“I am not the Ivy League guy in this race, you know. I mean, I am CUNY,” Eric Adams says with a laugh on a late-morning F-train back to Borough Hall in Brooklyn after a rally for more mental-health beds at a Park Slope hospital. “My nails are not manicured, they are cracked. You shake my hand, you feel my calluses.”
Adams, who has served for the past six years as Brooklyn borough president, will officially jump into the race for mayor of New York with a launch video for supporters expected to be sent Tuesday night, followed by a Zoom announcement on Wednesday. He had been telegraphing his intentions to run for the city’s top job since literally the day he was sworn in to his current gig and enters the race as one of the front-runners in an increasingly crowded field.
His campaign is one that will rely heavily on his biography: about how when he was 12, a 10-year-old African American boy named Clifford Glover was shot in the back by an undercover policeman early one morning and afterward his mother wouldn’t let him cross to the other side of his South Jamaica neighborhood. About how when he was 13 and that police officer, Thomas Shea, was acquitted by a jury and the neighborhood broke out in riots and Adams was at a Little League game against an all-white team from Long Island and people poured out of their homes to attack the kids on the field. About how he when was 15, another neighbor, a go-go dancer named Micky, broke her leg and relied on Adams and his older brother to run errands for her. She recovered, and when they came by to collect their money, she called the cops on them, which led to Adams getting taken in and beaten up by the police at the 103rd Precinct. About how he became a cop anyway, charmed by the uniform and the gun, the power and prestige. About how he became a transit cop, saw his car get shot out, rose to the rank of captain, and went to college at night, while founding a new organization, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care that spoke out against police brutality from inside the force.
“The next mayor needs to be someone who has gone through a lot so that they understand people who are going through a lot,” Adams says after getting off the train and drinking a Lipton tea on a bench by his office. It was a cold day, and dry leaves scraped the ground in front of Borough Hall. “You go back to Abe Beame, Ed Koch, John Lindsay, even David Dinkins, Giuliani, Bloomberg, de Blasio, and then you look at who is in this field now. Look at the lives they have lived. They have lived lives of comfort. No matter where they started, what was the journey?
“I am not Ivy League,” he repeated. I am just a blue-collar guy scraping along. But you know what? The average New Yorker is not Ivy League either.”
It is an unorthodox approach to start swinging at your opponents right at the start of your campaign, but Adams’s pitch to the voters is that he can bring the change he saw on the police force in the 1980s and ’90s to the city writ large. Although lodged in the public’s mind as a time of overzealous enforcement led by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, that era introduced Adams to the man he cites as his inspiration, Jack Maple, a visionary criminologist who as deputy commissioner brought COMPSTAT to the department, allowing police to use real-time data on crime almost as it was occurring. Its detractors say that COMPSTAT incentivizes a police force that cares more about juicing arrest numbers than doing the work; Adams says it allows police to predict where problems will occur, and he wants to run the entire government on a model much like it.
“I saw the department, I saw the city go from dysfunctional to functional with my eyes. You interview every other candidate, my eyes see what they are not seeing because they never saw anything go from dysfunctional to functional. It’s like on a championship basketball team, you want a player that has already been through the playoffs because they are going to tell their teammates what to expect.”
More practically, this means equipping every city agency with real-time data reporting, trying to get the government to see the various crises the city is facing — from COVID to education to the economy to health to crime — as interconnected, much as the police in the 1990s began to tear down the wall that separated the gun unit from the homicide unit from the warrant unit.
A reliance on his time in the NYPD as the cornerstone of his campaign raises the question of what Adams has been up to in the decades since he left the force. As Brooklyn borough president, he pushed for more affordable housing and job-training programs but became most known for an undisciplined approach to the job and penchant for controversy. Adams once told a Harlem crowd that people not from New York should “go back to Iowa, you go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that were here and made New York City what it is.” He made a big show of a new battery-powered rat trap that his office used to catch hundreds of vermin around Borough Hall and, after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, encouraged off-duty police officers to bring their guns with them when they went to church and once surprised the audience at the opening of a new LGBT senior center by telling the crowd that the new space wasn’t inclusive and he feared it would lead to violence.
Still, he says city government is ripe for the kind of turnaround that the police force faced in the 1990s. Then, New York had come to accept that its unsafe present was just how the city had to be, and a cottage industry grew up of benzi boxes to remove car radios and steering-wheel clubs to prevent stolen cars. Kids made “No Radio” signs in shop class. Likewise, New Yorkers have gotten used to a level of dysfunction in their government now.
“If white kids were failing at the level of Black and brown boys every year in school, there would be riots in the streets,” he says. “So here is what is happening in the city. We have privatized poverty. We have a group of people suffering from generational poverty, and there is this other group of people who have professionalized that, who say, ‘I am going to eat off this poverty year after year.’ And so there is no incentive to stop.”
Such talk makes Adams a difficult figure to place among the left-right spectrum. He is a former Republican who was backed in his first race by the Nation of Islam; a former cop who marched against police brutality — but does not support defunding the police — someone who talks about the grinding poverty of disenfranchised communities on the one hand and on the other says, “We can’t divide the city and demonize certain segments. We can have affluent New Yorkers and everyday New Yorkers both achieving prosperity in this city. We need each other. We can’t demonize everyone who has been successful in business. That is the wrong attitude.”
In a city that is now majority minority, and a Democratic-primary electorate that is even more so, Adams in some ways has the easiest path to City Hall: Consolidate support among Black voters in Central Brooklyn and southeastern Queens and the Bronx, pick up moderate Asian, Hispanic, and Jewish voters in the outer-boroughs, and reassure the city’s business and real-estate elite that he is the safest choice among the top-tier contenders.
Few city political observers however think it will be easy for him.
“There is no doubt he is a talented politician, but I wonder if this is the moment for a guy who was a police leader in the bad old days of the NYPD,” said Eric Phillips, a former adviser to current mayor Bill de Blasio. “He wasn’t a patrol officer. He was the leader in the department. That is inconsistent with the progressivism of the moment.”
As there were calls to defund the police over the summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests, Adams declined to take part. “You have some of my opponents say ‘Let’s cut the police department by 50 percent.’ No. I know what crime does. You cut the police department and you are going to get rid of a lot of Black and brown women, single mothers, who are providing for their families.
“I am not an idealist. I am a realist. This is a big complicated city, and you can’t run a big complicated city just on philosophies.”