong to the Working Families Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, a neighborhood Democratic club, or anywhere else where the name Andrew Yang is now an epithet, you may wonder if your future in New York under a Yang mayoralty is threatened. Your horizons might feel diminished. He tries to present himself, though, as the candidate who would probably invite you up for coffee at Gracie Mansion or have you on a Zoom meeting. Maybe you’d find you wasted your hour—but at least, maybe, you’d have spent time in the room.
Eric Adams, if history is any guide, does not want you in the room. And he certainly does not need you there.
“Go back to Iowa,” Adams said at a National Action Network meeting last January. “You go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that were here and made New York City what it is and I know I’m a New Yorker. I protected this city. I have a right to put my voice in how this city should run.”
It was his strike against the young, affluent cohort that has moved into working class Black and Latino neighborhoods. It was coded, too, for the many left activists and organizers who are attempting to drag the politics left there. DSA, fighting and winning in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, knows this well, as their pitched campaigns to get Jabari Brisport and Phara Souffrant Forrest elected resulted in cries of outrage from the traditional, and weakened, Black Democratic establishment. (Adams would later partially walk back his comments.)
If Adams wins, he may seek revenge, because that’s what politicians with long memories in the scene—and the skills to executive vendettas—do. In 2018, progressive activists helped defeat his successor in the State Senate, Jesse Hamilton, buoying the campaign of a young, charismatic attorney named Zellnor Myrie. Hamilton, with Adams’ blessing, had joined the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of centrist Democrats who helped keep Republicans in the majority for much of the 2010s. Hamilton, a protégé of Adams, flirted with joining the IDC upon winning in 2014, but officially made the jump in 2016.
Adams, a former Republican himself, appeared to have had no problem with the IDC existing, unlike other Senate Democrats. And in 2018, when progressives had rallied around Myrie, Adams was pumping $1 million of his government funding into a “participatory budgeting” program overseen by Hamilton. The sections of the Senate District with younger, newer residents helped power Myrie’s victory, but old-line voters in the eastern half held firm with Hamilton and Adams. Hamilton attempted a comeback in 2020, running a half-baked primary against a local assemblywoman popular with progressive activists, Diana Richardson.
If Adams is victorious, he will be the second consecutive Democrat to have a close working relationship with organized labor, particularly the municipal unions, the building workers, and the hotel workers. Unlike Bill de Blasio, who branded himself as a progressive and made several ham-handed attempts to flip the State Senate to the Democrats, Adams has no allegiance to left movement politics in New York City. He has no reason to care about the reform clubs, made up of younger members who recoil from his many polarizing statements, or the democratic socialists trying to upend politics in his backyard. He hates the anti-IDC activists, certainly. He has every incentive to use the power of his office, in tandem with the more moderate labor unions, to try to crush the left.
Here is where he and Yang depart. Yang’s threat is that he is a neophyte, a rube, someone who can be steered wrong by reactionary consultants and wealthy donors. Fair enough. But since he’s new to all of this, he will have to, at some point, coalition-build with some of the people who hate him—or at least have to take into account their ideas. Ron Kim, the Queens assemblyman who has become well-known for standing up to Governor Andrew Cuomo, endorsed Yang on this pretext, talking him into supporting the decriminalization of sex work. It’s fine to knock Kim for not backing one of the more left-leaning candidates in the race, but he’s made a reasonable enough calculation. Among the Democrats who will probably win, Yang is the one who’s going to answer his phone calls. Adams has no need to return text messages from Ron Kim.
Right now, the large labor unions in New York City have begun to endorse candidates who are also supported by DSA. This is because there is no external pressure to stop them from doing so, since de Blasio, if not an actual socialist, is mildly supportive of what they do. Mayor Adams can pick up the phone and tell 1199, 32BJ, and DC37 to stop endorsing DSA candidates. Like Cuomo, he would be in prime position to drive a wedge between labor and left activists. Labor, understandably, will always choose whoever is in power because the executive is determining the pay scales and benefits of their members. Once Cuomo turned on WFP, WFP had no chance. That’s how power works.
Far more organized than Yang and much more deeply woven into the political institutions that make up this city, Adams will not be easily moved. Rallies will not intimidate a man who once boasted about his willingness to carry his own gun in City Hall. He will freely endorse candidates and find ways to cut off those who stand against him. De Blasio, who had his own issues with soft corruption, was too feckless to build any political machine of his own. Adams is incendiary, but he’s far from incompetent—critics forget he graduated with the highest grades in his class at the police academy. He’s been thinking, for decades now, about what he’d do as mayor of New York City. Organizations and movements that agitate for change under a Mayor Adams can only get so far against someone who understands, intimately, how to wield power and punish enemies.
Adams, like other Democrats who have been losing to progressives in Brooklyn and Queens, can weaponize his identity against the left. Unlike these more awkward attempts on the local level—Jesse Hamilton referred to a Black opponent as an “all lives matter” candidate—Adams can more deftly cut off debate. If you have a problem with his close relationship with the real estate industry and propensity for setting up curious nonprofits that create too many opportunities for de facto bribery, he won’t accept the criticism. Adams has already employed a version of this, defending the abuse of parking placards by his Borough Hall staff. “We won’t have an Eric Adams rule. I fought my entire life to make sure men that look like me don’t have different rules than everyone else,” Adams said in 2019. “It’s one rule in this city. It’s not going to be a rule just for Eric Adams — the first African-American borough president.” There’s a cynical brilliance to the argument—if white politicians like Marty Markowitz get to be corrupt, why can’t I?—and it’s one that all leftists and good government reformers should be prepared to face if he wins in June. Opposing his housing policies, questioning his endorsements, or scrutinizing his nonprofits will come with an easy enough rejoinder. If Bill de Blasio got favors done for his wealthiest donors, why can’t the first Black mayor in almost 30 years do the same?
For the young Black politicians who have come out of left movements or worked closely with progressive and socialist organizations—Jabari Brisport, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Zellnor Myrie, Diana Richardson —an Adams mayoralty would represent a new and more daunting challenge. Would City Hall be cooperative if they made specific money or policy requests? Would Adams hunt for candidates to run against them? Jesse Hamilton has been twice vanquished now, but he could very well land an important job in an Adams administration. He’s an attorney and a former state legislator. There’s probably work for him to do.
The phrase “political machine” does not mean what it once did, with Democratic county organizations so limp and regular clubs devoid of volunteers. There has not been a real Democratic machine mayor since Ed Koch swept into office more than 40 years ago. Adams, though, promises as close to a revival of that style of politics—transactional in nature, moderate in disposition—that once flourished in the five boroughs. The machines, for all their self-dealing and torpor, had a role to play in the city, once upon a time, and Franklin Roosevelt himself kept Democratic party bosses close to him. Adams, funnily enough, has a pretty sour relationship with Gregory Meeks, the new Queens Democratic Party chairman, but with the endorsement of the borough president, Donovan Richards, there’s plenty for him to work with in the borough. For the rising leftists who hope to dominate the future of politics here, Adams will be no easy mark.