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Eric Adams: Working Class Hero?
The results of the 2020 Presidential election could tell us something crucial about 2021.
It’s easy to be dismissive of Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president running for mayor of New York City. He has spent seven years in a position of reasonable prominence but little power, issuing proclamations and seizing headlines in occasionally peculiar ways. He paraded bloated rat corpses in front of journalists and television cameras. He angrily told residents of New York to leave New York. He heavily supported a member of a conservative, breakaway Democratic group that helped keep Republicans in control of the State Senate.
There were the smaller, stranger controversies. Adams, a former police captain, promised to carry a gun himself if elected mayor. As a state senator, he produced a curious video about helping parents hunt for illegal handguns in their own home, stating “you write the Constitution; there are no First Amendment rights inside your own household.” In the video, Adams discovers guns, bullets, and a crack pipe in a book-lined study. While in the State Senate, Adams gained notoriety for shouting “show me the money” on the floor as he demanded a pay raise when legislators were making around $80,000.
Before he entered elected office, Adams had a long, winding career as a former Republican and political gadfly who once attacked a prominent Puerto Rican politician for being married to a Jewish woman.
Adams also had a distinguished tenure as a police captain, graduating from the Police Academy with the highest grades in his class and becoming the president of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, a prominent advocacy organization. Adams, a Black man in the NYPD willing to challenge police misconduct, has written about stopping the police abuse of Black men.
Now that Adams is officially running for mayor—to his credit, he’s always been candid about his ambitions, and told me so as early as 2014—he is staking out a position in the race that could make him one of the most formidable Democrats in what will be a crowded primary with no obvious front-runner. Adams, as he made clear in his virtual launch, is running as a working class candidate, touting his challenging childhood in Southeast Queens and his career patrolling the streets as a member of the NYPD. “I am not the Ivy League guy in this race, you know. I mean, I am CUNY,” Adams told New York Magazine recently. “My nails are not manicured, they are cracked. You shake my hand, you feel my calluses.” City and State asked in its headline whether Adams would be the first “blue-collar” mayor, alluding to the city’s recent history of electing attorneys and a billionaire businessman.
Adams’ Ivy League jab is probably not aimed at the leading white candidate in the race, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, but at one of the top Black candidates, Maya Wiley, who graduated from Dartmouth and Columbia Law School. (Another lesser-known Black candidate, the Citigroup executive Raymond McGuire, attended Harvard, as well as the former Obama and Bloomberg housing executive, Shaun Donovan.) Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio and a prominent MSNBC legal analyst, lives in Brooklyn like Adams. These days, neither can credibly claim to belong to the working class; Adams is a landlord who also draws a $179,200 annual salary, while Wiley has spent her career in the top echelons of government and the legal world. But Adams may be onto something: he certainly presents as working class, even as he has climbed the ladder of income and power.
The 2020 presidential election revealed some uncomfortable truths for those in coastal cities who occupy perches in prestige media. Donald Trump gained significant ground with Spanish-speaking voters and grew his vote share among working class Blacks, winning a higher percentage of Detroit, for example, than he did in 2016. Trump’s style, so reviled among encultured journalists and writers such as myself, had enduring appeal that can’t be so readily dismissed, not when more than 73 million people voted for him. Adams, another Queens native, is no Trump—he leans much more left and has denounced Trump plenty—but his bombastic nature, while sounding a discordant note among the city’s journalists and pundits, could find real adherents beyond Manhattan. Though Adams has already aligned himself with the real estate wing of the party, he can still campaign, aesthetically at least, as a populist. And this potential coalition cannot be easily shrugged off.
Most of the Adams voters probably won’t live in Manhattan or in the various gentrifying belts of Brooklyn and Queens, or in upscale liberal enclaves of Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, and the Upper West Side. Stringer and Wiley have been on a full-on sprint for those voters, who will matter in determining the Democratic nominee next June. Stringer hopes to marshal his large institutional backing—many elected officials and at least one major labor union are already in his corner—while Wiley is aiming to circumvent all of that, or at least dilute it some. Unlike her old boss, de Blasio, Wiley should enjoy more favorable, early media coverage of her mayoral run. While not a single editorial board endorsed de Blasio in the 2013 Democratic primary as he won almost every assembly district in the five boroughs, Wiley can be regarded as an early front-runner for the coveted New York Times endorsement, which matters more in an age of otherwise diminished media. The coalition Wiley hopes to assemble poses an existential threat to someone like Stringer, since Wiley could theoretically accomplish what de Blasio did all those years ago: join together African-American and Afro-Caribbean voters in Brooklyn and Queens with affluent whites in Brownstone Brooklyn and Manhattan. Oft-derided, de Blasio still managed one of the most impressive and commanding victories of a candidate for mayor in New York City history.
