The Mayor Nobody Knows

The Mayor Nobody Knows

Eric Adams takes office without having had much to say about how—or in whose interests—he’ll govern New York City.

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On the first day of the new year, Eric Adams will be sworn in as the 110th mayor of New York City. The former police captain, state senator, and borough president has, in one sense, taken an entirely conventional path to one of the most celebrated offices in America. He painstakingly scaled the ladders of city and state government, working corporate boardrooms and Democratic club dinners, forging alliances with outer borough pastors and Manhattan finance titans alike.

Adams, however, is anything but conventional. The largest city in the United States is about to enter an uncertain and unpredictable era, with a new mayor who is not quite like any who have come before him. On any given day, Adams can be a populist, a plutocrat, an ascetic, or a bon vivant. He is a Democrat who was once a registered Republican. Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio both enthusiastically supported him.

What to make of these contradictions? For the past half-century, new mayors have stormed into office with either clear mandates or policy agendas. Ed Koch was tasked with rescuing the city from a fiscal crisis and somehow taming a growing crime wave. David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, was charged with turning back the revanchism of the Koch years with his rainbow coalition. Rudy Giuliani embodied a white backlash in a time of high murder rates. Bloomberg was the technocrat who would lead us out of the ashes of 9/11; de Blasio, the progressive, would try to make the gilded city hospitable to the working class and the poor.

Adams carries with him elements of all these men. He will be the city’s second Black mayor. He has a Kochian flair for the cameras, breezing through nightclubs and comfortably schmoozing with Stephen Colbert. He won, like Giuliani, on a vow to lower the rate of violent crime. He has spoken the language of police reform while railing against the left-wing movements trying to check police power.

The difficult question to answer is what this will all add up to. With his penchant for incendiary, reality-defying statements, Adams calls to mind another politician who cut his teeth in the trenches of 20th-century New York: Donald Trump. Adams is politically far to the left of Trump and has denounced him repeatedly. What the two men share is the ability to surprise, to discombobulate: It wasn’t that long ago that Adams railed against new arrivals to the city, telling them to “go back to Ohio.”

Unlike de Blasio, Adams did not campaign on enacting any particular policy or on a large expansion of the social safety net. De Blasio promised a tax hike on the rich to fund a universal pre-kindergarten program; he never got the tax hike but delivered on pre-kindergarten.

Adams’s political agenda is thinly sketched at best. There are a few promises he made on the campaign trail and one he has already followed through on: appointing a woman of color to lead the New York Police Department. In December, he chose Keechant Sewell, the chief of detectives for the Nassau County Police Department. Whether this will fundamentally alter the NYPD—a powerful fiefdom that often avoids accountability and metes out far too much violence—remains to be seen.

Adams has made one significant promise: to make disciplining the police the purview of his own office, not the NYPD. This could make it easier to hold dangerous officers accountable, but it is unlikely to change the nature of the post-9/11 NYPD, which became hypermilitarized in the Bloomberg years.

Beyond policing, real estate is where a mayor can make the greatest mark. Adams, like de Blasio, has drawn close to some of the city’s most influential developers. De Blasio’s approach to building was not so different from Bloomberg’s; both were habitually indulgent toward developers. The difference between the two lay primarily in how much “affordable” housing they wanted to squeeze out of private sector projects.

Adams has vowed to go further. Recently, he said he would seek to build housing in wealthy “sacred cow” neighborhoods in Lower and Midtown Manhattan. One challenge is that there is very little vacant land there. To add more housing in a more equitable fashion, Adams could target low-lying, solidly middle-class neighborhoods for development, building affordable apartments along transit lines.

For tenant activists, an Adams City Hall may represent a troubling swing back to the Bloomberg years. The city’s Rent Guidelines Board determines how high rents can be raised for the approximately 1 million rent-stabilized apartments across the city, and it’s the mayor who appoints new members. Under de Blasio, tenant-friendly members froze rents for part of his tenure. Adams, in a cynical invocation of identity politics, has refused to back freezing or even rolling back rents, claiming that such a decision could adversely impact small, nonwhite property owners. In actuality, large companies own much of the city’s rental portfolio, including stabilized units.

So many other questions hang over this mayor-to-be. How much of the new administration will be filled with patronage hires and political friends who supported his campaign? In what way will Adams really wield his newfound power? We’ll find out soon enough.

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