These are trying times for Eric Adams, the 110th mayor of New York City.
FBI agents have seized his phones and raided the home of his chief campaign fundraiser. His former Buildings Department commissioner has already been indicted in an unrelated bribery scheme. A woman has even accused him of sexually assaulting her in 1993 – a charge he has denied.
And this doesn’t even account for the actual challenges of governing the city. The migrant crisis would test any mayor, but it’s been particularly tough for Adams, who never was much of a technocrat. He has offered conflicting accounts of how much housing migrants will cost and began implementing deeply unpopular budget cuts – canceling new classes of police officers and ending Sunday library service at most branches.
Rikers Island, a fiasco for decades, is now at its breaking point, with federal receivership likely. Adams, a former police captain, has failed to reform the notorious jails complex. Nine incarcerated individuals have died there just this year.
Beyond Rikers, shootings and murders have declined, but another public safety crisis has reared up: the rash of e-bike battery fires. The lithium-ion batteries are highly flammable and can explode if they’re of poor quality and not properly charged. At least 17 New Yorkers have died this year from battery fires, more than the six who died in 2022.
These controversies and tragedies have steadily weakened Adams’ political standing. At the beginning of his mayoralty, in early 2022, he was broadly popular, and he seemed to offer a certain swagger and joie de vivre that had been missing from Bill de Blasio, his dour and hectoring predecessor. New York was still in the COVID-19 doldrums and Adams, ever the nightlife connoisseur, promised he would guide the city through an electrifying recovery. He was only the second Black man elected mayor and a genuine product of the outer borough working class, a graduate of local public schools who knew what it was like, as a teenager, to walk the streets of South Jamaica and Bayside.
He was the self-proclaimed “Biden of Brooklyn,” the new face of the Democratic Party. For a certain prestige pundit and political moderate, he was a godsend, a Democrat unafraid of clashing with the progressive left. “You water the tree of freedom with your blood,” he said in a Memorial Day speech this year. “We sit under the shade of that tree of freedom protected from the hot rays of socialism and communism and destruction that’s playing out across the globe.”
Now Adams, according to the latest Marist poll, has a job approval rating of 37%, and 54% of city residents said they disapprove of his performance. All of this has led to speculation that he’ll face a competitive Democratic primary challenge in 2025, assuming that he runs for reelection. David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, lost his reelection bid, but Dinkins grappled with a very different predicament – the city was riven with racial divisions and a stubbornly high murder rate, and his toughest opponent was a famed former prosecutor – Republican Rudy Giuliani. A white reactionary vote helped drive Dinkins out of office.
Adams, conversely, is reviled on the progressive and socialist left, and he’s slowly losing the trust of the moderates who helped put him in office. Wealthier Democrats in Manhattan and Brooklyn were hoping, perhaps, they’d have a mayor like Mike Bloomberg – pro-business, pro-real estate – but with a more populist touch.
Instead, to their consternation, Adams has unwittingly echoed, in his public pronouncements and various scandals, another wealthy and famous New Yorker: Donald Trump.
Like Trump, Adams is besieged by state and federal investigations. Like Trump, he has told conflicting stories about his past and, at times, outright lied. Like Trump, he has flirted with illegality for stretches of his political career.
For those who’ve followed Adams since his election to the state Senate in 2006, the latest crises have not come as a surprise. In Albany, Adams attracted both praise and scorn, and he was named repeatedly in an inspector general’s report on alleged bid-rigging over a potential casino at Queens’ Aqueduct Racetrack. As chair of the Senate Racing and Wagering Committee, Adams took campaign checks from two bidders seeking to operate the casino. Adams was criticized, but never charged with a crime.
As Brooklyn borough president, Adams oversaw a nonprofit, One Brooklyn Fund, that was supposed to be a charity but functioned, effectively, as a self-promotional vehicle for his political endeavors. It allowed wealthy donors to curry favor with him ahead of his mayoral run. He aggressively blurred the lines between governing and politics, but he broke no laws. By 2021, he was where he needed to be, entering the top tier of the Democratic mayoral primary. On the eve of the election, fresh questions emerged over his curious political past – he had been a former Republican who associated with controversial Nation of Islam preacher Louis Farrakhan – and whether he even lived in New York City, but he was still able to eke out a victory over Kathryn Garcia, a former Sanitation Department commissioner who also tacked to the political center.
