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No One Really Knows What Eric Adams Is Going to Do
Is there a policy agenda?
It is sometimes hard to explain to those who weren’t paying attention how different, politically, October 2013 was from October 2021. In a September primary—this year, it was held in June—Bill de Blasio triumphed in thrilling and unexpected fashion, outlasting the scandal-scarred Anthony Weiner, the vaunted Christine Quinn, the history-making John Liu, and the smart set’s favorite pick, Bill Thompson. De Blasio is maligned today, for fair and unfair reasons—if you’re more interested in his legacy, check out my feature in the next print issue of the Village Voice—but it is easy to forget how exciting the period was for many of the city’s Democrats. De Blasio was poised to be the first liberal mayor of New York in more than 20 years, a striking departure from Rudy Giuliani’s revanchism and Mike Bloomberg’s bloodless technocracy. He was thoroughly cosmopolitan, a Park Slope resident with biracial children, his famous afro-haired son still attending Brooklyn Tech, a bona fide New York City public high school. The de Blasio campaign had been efficient, inspiring, and incredibly lucky—multiple good breaks were needed, and they all arrived. But New Yorkers knew what it was de Blasio wanted to do. He told them, repeatedly: hike taxes on the rich to fund a universal pre-K program and rein in a militarized NYPD, curtailing stop-and-frisks. There was no mystery to de Blasio. He would play the cards he promised to play.
De Blasio crushed his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, but the media had two months to pretend there was a campaign afoot. Republicans had won before, of course, and Lhota was a serious man, a former MTA chairman and deputy mayor to Giuliani. Public, independent polls were regularly produced. Lhota and de Blasio traded barbs and Republicans scrambled to salvage a race that was clearly slipping from them. De Blasio garnered more than 70 percent of the vote against Lhota, as Eric Adams is likely to do on November 2nd against his less serious Republican rival, Curtis Sliwa. Eight years later, the media does not even have to pretend a competitive race exists, and only one public poll has been produced on it at all, showing Adams with a large lead. It will be interesting to see whether Adams can match de Blasio’s 2013 margin of victory or if voters, already assuming Adams has won, turn up in much smaller numbers. The raw number of voters in the June primary was quite high. November doesn’t hold as much promise.
There is less buzz around Adams, who triumphed in a much narrower and more contentious fashion in his Democratic primary. Bill de Blasio’s former Sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, nearly beat him, and the collective will of the affluent, left-leaning voters of the city was almost enough to overwhelm the working-class coalition Adams had built. Unlike de Blasio, Adams did not promise a quasi-utopia, the end of a “tale of two cities” and justice for the poor in a post-Bloomberg world. Adams vowed, instead, he’d use his experience as a former police captain to drive down crime. Public safety was so central to his campaign it was hard, for many voters, to remember what else Adams said he wanted to do. He spoke vaguely about jobs, returning New York to its pre-pandemic heights, and making the city more business-friendly. His campaign had policy platforms but hardly discussed them at all.
Two sprawling profiles of Adams, one in the New York Times and one in New York Magazine, hit on this theme recently. Both were well-done, if late in the game. One wonders what impact on the high-information electorate such coverage would have made in March or April, when Andrew Yang was hogging the media spotlight. Given that the ranked-choice voting margin was less than 10,000 votes, it’s reasonable enough to speculate about what could have been. The strange political history of Eric Adams received little attention for many months. Yang, meanwhile, had devolved, in remarkable fashion, from flighty if likeable former presidential candidate to reactionary arch-villain, and press coverage and attention from the city’s liberal quarters reflected that fully. Among the residents of Williamsburg and Clinton Hill and Astoria and Park Slope, dropping Yang from the ballot became far more crucial than not voting for Adams, who was deemed acceptable if not ideal.
“When it comes to policy, Adams can be, in the words of one operative who has worked closely with him, ‘a bit of an unguided missile,’” New York reported. “Adams has spoken in broad strokes about his focus — rebuilding the city from the devastations of the pandemic, paying special attention to historically marginalized populations — but there isn’t much articulation of policy trade-offs or even priorities.”
“While he has produced a raft of proposals, some more detailed than others, on subjects ranging from expanded child care to affordable housing, Mr. Adams has defaulted most often in public forums to a broad emphasis on keeping the streets safe, reversing government dysfunction and being business-friendly as the city emerges from the pandemic,” the Times wrote.