But Adams complicates that path. What made de Blasio’s 2013 victory so unique was that he was able to win both upwardly mobile neighborhoods as well as the public housing-heavy precincts of the city’s working class and poor. De Blasio bested Bill Thompson, a Black candidate and former city comptroller, both in gentrifying areas like Prospect Heights and in neighborhoods further east, including Brownsville and East New York. De Blasio convincingly defeated Thompson in Brooklyn’s 55th Assembly District, which encompasses Brownsville, and the 60th Assembly District, taking in East New York. It’s important to remember the racial and ethnic groups of New York City, just as in America, are hardly monoliths. For example, a Hasidic Jewish sect could cast votes differently than more diffuse Orthodox. Tensions, also, have long existed between the professional and working class subsets of a single racial group, particularly when one of them decides to elevate a political candidate. In Central Brooklyn, this first became apparent two decades ago when a young attorney named Hakeem Jeffries was attacked for attempting to run against a longtime member of the State Assembly. Adams may not be a professional class candidate—he is not a lawyer or a TV analyst and his elected position has nothing to do with finance—but he can certainly be a working class one. It’s hard to imagine Wiley competing with Adams in the eastern stretches of Brooklyn or in his old stomping grounds of Jamaica.
Adams promises another intriguing piece in his coalition: the white working and middle classes. Once the dominant voting bloc in New York municipal elections, it is much diminished from its midcentury heyday. Manufacturing jobs have long fled the city. Police officers prefer living in the suburbs. Outer borough white ethnics—Irish and Italians in particular—no longer sway elections, and haven’t for a while. Law-and-order politics have given way to defund the police. That doesn’t mean these voters have entirely disappeared, however, and don’t show up at all in Democratic primaries. They still vote in Breezy Point, Howard Beach, Marine Park, Throggs Neck, and Staten Island. In the 2013 primaries, it was Thompson, the Black candidate, outperforming de Blasio there, probably because de Blasio had already framed himself as the progressive standard bearer while the more cautious Thompson stuck to his centrist brand. Adams must be considered the favorite to win all of these votes. Wiley and Stringer probably won’t try.
Adams right now is attempting to derail the new ranked-choice voting system set to be implemented for the primaries next year. He has cynically argued the style of voting, which allows voters to rank their preferences and helps avoid the common scenario of one candidate triumphing with a small plurality, has not been taught to voters enough because of the pandemic and could disenfranchise minorities. The system, however, was overwhelmingly approved by voters last year. Adams has support: the City Council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus is now asking the City Council speaker to “indefinitely defer” introducing the voting system, arguing the Board of Elections is unable to manage the rollout. Undoubtedly, more education is needed, and the city should invest heavily in a mail, TV, radio, and digital campaign to educate voters about ranked-choice. For down-ballot races especially, it will require more attention in the voting booth.
There is scant evidence that ranked-choice voting hurts nonwhite candidates. San Francisco elected a Black female mayor, London Breed, through ranked-choice voting. Rather, it could hurt Eric Adams, as well as the Democratic Party organizations who have traditionally benefited from low turnout primaries decided by narrow pluralities. In the crowded field of seven or eight contenders, the organization’s candidate can usually squeeze out the 30 percent needed to score a victory. In the new system, second and third place votes matter, and candidates are incentivized to appeal to a wide swath of the electorate. Since voters could be choosing you as well as your rivals, scorched-earth campaigning is not so beneficial. In a ranked-choice universe, polarizing candidates can’t seize on small but fervent pluralities to win. In citywide races, it also eliminates the low turnout runoff. Adams may be betting that under the old system, he could beat a rival in a one-on-one match-up if no one gets 40 percent of the vote in the first round. Letitia James, another Black politician from Brooklyn who is now the state attorney general, crushed a white challenger in a 2013 runoff for public advocate. James was not exactly like Adams—she enjoyed a much closer relationship, at the time, with organized labor and the professional left—but it’s likely that election is on his mind.
If Adams speaks and acts unconventionally, it’s important not to dismiss him outright. He is not the favorite to be the next mayor, but who really is? For those of us who will vote in the primary next June, it will be vital to hear what it is he plans to do to rescue New York City from the economic catastrophe that resulted from COVID-19. The tourism, hospitality, and restaurant industries have been decimated. Unemployment is stubbornly high. Governor Andrew Cuomo is not predisposed to marshaling the state’s resources for its most important city. Adams, like the rest of the field, will need to step forward and offer ideas and answers. This will be the most important mayoral election in modern history. It deserves a debate to match the enormous stakes.