New York City

Eric Adams, election cyclist

Eric Adams rehabbed his block and his body. Is the borough president fit to be New York City’s next mayor?

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams Photo by Sean Pressley

Eric Adams wants to be the next mayor of New York City. But you probably already knew that. The Democrat’s been talking to everyone about it since he became Brooklyn borough president in 2014. He’s been talking to politicians about it since he became a state senator in 2007. And he’s been talking to his friends about it since he became a New York City Police Department captain in 2005.

Those aren’t the only bullet points on his mayoral resume.Adams has also been a police reform advocate, a neighborhood organizer, a healthy eating guru – even a Republican. But on a hot, sunny Saturday morning in July, Adams was a cyclist.

Adams rides his bicycle every single day. “A combination of commute and therapy,” he said. It’s part of Adams’ daily regimen, which includes a strict adherence to a plant-based diet that helped reverse his diabetes and has become one of his major public platforms over the past couple years. But throughout all the career changes in his life, this focus on self-improvement has been a guiding principle for Adams. Now 57 years old and healthier than ever, Adams wants to do the same thing for New York City government: make it better and faster. After all, if Adams could improve himself, then why can’t he improve the five boroughs?

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams
Photo by Sean Pressley
When I rode up three minutes early to the Adams’ three-story brick townhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the borough president was already outside, standing next to his bike. Conducting the interview while biking was my idea, but less than five minutes into the ride Adams started raving about the view of the city he gets on two wheels. “When you’re biking, you get to really see the crevices of the community,” he said. “And it’s a different feel.”

As if on cue, a black family waved at us from their stoop on Stuyvesant Avenue, near the block where Spike Lee filmed “Do the Right Thing.” “How you doing, how’s your daughter?” Adams shouted. It was the first of more than a dozen times the borough president was greeted on our ride – a number that would have been more impressive if Adams hadn’t tipped the scales by wearing a polo shirt with “BROOKLYN BOROUGH PRESIDENT” emblazoned in boldon the back. Forgoing a helmet, he also wore a borough president baseball cap.

It’s a bit bland, but Adams is used to a uniform. He joined the NYPD in 1984 and retired 22 years later as a captain. While he rose through the official ranks, he also rose in stature as a critic of the department, most prominently as the leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a position in which he regularly took NYPD leadership to task on issues both racial and procedural. And that didn’t make advancement easy.

“You’re talking about criticizing an institution that was unacceptable to criticize,” Adams said. “It was a lesson that I was reminded (of) when I was studying to be a lieutenant and somebody shot out my car windows.” He also found a dead rat in his locker – more than once.

“Everyone believes either you’re progressive or you’re conservative. I just don’t fit into those lines.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio will be term-limited out of office at the end of 2021, and somebody new will replace him. Adams wants to be that guy, and his stock is rising. His campaign raised $915,000 in the first six months of 2018, more than anybody else registered with the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and more than his chief rivals in the silent primary for mayor, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Adams also lucked out politically. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James appears to be the favorite for state attorney general, a position that opened when former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned following the disclosure of multiple accusations of violence and abuse against women. James and Adams are both black, both in their late 50s and once represented overlapping districts in Central Brooklyn – she in the City Council, he in the state Senate. Running against her for mayor would be a demographic challenge, but a challenge that Adams now seems increasingly likely to avoid. Ditto for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, another potentialblack mayoral candidate from Central Brooklyn, and Adams’ longtime political rival. With Rep. Joseph Crowley losing his seat in Congress, Jeffries has a clearer path to power in Washington, making it less likely he’d jeopardize that for a 2021 mayoral run.

The borough president has been gaming out his campaign strategy with potential donors. Adams expects to win over black voters, but asThe New York Times reported, he told attendees at a private April meeting that he’d also have to “out-white” Stringer in the race, winning over white voters who may otherwise prefer Stringer, who is white and Jewish.

Adams confirmed that he made the remark and defended it as a “joke,” but the man who once led the 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care organization isn’t shy about that fact that winning over outer-borough white voters is at the core of his strategy. Bayside, Bath Beach, Bensonhurst – Adams said he will campaign “in those communities that traditionally many African-Americans wrote off. … I think that my message does not stop at those traditional quote-unquote black voting blocs,” he said.

It’s been a long time since a black mayoral candidate focused on winning over outer-borough whites. “The last African-American candidate who really tried that goes back to Percy Sutton in 1977,” said Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and voter data expert with Prime New York. Despite headquartering his campaign in Queens, Sutton lost in the Democratic primary to Ed Koch. Skurnik said that President Barack Obama followed a similar strategy nationwide to win over moderate white voters in the 2008 presidential election, but Democratic primary voters may be different now than they were then, with a noted shift in enthusiasm toward the party’s more progressive wing. “(Adams) is betting on that it’s not the new reality. That if he gives them a reason to vote, they’ll come out to vote,” Skurnik said of the candidate’s focus on moderates. “It’s to be determined. I don’t know the answer.”