“Across 130 interviews with friends, aides, colleagues and other associates, the only consensus was that the range of possible outcomes in an Adams administration is vast. Relentless reformer or machine politician? Blunt truth-teller or unreliable narrator?”
The answer might be all of the above. This is somewhat thrilling and plenty frightening. Such an unknown variable has not entered City Hall in modern times. Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, Bloomberg, de Blasio—their campaigns all came with concrete promises and ideas, forming visions that voters could easily understand and articulate to themselves. Adams, in some ways, melds all of them, and this could be what makes him a great mayor. He could be the former cop who disciplines and overhauls the police force. He could be the handmaiden of capital who nevertheless uplifts working-class New York. He could blend Bloomberg’s metrics-driven policy-making with de Blasio’s progressive soul.
Or he could be chaos. On day one in 2014, we knew what it was de Blasio wanted out of Albany: a tax hike to fund his pre-K program and, eventually, some kind of increase in the local minimum wage. He favored public schools over charter schools. He was going to negotiate with the municipal unions and sign into law the paid sick days bill that Bloomberg repeatedly blocked. There are no such promises from Adams; lawmakers in the City Council, Assembly, and State Senate do not know what it is the Adams emissaries will ask of them. Adams may not be interested in much at all. At its worse, the Adams City Hall could resemble a version of Brooklyn Borough Hall, where Adams oversaw dubious nonprofits and careened from issue to issue with little focus, making public pronouncements that were odd, confusing, and alienating. Tenants might have it tough and he could cynically wield his identity to try to stomp on that movement. At the same time, developers who believe they are on the cusp of a YIMBY paradise could find a mayor with his own unexpectedly parochial interests. Transit advocates don’t know what’s coming either. Adams might be the “bike mayor” or the Democrat who loudly defended allowing the automobiles of city employees to park illegally around Borough Hall. At least we figure Adams will live in Gracie Mansion, not New Jersey.
If the political machines still mattered, they would be storming into City Hall like they did in Koch’s day, commandeering plum posts and agencies. They no longer have that kind of pull, even under Adams, and patronage is not what it once was. Instead, the Adams administration may be a bounty for a select few who rode deep with him when it mattered. Frank Carone, the de facto leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, is about to get much richer, though Carone’s friendship with de Blasio meant his law firm had great money-making opportunities over the last eight years. Ydanis Rodriguez, the combustible and unpredictable Manhattan city councilman, might get to head some agency, as could Laurie Cumbo, a city councilwoman who was Adams-like in her penchant for uttering outrageous statements and clashing with Left activists. Diane Savino, the Democratic state senator who once played a central role in helping Republicans hold the majority in the Senate, could be in line for a commissioner’s gig. Jesse Hamilton, another veteran of the IDC, could have a pivotal role in the government. There are no shortage of Adams loyalists, some of them with checkered political pasts, who will look to cash in.
What this all adds up to is anyone’s guess. It’s possible the Adams administration will be more about continuity than we imagine. Adams and de Blasio are allies, and the outgoing mayor was deeply supportive during the primary. There are going to be de Blasio staffers who want jobs in the new City Hall and some might get them. Adams will not be able to undermine de Blasio’s signature accomplishment, universal pre-K, and he will probably have a harder time dominating the City Council than de Blasio did, given the number of young, leftist lawmakers who feel no affinity for the moderate mayor. It must be remembered that de Blasio, ultimately, did not wrench the city as far from the Bloomberg years as advertised. A version of neoliberalism still prevailed, with de Blasio hustling with Andrew Cuomo to secure tax subsidies for an Amazon headquarters in Queens. De Blasio’s anti-business posture was aimed far more at finance than real estate; developers, especially if they donated lavishly to his political ventures, had a fine time in de Blasio’s New York. De Blasio maintained the post-9/11 militarization of the police that had been a hallmark of Bloomberg’s tenure. The NYPD, as we saw from the George Floyd protests in 2020, could have easily been Bloomberg’s. One of de Blasio’s police commissioners, of course, had been Giuliani’s. What is true about de Blasio will soon be true for Adams; millions will be watching him, and it won’t get any easier from here.