Eric Adams likes to travel. He really, really likes to travel. And that may create major headaches after he’s sworn in as New York’s 110th mayor on New Year’s Day.
Back in 2014, Adams raised eyebrows by leading an eight-day trip to China — the first of several ostensibly to drum up business for Brooklyn — less than six months into his job as borough president.
“It’s totally appropriate,” he told me at the time. “I’m not going to be a MetroCard borough president — I’m going to be a passport borough president.”
Adams was as good as his word, logging trips to Israel, Senegal, Turkey, and Azerbaijan as Brooklyn borough president — and shrugging off complaints that some of the countries he visited are run by authoritarian dictators accused of serious human-rights violations whom Adams refused to denounce publicly.
As mayor-elect, Adams has already visited the Dominican Republic, where he promised to make international travel part of his administration.
“I’m learning that national governments make the policies, but darn it, it’s the cities. Cities must determine how to move people forward,” he told NY1. “Germany is one place, for example — they’ve figured out education. How do we engage the trade schools? Why don’t we create tracks so that people can be gainfully employed? Transportation — we are so behind in the globe. You go to other countries in South and Central America, they’re doing such an amazing job of using alternative forms of transportation.”
A few words of caution are in order for the mayor-elect.
First: Make sure the travel passes ethical scrutiny. Dictators in countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan would like nothing better than to show off visits by the mayor of New York City as a way to normalize and legitimize their terrible records on human rights. And there’s a troubling record of Adams’s travel being funded — and contributions being made to his political campaigns — by local and international businesses that stand to benefit from government assistance.
The last thing a new mayor needs is accusations of cozying up to human-rights violators abroad and engaging in pay-to-play back home.
Adams must also make sure his international trips have a clear payoff for the public. More than four years after formally holding a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce plans to erect a “friendship arch” in Sunset Park — part of a sister-city relationship with the Chaoyang district of Beijing — the project has stalled, and the arch, embarrassingly, remains unbuilt. Not good.
And finally, if Adams insists on globe-trotting, he should be ready for the inevitable blowback when something terrible happens while he’s on the road.
“If a sparrow dies of a heart attack in Central Park, I’m responsible,” Mayor Ed Koch once put it, describing the level of responsibility New Yorkers assign to the resident of Gracie Mansion.
De Blasio caught hell for being in Iowa running for president on the fateful night in 2019 when Manhattan got hit with a major power outage. As the extent of the blackout became clear, de Blasio was forced to drive for hours to Chicago, where he had to wait overnight to catch a plane back to New York.
All the while, de Blasio got roasted on social media while his nemesis, Governor Andrew Cuomo, made a show of deploying hundreds of state troopers and light towers to the city. “Situations like this come up, and you have to be on-site, I believe that,” Cuomo told CNN. “I’m governor of New York; I have been for eight years. I can count the number of times I leave the state basically on my fingers.”
In 2010, Mayor Mike Bloomberg had his own run-in with the hazards of leaving town when reporters discovered he was in Bermuda as a snowstorm bore down on the city a day after Christmas. It ultimately dumped two feet of snow and paralyzed Gotham.
“I was totally in communications and in charge and accountable all the time,” Bloomberg later insisted — a claim undercut by the fact that his deputy mayor for operations, Steve Goldsmith, was hundreds of miles away at his home in Washington, D.C., tweeting “good snow work” to overwhelmed Sanitation employees as the city got buried.
While Bloomberg steadfastly refused to provide his travel schedule, journalists ultimately cracked the code by developing sources in Bermuda and learning to track the movements of the mayor’s private jets using FAA records.
Adams can expect a similar level of scrutiny from a public that likes to see its mayors on the scene working when something serious has gone wrong. He’ll need to think twice before boarding that next jet.
“I think they should take his driver’s license. They should take his passport. They should give him a Citi Bike membership and limit him to that. That would be my advice for the incoming mayor,” Eric Phillips, a former adviser to de Blasio, told me. “I know it’s intriguing for some of these relationships to occur, and there’s value in learning things from the way things in other places work, but it’s fraught with peril.”
We’ll soon see if Adams can politically — and literally — keep his feet on the ground.