Adams has built a political profile that could be palatable to moderate white voters. He defines himself as pro-business and has a long record of supporting charter schools. While many progressives criticize de Blasio’s affordable housing program for not serving enough low-income New Yorkers, Adams argues for more housing for middle-income earners: “the teacher and the accountant, the principal and the cop.” And, most surprisingly, calls himself “extremely conservative on crime.”

Asked to elaborate, Adams said he believed solitary confinement was necessary in some cases. The de Blasio administration has moved to limit solitary confinement in city jails. But the rest of Adams’ record doesn’t seem to jibe with his own “extremely conservative” title. Adams is in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana; he was an outspoken critic of aggressive policing tactics like stop and frisk; and he was an early supporter of the city decriminalizing petty offenses like biking on the sidewalk. (Fittingly, Adams did so at one point on our ride. He also once rode the wrong way on a one-way street.)

New York City Councilman Brad Lander, a progressive from Brooklyn, said Adams’ “extremely conservative” description didn’t square with reality. “He’s been a good ally on police reform issues. I can’t tell you what he meant by that,” Lander told City & State.

Lander praised Adams’ “credibility” on policing and neighborhood safety issues, even noting, unprompted, Adams’ activism on an issue more often associated with white communities.

“On street safety, he’s one of the real leaders – on Vision Zero, on cycling and pedestrian safety, against reckless driving,” Lander said. “Not always an issue you would necessarily expect an African-American leader to choose to really be out front and lead on.”

“If you were to go to Scott Stringer right now and say, ‘Are you running for mayor,’ he’ll say ‘no.’ … I don’t like those games.”

Adams can be hard to classify politically. “Everyone believes either you’re progressive or you’re conservative,” he said. “Everyone has these lines. And I just don’t fit into those lines.” Borough presidents can introduce bills in the City Council, and Adams’ own record is a political hodgepodge. He sponsored a pair of tenant safety bills, including one to crack down on illegal home conversions that passed despite opposition from some tenant advocates. He focused on new parents, sponsoring a bill to require lactation rooms in many public buildings and another that sends parents information about saving for college within three months of a child’s birth. Both passed unanimously. But the former cop avoided introducing any public safety bills, save for a resolution, which didn’t pass, supporting a firearm safety bill in the state Legislature.

In the state Senate, Adams was a loyal member of the Democratic conference over his seven years in Albany, from 2007 through 2013, a period in which he was linked to corruption allegations. He was criticized by the state inspector general for his role in the awarding of a contract for expanded gambling at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. Adams was also mentioned in a 2013 federal investigation into corruption among state lawmakers. The FBI never confirmed Adams was a target, and no charges were filed. Later, as borough president, federal and city investigators probed the flow of money through his nonprofit, One Brooklyn Fund, though no charges were filed. Everything is in compliance, he said of the nonprofit. “I don’t think there’s been an elected official that has been more scrutinized than I have,” he said.

As a state senator, Adams was known for emotional floor speeches advocating for issues as varied as raising legislators’ pay, legalizing same-sex marriage and the racial balance of the state Senate. He didn’t shy from controversy, but his most contentious move may have been sponsoring a campaign encouraging the young, mostly black men of his district to pull up their sagging pants – a move he still defends as preventing young people from feeding negative stereotypes.

When Adams became borough president in 2014, in a race in which he faced no serious opposition, he endorsed Jesse Hamilton to replace him in the state Senate. Hamilton would go on to win the seat, and is still one of Adams’ close political allies, even after Hamilton joined the Independent Democratic Conference, which was criticized for forming an alliance that helped keep state Senate Republicans in power before disbanding in April.

But Adams hasn’t shied away from prominent progressives. He invited gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon to tour a New York City Housing Authority project with him in March. Nixon has recently been calling herself a democratic socialist, just like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who also toured NYCHA housing with Adams during his 2016 presidential run. Neither of these were political endorsements, and Adams said he just uses elections to draw attention to issues that are important to him, such as the state of NYCHA apartments.

But Adams said he did vote for Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary. It wasn’t the first time Adams has bucked the party. Adams was a registered Republican from 1995 to 2002. This was during a time of high crime in the city, Adams said, and the Democratic Party wasn’t addressing it. “There was a level of frustration as a cop,” he said. “What I saw on the ground was not translated from the Democratic leadership. It was severe frustration and just anger every day seeing the shootings, the robberies, people living in fear.”

