He has made swagger a running theme of his mayoralty amid rising crime and a pandemic whose end is uncertain. He has railed about a dysfunctional city that fails its most vulnerable citizens while ordering a crackdown on homeless encampments and quality-of-life crimes. And he has professed a love for opinionated New Yorkers while bristling at criticism of his policies and hirings.
One hundred days into office, Mayor Eric Adams has applied his paradoxical breed of politics to the challenge of navigating New York City through a pivotal moment. The 61-year-old former NYPD captain has emerged as the tough-on-crime Democrat that many of his supporters and opponents expected. He has often alternated between the role of cop and cheerleader, focusing on public safety and partnering with the business community to spur the city’s economic recovery. At the same time, he has also carved out progressive policies to help the working poor.
On the ground, New Yorkers are discovering a mayor who unapologetically embraces the full power of the mayoralty and basks in his newfound celebrity. He is the mayor who parties at the members-only club Zero Bond but also walks the streets marveling at portions of the city he never knew about, like when he stumbled last month across the Russian and Turkish bathhouse in the East Village.
He has acknowledged that he is going to make mistakes, calling himself “perfectly imperfect.”
“There's a different type of leadership now at City Hall,” said Basil Smikle, the director of Hunter College’s public policy program, who’s been following Adams’ performance. “One that is not necessarily concerned about brandishing any specific ideological affiliation, but that is focused on really managing the city.”
Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University who has written why Adams is so difficult to define, said New Yorkers should have expected nothing less. “Eric Adams essentially told us that he was going to be a wildcard and I don't think he's deviated from that,” she said.
That is in part because, she argued, the pressures on Adams — who is only the city’s second Black mayor — demand a very different kind of political calculus.
“In the shadow of all this is that he's still a Black man trying to do a job that only one other Black man has done before,” Greer said.
Eric Adams essentially told us that he was going to be a wildcard and I don't think he's deviated from that.
With his legacy staked on battling crime, Adams has flooded the subways with police and introduced a revamped police unit targeting illegal guns. In recent weeks, he has called for more aggressive enforcement of lower-level offenses, such as disorderly conduct and fare evasion, signaling a revival of so-called “broken windows” policing. He has lobbied state lawmakers to roll back parts of bail reform – a battle that has pitted him against progressives, but which he now appears to be on the cusp of winning with the help of Gov. Kathy Hochul.
He has simultaneously pledged to balance that approach with an investment in social services and benefits for the working poor. So far, his efforts on that front have included a commitment to expand the city’s youth jobs program, childcare centers, and partnering with Hochul to deploy mental health workers on subways to offer services to the homeless.
Adams has also proposed to expand the Earned Income Tax Program — which benefits low- to middle-income households — by significantly increasing the matching contributions from the city. He has called on the state to do the same. Despite being viewed as a policy that puts money directly in the pockets of the working poor, the program has not seen a rise in city and state funding in nearly 20 years.
But the challenges facing Adams are steep. Major crimes across the city are up 44% compared to last year, while shootings continue to plague neighborhoods of color. The string of incidents has been long and unsettling for New Yorkers. January saw a woman pushed to her death by a man with a history of mental illness at a Times Square subway station, and the fatal shooting of two police officers responding to a 911 call in Harlem.
Among the most recent tragedies, a 12-year-old Brooklyn boy and 61-year-old Bronx woman died from crossfire in separate incidents. On Friday, a 16-year-old girl was fatally shot and two other teens injured near their Bronx school.
Assessing the impact of Adams’ early strategies has proven to be difficult. Police officials on Wednesday said that its anti-gun unit made 121 arrests since they were deployed last month. Of those arrests, 25 were for illegal firearm possession.
Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University law professor who studies policing, said the city did not provide the context to evaluate those numbers.
“How many stops did it take to recover 25 guns?” he said. “What crimes were the arrests for? Where did the stops and arrests take place? What were the arrest histories, age and race of the persons arrested? What kinds of guns? Were they stolen or bought on the gray or black markets?”
Fagan added: “No one should be impressed by those numbers without the facts needed to make sense of them.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, the city’s police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, said that reversing the spike in violence would take more than mere weeks.
On Friday, the mayor told NY1 that altogether the NYPD had removed over 1,000 illegal guns off the streets over the last three months.
Meanwhile, New York City’s economic outlook remains uncertain at best. At 7.6%, the city’s unemployment rate is double the national average.
In an effort to hasten the city’s economic comeback, Adams last month removed a proof-of-vaccination requirement for patrons at restaurants, gyms, and cultural and sports venues, and also lifted the mask mandate for public school children aged 5 and up.
“It's time to open our city and get the economy back operating,” he said at the time.
Although the city’s restaurant and nightlife industry has regained some of its vibrancy, most private sector workers remain in hybrid mode as an omicron subvariant fuels a rise in cases.
Flexing mayoral power
Adams has withstood early attacks on his hirings and policies, mostly by doubling down on them.
A recent poll showed high approval ratings, with a majority of New Yorkers saying they approve of his handling of the pandemic and the relationship between police and communities. He enjoys a rising national profile, striking a mutually beneficial relationship with President Joe Biden and promoting his “Get Stuff Done” agenda to other big city mayors.
“He understands the full weight of the office and he understands that even if people are uncomfortable with his decisions, he still gets to make them — and sell them after the fact,” Smikle said.
That power was on display earlier this week when Adams convened an event in City Hall with LGBTQ activists announcing the launch of a billboard campaign against Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. Back in February, members of the LGBTQ community protested City Hall after the mayor announced a series of appointments of pastors who had made anti-gay statements in the past.
He understands the full weight of the office and he understands that even if people are uncomfortable with his decisions, he still gets to make them — and sell them after the fact.
Alan Roskoff, one of the activists who had pilloried the mayor over the hirings, suggested that political pragmatism prevailed over their anger.
“We decided to move on and work with the mayor,” said Roskoff, who serves as president of the influential Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club. “There’s a lot that we can do together.”
In the latest drama that has pitted the mayor against progressives, city workers on March 26th began removing hundreds of homeless encampments. Advocates have argued that the practice, which was carried out under previous mayors, is inhumane and only amounts to scattering homeless individuals to less visible and sometimes dangerous locations. They also say that the practice doesn’t address the longstanding push to revamp the shelter system.
The mayor has maintained that there is no dignity in living on the streets. “Cruel is having people live in cardboard boxes and tents, human waste, drug paraphernalia, no bathrooms, no showers, no place to put your clothing,” he told reporters this week. “We're going to make sure that shelters are safe, clean and transition people into permanent housing.”
He asked city officials to create and distribute a glossy pamphlet that features a safe haven, a shelter that provides health services and substance-abuse treatment.
In the first two weeks of the sweeps, only five people at encampment sites had been willing to go to a homeless shelter.
“He's trying to balance these two concerns — public safety and the needs of the most vulnerable,” said Marc Greenberg, executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing who has worked on the issue for four decades.
Greenberg urged the mayor to work with longtime advocates who have experience working with homeless individuals and building community support for new shelters. “He can't do it alone,” he said of Adams.
On Wednesday, homeless activists engaged in a standoff with police over the removal of an encampment in the East Village. After seven hours, police arrested seven people for obstruction of government administration and disorderly conduct.
Greer, the political scientist, said she never expected Adams to become a “beacon of compromise with the left.”
“My expectation was that he would come in and assess the problem and he would come up with a strategy as to what he thought was best for the city in this moment,” she said.
She added: “And he would not ask our opinion.”