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Is Eric Adams the Democrats’ Next National Star?

Spurned by prominent progressives during the campaign, the incoming mayor of New York City is a centrist who could have national appeal.
December 30, 2021
Is Eric Adams the Democrats’ Next National Star?
New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams joins parade marchers as they go up 5th Avenue during the 102nd Annual Veterans Day Parade in New York, on November 11, 2021. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Just after midnight in Times Square on Friday night, as the ball drops and the new year begins, Eric Adams will be sworn in as the 110th mayor of New York City. Following David Dinkins, he is the second African American elected to the office. But he is the first mayor of New York who is a retired police officer, the first mayor to have attended New York public schools since Abe Beame in the 1970s, and the first Democrat in recent memory to run for mayor as a centrist, a moderate political position he embraced early on and from which he never veered. While conventional wisdom says the left has all the mojo in the Democratic party—think the Squad, Bernie Sanders, the Progressive Caucus—Eric Adams is proof a centrist can create sizzle and even win in a liberal bastion like New York City. His victory has also put him on the radar screen for moderate Democrats across America looking to get behind a centrist who could have a national profile.

“He created his own lane,” says Kandy Stroud, a longtime Democratic party insider and a native New Yorker, who believes Adams’s key to success was his decision to eschew the politics of New York’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio, an unapologetic progressive. “Adams appealed to a more down-the-middle Democrat. He didn’t need Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It just goes to show there is an opportunity for a moderate Democrat to win. Then again, Eric Adams has star quality. He’s his own dude. He’s cool.”

Of everything, though, Adams is defined by his past profession. “Never forget he’s a cop,” says Edward W. Hayes, a Manhattan-based super attorney whose clients have ranged from George Pataki to Robert de Niro to the estate of Andy Warhol. “He talks like a cop. He acts like a cop. It’s the people he grew up with who are getting robbed. He’s going to try to protect them.”

Where Adams grew up, the neighborhoods that molded him in his youth, was the boroughs. Born in Brownsville in Brooklyn, in 1960, the fourth of six children whose mother was a third-grade-educated house cleaner and cook and whose father was a butcher with a bad drinking habit—the couple moved north from Alabama in the 1950s—Adams grew up in South Jamaica in Queens when in 1968 his mother scraped together a down payment and bought a house there.

As a teenager, Adams joined a gang, the 7-Crowns. At fifteen, he agreed to run errands for a dancer and prostitute named Micki when she got injured. But she refused to pay him, so Adams, with the help of his brother, stole her television and a money order. Micki reported the crime to the police, and the brothers were arrested for criminal trespassing. While in custody, the Adams boys were severely beaten by police, an attack that ended only when a black officer intervened.

The assault left a lasting impression on Adams. “My brother and I were . . . abused together,” he later told NPR, “and the police officers who arrested us did not hit us all over our body. They just kicked us in our groin repeatedly. . . . [M]y brother left there hating cops. . . . I left there with the belief that it was behind me.” Adams graduated Bayside High School in 1978, “but as life went on, I realized that every time I saw a police vehicle, every time I watched a police show, every time I heard a siren, I relived that [assault]. . . . I understood that there was a demon inside me. And the only way I can get it out is for me to go in, and going in meant becoming a police officer.”

To pursue that goal, Adams entered the New York Police Academy from which he graduated in 1984 as the top student in his class. A tenure at the New York Transit Police culminated with a transfer to the New York City Police Department where he enjoyed assignments in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, Clinton Hill, and Fort Green and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Along the way, he earned an associate in arts from New York City College of Technology, a bachelor of arts from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a master of public administration from Marist College. In 1995, in reaction to the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor, Adams cofounded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, an advocacy group meant to address the relationship between the NYPD and the African-American community. He also became active in the Grand Council of Guardians, an organization of African-American law enforcement officers throughout the state.

Then, in 2006, when Adams went on television and criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he was investigated by the NYPD. No doubt, opinion of him was affected by his continued involvement in 100 Blacks, which one publication described as “an organization that called out racist policing by the NYPD during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations.” That same year, Adams retired after 22 years on the police force with a final rank of captain.

Since the mid-1990s, Eric Adams had flirted with politics. He attempted to run against Congressman Major Owens in the Democratic primary in 1994 but failed to secure sufficient signatures to get his name on the ballot. From 1997 to 2001, he registered as a Republican because he believed the Democratic party had failed the African-American community. But, in 2006, retired from the NYPD and once again a Democrat, he pursued politics with a new vigor and was elected to the state senate from the 20th district in Brooklyn. “While in the senate,” Gothamist reported, “Adams continued to press for police reform and was a loud proponent of same-sex marriage as it was pushed through a Republican-controlled chamber in 2011.” Then, in 2013, Adams became the first person of color to be elected Brooklyn borough president.

