Eric Adams, the man poised to be the next mayor of New York City, is a bundle of contradictions.
He has promised a dramatic expansion of tax credits to uplift the poorest New Yorkers. He is a former police captain who fought to reform the NYPD when most of his colleagues were committed to a brutal status quo.
As Daily News columnist Errol Louis wrote on Saturday, Adams’s candidacy is the culmination of a decades-long fight for Black political power in New York. A son of the outer boroughs, the current Brooklyn borough president rode to victory with the backing of the city’s working class, its Black and Latino Democrats.
But Adams, like Andrew Cuomo in Albany, is well positioned to frustrate progressives when he reaches City Hall. He is a proud landlord who has lambasted the idea of freezing rents for vulnerable tenants. His narrow primary triumph was possible, in part, because right-wing Wall Street financiers and real estate developers funneled cash to his campaign and generously funded a super PAC in support of his bid.
Adams, a former Republican, has aligned himself with the city’s power elite throughout his political career, boasting, not long ago, that he is “real estate.” Like other millionaires and billionaires, he is a strong supporter of privately run, publicly funded charter schools. Though many of the city’s largest labor unions supported him, the United Federation of Teachers notably did not, citing his past alliance with Eva Moskowitz, the controversial charter school founder.
While many progressives came to detest Bill de Blasio, rightfully criticizing him for failing to meaningfully overhaul the NYPD and too often catering to the needs of the real estate developers who funded his campaigns, the outgoing mayor was rarely an impediment to left movements in New York.
De Blasio tried, if ham-handedly, to swing control of the state Senate to the Democrats, and never used the power of his office to thwart progressive insurgent campaigns. He was not organizing support for Joe Crowley as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez successfully unseated him. That year, the mayor even openly endorsed Zellnor Myrie, a progressive Democrat who would end up beating a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of conservative Democrats who helped the Republicans control the upper chamber.
Myrie now sits in the same Brooklyn Senate seat that Adams himself once held. The man he beat, Jesse Hamilton, was an Adams protégé, a Democrat who joined the IDC with Adams’s full support.
Michael Bloomberg had his billions, but he was a Republican in a Democratic town, a white man with open disdain for anyone who organized on the left. He made for an easy foil. Adams, arguably, is a tougher opponent, with deep ties to organized labor and Democratic institutions, as well as an outsider’s populist sensibilities. He is prepared to cynically wield his identity against those who come against him.
There will be guardrails, though, on an Adams mayoralty—and it’s possible the very same laws that foiled progressives in the five boroughs for decades could work, in the future, to their advantage. The office of the mayor is very powerful, by national standards, but the city remains a creature of the state. The state Legislature and the governor determine the city’s income tax rate, its tenant protections, the quality of its public transportation, and even the local speed limit.
Traditionally, this was a problem for the left: Republicans controlled the state Senate and the governor, invariably, was hostile to New York City liberals. Now Democrats have a supermajority in the state Senate; two DSA members, Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, sit in the upper chamber, along with many like-minded colleagues.
None of these young progressives endorsed Adams in the mayoral race. If he seeks to undercut public schools by increasing the number of charters in New York City—a longtime Cuomo priority—he will need buy-in from the state Legislature, which must approve such an increase. It is very unlikely Adams will get it.
Savvy progressive politicians will surround Adams on the municipal level. The new City Council will be filled with many more leftists than its predecessor, and include new dynamos like Tiffany Cabán, who gained fame two years ago when she narrowly lost the Queens DA’s race. The man replacing Adams in the borough president’s office, Antonio Reynoso, is a longtime ally of progressives. The next city comptroller is likely to be Brad Lander, who won the nomination with AOC’s endorsement. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate and an ally of both the Working Families Party and DSA, will easily win reelection.
What’s notable about a lot of these politicians is their blend of charisma and message discipline. Adams will have the backing of the diminished city tabloids, in particular the New York Post, but these younger Democrats collectively command many millions of social media followers, with AOC the clear standout.
Ocasio-Cortez had no compelling reason to tangle with de Blasio, a lame-duck mayor by the time she took office, but Adams will be another matter—if he directly challenges her policy priorities, she will not be shy about combating him. It can be argued that her excoriation of Andrew Yang’s hawkish Israel tweet in May helped undo his campaign, especially with younger voters. With the power to generate national news at will, Ocasio-Cortez will be able to mount pressure campaigns against Adams as she sees fit.
Progressives, though, shouldn’t expect the congresswoman, usually focused on national matters, to be in the trenches with them week-to-week. Instead, it will be up to left-leaning lawmakers in both the City Council and Albany to forge coalitions, especially if Adams decides he wants to thwart movement aims like toughening up tenant protections. Adams has already signaled he will appoint landlord-friendly members to the Rent Guidelines Board—the body that decides how much rent-stabilized tenants will pay—and there is nothing, from a legal perspective, any lawmaker can do to stop him.
What they can actually do, however, is join their collective platforms together to make it politically untenable for Adams to undercut tenants. They can organize press conferences, rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and enlist as many Democrats as possible in the project of weakening a landlord-loving mayor. They can dominate social media while shaping narratives in traditional news outlets.
When Bloomberg reigned, the left was nowhere near as vibrant as it is today. Republicans controlled significant portions of government and centrist pundits held more sway over public opinion. Socialists were not winning anything.
Mayor Adams, come 2022, will encounter a radically different landscape. He will be ascendant, but so will many of his rivals. They will be ready for Adams, perhaps as much as he is ready for them.