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You Reap What You Sow
The Eric Adams identity games
Was the mayor of New York City really berating an 84-year-old woman, on a warm June night in 2023, for asking about the rent? Of course he was. Eric Adams doesn’t like when people ask him questions; it doesn’t really matter if they’re journalists, activists, or ordinary citizens. With bile that is startlingly routine, he does more than simply deflect. He doesn’t answer the questions at all.
The New York Post and the Forward have the best accounts of the affair, and I only want to summarize so much. Both pieces are worth a read. In essence, a longtime tenant advocate from Washington Heights who happened to be a Holocaust survivor accused Adams, at a town hall event, of presiding over rent hikes on rent-stabilized units throughout the city. Adams, as mayor, appoints the Rent Guidelines Board members, and has a strong say over what they do. This is inarguable. Adams, however, didn’t like the woman’s tone—or the fact that she dared to point a finger at him, the mayor of America’s largest city, as he sat at the dais.
“First, if you’re going to ask a question, don’t point at me, and don’t be disrespectful to me,” Adams said. “I’m the mayor of this city and treat me with the respect that I deserve to be treated. I’m speaking to you as an adult.
“Don’t stand in front like you treated someone that’s on the plantation that you own.”
And there it was. Adams wanted to be treated with respect—deference, really. Never mind New Yorkers are a pushy lot at town halls, that his predecessors dealt with far worse. Adams, the city’s second Black mayor, believes this woman was behaving like a racist, and therefore he can pretend he has nothing to do with the rising rents in his city. Adams is a landlord, not a tenant, and he is very close to a real estate elite who would like to see rents rise much higher.
As I argued two years ago, Adams will exploit identity concerns in a cynical bid to crush his opposition. The housing movement, as diverse as any, can be accused of racism for simply pointing out what is true. The people fighting on behalf of the more than a million rent-stabilized tenants—working and middle-class people scattered throughout the city, people of all races and ethnic backgrounds imaginable—will be dismissed as virulent racists for stating the obvious: Adams sides with landlords over tenants. His predecessor, Bill de Blasio, presided over multiple rent freezes at the Rent Guidelines Board. This wasn’t an accident. De Blasio, a liberal, appointed tenant-friendly members, and they followed through on the mayor’s wishes. Michael Bloomberg’s board, conversely, sent rents soaring in an era with little inflation.
Jeanie Dubnau, the tenant organization leader and biology professor who challenged Adams at the town hall, said it best to the Post. “He didn’t have an answer,” she said. “That was just a deflection that’s all, because he doesn’t have any answers.”
“He’s a landlord himself. He said, ‘Oh, I don’t raise the rent on my own tenants.’ Who cares about his own personal tenants? He’s raising the rents on thousands and thousands of people in New York City.”
Indeed, Adams didn’t have an answer. Attend enough Eric Adams press conferences and public events, and you’ll find this is the running theme. Adams rarely offers direct answers for questions he does not like. Trump-like, he blusters through them, and pivots to the ad hominem when needed. A different kind of mayor would have said, “yes, I appoint the members of the Rent Guidelines Board, and I believe rent hikes were necessary because expenses for landlords are rising. I supported the hikes last year and didn’t this year, but I understand your point.” You could disagree with him on the merits, but at least he would have been speaking with a degree of honesty and clarity.
Neither, though, comes easily to Eric Adams.
This kind of blow-up was inevitable, because it is how Adams has chosen to govern. His mayoralty represents something of an apotheosis for the identity-obsessed 2010s and early 2020s, when DEI reigned supreme and progressives decided class-based politicking was passé. White Fragility was a best-seller for a reason. I imagine many of the well-meaning people who bought that book do not like Adams as their mayor. But Adams is exactly what this kind of politics eventually curdles into; he is its logical end point. Adams is one of the most powerful men in America, controlling a $100 billion municipal budget and an enormous, militarized police force. He is not the exploited. If he chooses to be, he can be a ruthless exploiter. His identity doesn’t change the facts of his position. He is the executive of the largest municipal government in the country. People can live or die based on the decisions he makes.
The question, as always, is how far Adams can go. Many of the liberals and progressives who celebrated the very rhetoric Adams now seizes upon may well reevaluate their tactics. After a year of timidity, they’ve begun to challenge Adams openly. Sandy Nurse, a Panamanian American city councilwoman from Brooklyn, said Adams should apologize to Dubnau. “That reaction was an overreaction, and it was very condescending,” Nurse told the Post. “I just don’t think it was justified by any measure.”
“The mayor appoints the Rent Guidelines Board, so this board is a reflection of his values and his priorities.”
Still, the outcry can only go far. Adams is adept at jumping to fresh news cycles. His opponents are still relatively fearful of him. It’s notable how little Brad Lander, the city comptroller, and Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, say about Adams in public. Both men are self-identified progressives who were supposed to form a potent political opposition. Comptrollers and public advocates have a long tradition of aggressively holding mayors accountable. Scott Stringer didn’t shrink from de Blasio. John Liu and de Blasio himself didn’t cower from Bloomberg. Mark Green, the first public advocate, was Rudy Giuliani’s fiercest critic in government. In two years, Adams will face re-election. He doesn’t seem particularly worried.