The likely next mayor of New York City has a list of superlatives fitting for the next man in a long line of chaotic personalities who have run the country’s most populous city – with its largest and most expensive police force, and biggest school system – as it emerges from a public health crisis that has magnified all of its glaring inequalities.
He will now face Republican candidate Curtis Sliwa – founder of the crime-fighting Guardian Angels group – in the mayoral election in November, which he is almost certain to win in a heavily Democratic city.
After an unprecedented primary race, with more than a dozen candidates taking part in Zoom-only forums (and culminating in the city’s first ever use of a ranked-choice voting system, in which voters marked their choice for citywide races by order of preference), Mr Adams emerged from the first round with a 10 per cent lead. That winnowed to a narrow 1 per cent lead, ultimately handing him the primary by fewer than 9,000 votes.
Then Mr Adams – likely to become the second ever Black mayor of New York City – got his ears pierced.
In a video posted to his campaign’s social media accounts, he said a “group of young people” had challenged him to do it to prove he is “not like other politicians who make promises they don’t keep”.
“I already lived up to my first promise,” he said.
The police officer
The race was well under way in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 33,000 New York City residents and underscored the overlapping crisis in housing, unemployment, healthcare and education at the perennial core of every mayoral candidate’s platform.
But after several high-profile shootings, and growing media alarm over public safety across the US as crime rates predictably spiked after a year indoors, the issue of “crime” – and candidates’ competing visions for the future of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) – came into sharp relief in the final weeks of the race.
Mr Adams has pledged to tackle gun violence on his first day in office, targeting “gangs and guns” on the street, and he has also promised that his police commissioner “will be the person most qualified for the job – a woman”.
More than 1,500 shootings were reported in 2020, and 886 people were shot in 765 incidents within the first half of 2021 until 4 July, according to the NYPD.
A victory for Mr Adams, who retired as a captain with the NYPD after 20 years on the force, would follow months of calls to “defund the police”, along with urgent demands in the streets and at the steps of police precincts and City Hall to prioritise funding for critical social services, as near-daily protests against police violence heightened scrutiny of the department’s own history of violence and pugnacious leadership.
In 2006, Mr Adams retired from policing to run for a seat in the state Senate, where he represented parts of central Brooklyn in Albany until 2013. He was then elected as the first ever Black man to represent Brooklyn as its borough president.
“I grew up poor in Brooklyn [and] Queens,” he said as election results rolled in. “I wore a bulletproof vest to keep my neighbours safe. I served my community as a state senator [and] Brooklyn borough president. And I’m honoured to be the Democratic nominee to be the mayor of the city I’ve always called home.”
Mr Adams was one of six children raised by a single mother in South Jamaica, a neighbourhood in the borough of Queens.
His political origin story, one he has often used to chart his trajectory, begins with his arrest at 15 years old, and an officer assaulting him while in custody. Later, as an officer himself, he protested against police violence and promoted “culture” reform from within the ranks, while also defending his colleagues in blue and the massive agency that had fostered the violence he endured.
His campaign likewise sought to straddle a platform that wants to address systemic injustice and poverty while also using a “tough on crime” approach that has undermined progress towards racial and economic justice.
“There’s a permanent group of people that are living in systemic poverty,” he told CBS the morning after the election results. “You and I, we go to the restaurant, we eat well, we take our Uber, but that’s not the reality for America and New York. And so when we turn this city around, we’re going to end those inequalities.”
He has also borrowed criminal justice rhetoric from Republicans, claiming Democrats have “abandoned our cities” and “demonised” law enforcement in debates over police reform.
“I understand crime, and I understand abuse,” he told CBS. “They throw up their hands and we’re continuing to see the same problems in our cities.”
He has previously said he carries a gun when he attends church, and he has suggested he would carry a gun if elected mayor.
In an interview with FAQ NYC in 2020, he said: “Yes, I will, number one, and number two, I won’t have a security detail. If the city is safe, the mayor shouldn’t have a security detail with him, he should be walking the streets by himself. Number three, the hypocrisy of those who are citywide officials who said that you shouldn’t have guns in church: those guys that walk in with them? They got guns. So there’s a level of hypocrisy for a citywide official to say no one should have a gun in the church, but they don’t tell their people, ‘Hey, hang outside.’ If we could protect them in a church with a gun then we can protect Miss Mary with her Bible with a gun.”
The ‘people’s candidate’
Mr Adams campaigned as a blue-collar New Yorker connected to the lives of working people. His website names him “the people’s candidate.”
But he has also secured the backing of Democratic Party bosses, real-estate developers, labour unions and other powerful politicians, with a campaign war chest of nearly $8m on hand by the end of June, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
A super PAC (political action committee) supporting his campaign also received more than $4m from bank and finance executives, while Mr Adams collected endorsements from police and fire unions, as well as from the editorial board of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing New York Post.
From 1997 until 2001, Mr Adams was registered to vote as a Republican. (In 1995, he told the New York Daily News that he believed “there are a large number of closet Black Republicans in the city, and if you take a close look at some of the concepts of the Republican Party, you’ll see that many of them are our values”.)
He pursued a more traditional Democratic platform as a state senator in Albany, where he supported efforts towards marriage equality in 2009 and 2011.
Between 2015 and 2019, while he was Brooklyn borough president, Mr Adams also reaped at least $322,750 in donations to his One Brooklyn Fund organisation or his political campaigns from lobbyists and developers who were also appealing to his office for favours, according to a review by The City.