On November 17, 2020, Adams announced his run for New York City mayor. At first, he trailed Andrew Yang, the tech businessman whose presidential candidacy, based on his advocacy for a national minimum income, had earned him valuable name recognition. But, as the campaign proceeded, the competitive field grew to include Kathryn Garcia, a public official who has held multiple positions in the de Blasio administration, and Maya Wiley, a television commentator and lawyer whose progressivism appealed to the left.

It was in the Democratic primary during the first half of this year that Adams established his centrist bona fides. “He made combating gun violence and improving public safety a main focus of his campaign,” NPR noted, “while also calling for cuts to the NYPD’s budget and the shifting of some jobs to civilians that have been done by officers, which he says could save the city up to $500 million a year.” The New York Times described Adams as “one of the more moderate candidates in the Democratic primary race” who drew “contrast between his views on policing and crime, and those of left-leaning rivals like Ms. Wiley.”

The leftist allure of Maya Wiley appealed to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed her, instead of more centrist candidates like Adams or Garcia, which gave Wiley a bump in the polls. Adams was also shunned by the United Federation of Teachers, an important cog in the Democratic machine, who endorsed New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. In the primary—which for the first time in a New York mayoral race used a ranked-choice system, allowing voters to list up to five of their top choices for office—Adams received 50.4 percent of the vote to Garcia’s 49.6 percent. The difference was a mere 7,000 votes. Had Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Garcia instead of Wiley, Adams may not have won the primary.

But, with a victory behind him, Adams proceeded on to the November general election to face a Republican opponent who has been a prominent personality in New York politics for four decades: Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels and a radio host. Sliwa never mounted a viable campaign to challenge Adams. It was, therefore, not surprising when Adams won in a 40-point landslide. The impressive victory, by a Democrat who rejected the clarion call of the progressive movement to “Defund the Police,” caught the attention of Democrats around the country who understand what it takes to win in areas outside the major metropolitan liberal strongholds. “A lot of time crime overtrumps what party you’re from,” says former Democratic Congressman Ronnie Shows of Mississippi. “Eric Adams is a Blue Dog moderate. I think that’s where most voters are. People don’t want to defund the police. They want retraining and more money put into recruiting good people.”

Indeed, Adams made fighting crime a mainstay of his message. “He has said he’s going to bring back a citywide anti-crime unit, which was controversial,” Ed Hayes says. “He’s bringing back stop-and-frisk under limited use. And by ‘limited use’ he means—you can’t hurt guys! He’s going to bring back solitary confinement at Riker’s Island.”

If Adams is successful at controlling crime—as well as addressing New York’s historically hard-to-manage public school system and improving the economic fortunes of a city hit hard by high taxes and a crippling pandemic—his victory could have national implications for himself and for the Democratic party, which cannot overlook his strategy of distancing himself from the left only to win the general election in a massive landslide.

“Eric Adams is what New York City needs right now,” says George Shipley, a veteran Texas-based Democratic operative who helped Ann Richards rise to political stardom. He continues:

In the wake of de Blasio, New Yorkers have a preference for someone who has problem-solving expertise. Some members of the New York delegation are long on vision and short on mechanics, but Democrats need to look past the glittery headlines and the save-the-world mentality and get down to brass tacks. Voters want someone who can make the trains run on time—literally. Adams can absolutely do that. And if he does, he will have a very bright future.

Kandy Stroud agrees. “Eric Adams has got to be Mr. Nice Guy but at the same time clean up the homeless problem, clean up crime, and bring business back. That’s a tall order. But he has a lot going for him. He’s got personality. He’s got style. He’s a rock star.”

To many observers, that description seems right. After all, Adams responded to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes—he suffered nerve damage in his feet and hands and lost vision in one eye—by shifting to a plant-based diet, reversing his diabetes in three months and becoming an outspoken advocate for veganism. (He has proposed Meatless Mondays for public school lunches.) He has unapologetically proclaimed his love of hitting New York’s nightspots and vowed to bring back the city’s nightlife, which was all but destroyed by Bloomberg and ignored by de Blasio. He’s a natty dresser with his own personal fashion sense. In short, Adams has created a larger-than-life image for himself all while embracing a pro-business, anti-crime agenda.

The Adams example, should he prove to be effective once he settles into office and implements the policies on which he campaigned, can resonate on the national level. At a time when it feels quaint to look back on Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as models of centrist Democrats who could win, Eric Adams is a reminder that with the right candidate the formula can still work.

Paul Alexander

Paul Alexander has published eight books, focusing on authors Sylvia Plath and J.D. Salinger and political figures Karl Rove, John Kerry, and John McCain. His biography of Salinger was adapted into the documentary Salinger which first appeared on American Masters on PBS.