The Mayor Nobody Knows

On the first day of the New Year, Eric Adams is sworn in as the 110th Mayor of New York City. The former police captain, state senator, and district president has, in some ways, taken a completely conventional route to one of America’s most famous offices. He meticulously climbed the heads of city and state government, worked in board meetings and democratic club meals, forged alliances with pastors from the outskirts and financial titans of Manhattan alike.

Adams is far from conventional, however. The largest city in the United States is entering an uncertain and unpredictable era with a new mayor who is not quite like all of its predecessors. Any 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 is to be made of these contradictions? In the last half century, new mayors with clear mandates or political agendas have stormed into office. Ed Koch’s job was to save the city from a financial crisis and somehow tame a growing crime wave. David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, was tasked with his rainbow coalition to push back the revanchism of the Koch years. 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 September 11th; de Blasio, the progressive, would try to make the gilded city hospitable to the working class and the poor.

Adams carries elements of all these men with him. He becomes the city’s second black mayor. He has a Kochian flair for the cameras, speeds through nightclubs and cuddles with Stephen Colbert. Like Giuliani, he won with a vow to reduce the number of violent crimes. He has spoken the language of police reform while railing against leftist movements trying to control police power.

The hard question to answer is what will this all mean? With his penchant for inflammatory, unrealistic statements, Adams recalls another politician who bit 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 have in common is the ability to surprise, to confuse: It wasn’t long ago Adams railed against newcomers to town and told them to “go back to Ohio.”

Unlike de Blasio, Adams did not advocate enacting any particular policy or greatly expanding the social safety net. De Blasio promised a tax hike for the rich to fund a universal pre-kindergarten program; he never got the tax hike, but delivered it to kindergarten.

Adams’ political agenda is thinly outlined at best. There are a few promises he made in the campaign and one he has already kept: to appoint a woman of color to head the New York Police Department. In December, he elected Keechant Sewell, chief of police for the Nassau County Police Department. It remains to be seen whether this will fundamentally change the NYPD – a powerful fiefdom that often shuns responsibility and wields far too much violence.

Adams made an important promise: to put police discipline into 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 NYPD after 9/11, which was hypermilitarized in the Bloomberg years.

Beyond policing, real estate is where a mayor can make the most impact. Adams, like de Blasio, approached some of the city’s most influential developers. De Blasio’s approach to building wasn’t that different from Bloomberg’s; both were usually lenient with developers. The main difference between the two was how much “affordable” living space they wanted to squeeze out of private-sector projects.

Adams has vowed to go further. Recently he said he was trying to build homes in affluent “Holy Cow” neighborhoods in Lower and Midtown Manhattan. One challenge is that there is very little undeveloped land there. To add more housing in a more equitable manner, Adams development could target low-lying, solid, middle-class neighborhoods and build affordable housing along the transportation routes.

For tenant activists, an Adams town hall can be a troubling setback to the Bloomberg years. How high the rents can be raised for the approximately 1 million rent-stabilized apartments throughout the city is determined by the city’s rent guidelines board, and the mayor appoints new members. Under de Blasio, tenant-friendly members froze rents for part of his tenure. Adams, in a cynical conjuration of identity politics, has refused to support freezing or even resetting rents, claiming that such a decision could be detrimental to small, non-white property owners. In fact, large corporations own much of the city’s rental portfolio, including stabilized units.

So many other questions hang over this future mayor. How much of the new government will be filled with patronage employees and political friends who supported his campaign? How will Adams really use his newfound power? We’ll find out soon enough.

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