The latest Adams scandal has roots in one of his longtime obsessions, the nation of Turkey. Federal prosecutors are reportedly examining whether his 2021 campaign conspired with members of the Turkish government to receive illegal donations, and if he pressured city officials to sign off on the Turkish government’s new consulate building in Manhattan. They are also reportedly investigating the role of a Turkish-owned Brooklyn construction company that organized a fundraiser for Adams.
So far, the mayor has not been accused of any wrongdoing. It’s plausible he will never be indicted. No sitting mayor has even been indicted, though at least two, William O’Dwyer and Jimmy Walker, were driven from office over corruption suspicions.
Can Adams survive? The short answer is yes. De Blasio never endured so many overlapping scandal clouds, but federal prosecutors investigated his fundraising practices, eventually determining he violated the “spirit” of campaign finance law but did not do anything illegal. In 2017, de Blasio won a commanding reelection. Years before sexual harassment and assault allegations forced Andrew Cuomo to resign, the powerful governor saw his closest aide, Joe Percoco, indicted and convicted on bribery charges – only to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. Cuomo won a third term anyway.
Adams supporters can also point to Bloomberg. Deeply unpopular midway through his first term, Bloomberg, then a Republican, recovered and breezed to reelection over Democrat Fernando Ferrer.
No prominent Democrats have announced a challenge to Adams yet. Though the FBI investigation will probably slow his fundraising, he has still amassed a $2 million war chest, with more expected if matching funds come through. If he’s never indicted – and no one close to him is charged – he can likely count on the help of financiers and developers funding super PACs on his behalf.
But that’s assuming no one notable runs against Adams and all the investigations peter out. Unlike Bloomberg, Adams can’t plow more than $70 million into a reelection campaign. And unlike Bloomberg, who was perceived as a competent steward of the city’s post-9/11 recovery, Adams has failed most of the governing tests put before him. The city has bled expertise – his housing czar has already quit, along with the first woman to run the NYPD – and several prominent agencies, including the Department of Transportation, are helmed by patronage hires. The city is building less housing than it ever did in the de Blasio years.
As mayor, de Blasio had glaring faults, but he also oversaw the creation of a universal prekindergarten program that, in time, became a national model. Before he was term-limited, he initiated an expansion in pre-K for 3-year-olds that Adams has mostly unraveled. When de Blasio ran for reelection, he could tout tangible policy successes during his first term.
Adams has accomplished nothing on the same scale. His inattention to the minutiae of governing has meant a mostly rudderless first two years, with lofty announcements that never amount to much and small-bore achievements that wouldn’t have impressed any of his immediate predecessors. His policy vision for the next two years is muddled at best.
Meanwhile, he has few political allies left. The Biden administration has frozen him out over his consistent criticisms of their handling of the migrant crisis. The Democratic-run state Legislature doesn’t work with him much, and New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams has broken away. Gov. Kathy Hochul has stuck close to him so far, but she can be expected to distance herself if the federal investigations into Adams worsen.
Adams does have a compelling story to tell, if he ever manages to tell it effectively: murders and shootings have dropped on his watch, and the city has continued to recover from the pandemic. Midtown and downtown don’t quite bustle as they once did, but outer borough business is booming again, as are bars and restaurants. Not all of this is Adams’ direct doing – the violent crime decline in New York has mirrored national trends – but he is the mayor, and he can plausibly take credit for it. The problem for him is that some New Yorkers still don’t feel safe, which is partially his own fault. He spent most of the past two years fearmongering over the city’s pandemic-era crime spike.
For now, Adams is lucky. In 1977, as the city staggered out of the shadow of the fiscal crisis, every Democrat of note wanted to challenge the beleaguered Mayor Abe Beame. Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug, Percy Sutton, Herman Badillo and Ed Koch all took their best shots, and Koch succeeded in ousting Beame. Today, their relative equivalents – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, and Kathryn Garcia – seem content to wait until Adams is term-limited. Some, like AOC, may never run for mayor at all. Others, like Garcia, could run in due time. They might want to wait and see just how thick the scandal clouds get.
Ross Barkan is a writer, journalist and former State Senate candidate.