Despite years of political support from major developers, whose projects have intensified gentrification and residential displacement, Mr Adams told a crowd on Martin Luther King Jr Day in 2020 that gentrifying newcomers should “go back to Iowa”, and accused them of “hijacking your apartments and displacing your living arrangements”.
“New York City belongs to the people that were here and made New York City what it is,” he said.
He later clarified his remarks, welcoming all people to the city, but he has also claimed that the term “gentrification” has been used “to demonise the evolution of a community.”
As borough president, he waged a war on rats – a scourge of the city since the 1700s, with historical attempts at eradication ranging from open-season shooting in the 1800s to proposed demolitions targeting nests in the 1960s.
In 2019, Mr Adams, in one of his more colourful appearances in a career featuring many, demonstrated an extermination plan that involved a morbid display of bloated rat carcasses.
He has also connected the proliferation of rats with a lack of safe and affordable housing and the consequences of gentrification and overdevelopment, as well as the stubborn issue of waste management in a city that leaves mounds of bagged refuse on sidewalks.
“I have mothers in my office who talk about waking up ... and seeing rats gnawing on their babies, because of dried milk,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in 2019. “Families are traumatised … We can never put rats over children, and I am not going to do that.”
In a statement after winning the primary on 6 July, Mr Adams said he owed his victory to “an historic, diverse, five-borough coalition led by working-class New Yorkers [that] has led us to victory in the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City”.
“Now we must focus on winning in November so that we can deliver on the promise of this great city for those who are struggling, who are underserved, and who are committed to a safe, fair, affordable future for all New Yorkers,” he said.
The Brooklyn boss
Following a type 2 diabetes diagnosis in 2016, Mr Adams pursued a vegan diet, reportedly shedding 30lb and reversing his diagnosis.
Last year, in response to the Covid-19 crisis, Mr Adams tossed a twin mattress on the floor of his office in Brooklyn Borough Hall, where he hooked up a hot plate and a slow cooker and built a makeshift wardrobe in his temporary residence.
“You can’t really manage these crises removed in a conference room or somewhere outside of Ground Zero,” he told NY1 in May 2020. “It’s not terrorism, but it’s terrorising our city and I wanted to always be ready.”
He read books by former mayors David Dinkins, the city’s first ever Black mayor, and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire and failed presidential candidate.
Mr Adams also owns a home in Brooklyn and a condo in New Jersey. Reporters have noted that his Zoom background during several candidate forums was clearly New Jersey.
His living arrangements became a kind of in-joke among New York’s political press – prompting requests for the receipts from his EZ Pass (a road-toll payment card) – that turned into a Politico report concerning Mr Adams’s “confusing account of his residential status for someone seeking one of the most visible jobs in the country”.
In response, Mr Adams held a press conference and a tour of his Brooklyn address, where mail was piling up outside the door, and where his son Jordan claimed that the two of them shared the basement unit.
“You’re old enough to remember Obama, and Trump running around saying Obama was not born in America,” he said. “This is the same thing. This is how people demonise.”
The issue also came up during debates between the candidates. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has had his own controversies, including over his residential status, repeatedly criticised Mr Adams in the final weeks of the campaign and called for his EZ Pass receipts.
Mr Yang and Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation director who ultimately won second place in the mayoral race, also formed a brief alliance ahead of election day, leaning on the ranked-choice method to give them a better shot at ousting Mr Adams from the top spot.
Mr Adams accused them of effectively “saying that we can’t trust a person of colour to be the mayor of the city of New York, when this city is overwhelmingly people of colour”.
His allies also accused his opponents of “voter suppression”.
While frontrunners in the mayoral race reflected the latest transformation of the influential political party machines that have dominated New York politics over the last century, the city has also seen significant gains among progressive candidates in critical city council races and in the state assembly in Albany, making it one of the most liberal state legislatures in the US.
The next Brooklyn borough president, replacing Mr Adams, will be Antonio Reynoso, a city council member representing parts of Brooklyn’s Bushwick and East Williamsburg neighbourhoods, who scored major progressive endorsements from public advocate Jumaane Williams, state senator Julia Salazar, and the Working Families Party.
New York’s city council is set to be run by a female majority, and two of six candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America organisation won their seats.
Brad Lander, endorsed by influential New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won the race for city comptroller.
Campaigns for two of the three leading progressives in the mayoral race combusted in the months leading up to election day. Scott Stringer faced two accusations of sexual abuse, and workers for Dianne Morales went on strike.
Maya Wiley – a civil rights advocate and former counsel to mayor Bill de Blasio – received late endorsements from the Working Families Party and from prominent progressive members of Congress, including Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman. She ultimately won third place in the race.
Despite progressive gains elsewhere, Mr Adams – backed by a powerful political coalition – will be “strong enough to tell the socialists, the progressives, the Working Families Party, the [non-governmental organisations], and the ordinary activists shouting outside Gracie Mansion that he does not need them to run the city,” wrote New York journalist Ross Barkan.
Ms Garcia, a more moderate candidate who received endorsements from The New York Times and the New York Daily News, said her campaign “has come closer than any other moment in history to breaking that glass ceiling in selecting New York City’s first female mayor”.
“We cracked the hell out of it,” she said on 7 July, “and it’s ready to be broken.”
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