Even in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 6-to-1, Adams said he doesn’t think his time with the GOP would be a big issue in a run for mayor, since voters will just consider his record. The borough president may have a chance to test this theory – and his entire electoral strategy – before 2021. If James wins the attorney general’s race, there would likely be a special election for her public advocate seat sometime in early 2019. And if that happens, Adams said he would consider running, if it would set him up better for a 2021 mayoral run. When it comes to seeking higher office, Adams prides himself on his honesty, even attacking other potential candidates who have been slightly more coy about their ambitions.

“If you were to go to Scott Stringer right now and say, ‘Are you running for mayor,’ he’ll say, ‘No.’ Yeah, well what the hell is the (campaign) account for?” Adams asked. “I don’t like those games. People want people who are honest. So my goal is citywide. I don’t know what that pathway is going to look like.”

Stringer has not officially declared a run for mayor with the New York City Campaign Finance Board – but neither has Adams. Stringer declined to comment.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams on a bike
Photo by Sean Pressley
Adams’ bike is a dark gray Jamis Citizen – a hardy, mid-tier model tailor-made for commuters who don’t want to bend over the handlebars. We rode slowly, talking the whole way. Passing buses occasionally interrupted the conversation, as did shouted directions from Adams’ communications director, Stefan Ringel, who rode in front of us. We pedaled south, passing the million-dollar brownstones of Bed-Stuy and into Crown Heights, where kids played basketball in St. John’s Park.

Adams grew up nearby, on Gates Avenue in Bushwick. Then his mother saved up enough money as a domestic worker to buy a house. So at age 7, Eric and his five siblings moved to Jamaica, Queens. Adams moved back to Brooklyn at 18 and stayed, now living alone on the ground floor of the Bed-Stuy townhouse. Never married, Adams has one son who is in his early 20s. When he bought the building in 2003, Adams said the block was filled with empty lots and homes with boarded up windows. But he organized the block, worked with his neighbors and turned it around. He encouraged other members of the 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care group to do the same, using their steady law enforcement salaries to buy property in distressed neighborhoods and fix things up. Adams said he did the same thing for his previous apartment, a co-op on Prospect Place.

“That place was horrific when I moved in,” he said. “A lot of crime. We organized the block. We used to do tenant patrols, safety patrols. We would sit out on the corners, and slowly people began to trust each other.”

Adams truly believes in the power of the individual to change one’s circumstances. Pull up your pants, clean up your block, start saving money for college and eat healthy. It all worked for Adams. Diagnosed with diabetes in 2016, Adams was losing his vision, and doctors told him his hands and feet may have to be amputated. But Adams switched to a plant-based diet, starting every day with a kale and fruit smoothie and eating oatmeal and more fruit for lunch. (Not vegan, he explained: “Vegans drink Coca-Cola and eat Oreo cookies.”) He lost 35 pounds, reversed his diabetes and became a healthy eating zealot, touring local churches and granting interviews to everyhealthy livingwebsiteimaginable to talk about his lifestyle.

It’s what brought us to a farmers market in Brownsville, the turnaround point of our bicycle journey. Three tables were stocked with carrots, kale, peaches and more, and the tent on Pitkin Avenue, in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, was receiving a steady stream of buyers. But Adams lamented its small size, comparing it to the massive Greenmarket at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, in a wealthier neighborhood. If we come back next year, he said, “I want this to take up the block.”

Adams’ main critique of city government is that the electedleaders lack vision. If Adams were mayor, he’d get the city back into the affordable housing business, creating Mitchell-Lama-type programs to provide middle-class New Yorkers with subsidized mortgages. If Adams were mayor, there would be more rooftop gardens in low-income neighborhoods, providing New Yorkers with fresh fruits and vegetables. If Adams were mayor, the city would be governed in real-time, with trackable metrics so that NYCHA would know when and where boilers aren’t providing heat for tenants.

But when it comes to citywide initiatives, Adams is not the mayor – he’s still campaigning in poetry, not yet governing in prose. He speaks in quips (“It’s not DNA, it’s our dinner,” he said about hereditary disease), but Adams made it clear that this wasn’t just to keep me entertained on our bike ride. He’s thinking about all 5 million registered voters in 2021, the 3.9 million of them who didn’t vote for mayor last year, and how he can draw those cynics to the polls.

“I think they are not connected. They are disenchanted. They don’t believe politics speaks to their everyday needs. That’s why they don’t come out. That’s why their numbers are so low,” Adams said. “We can’t just be informational. We have to be inspirational. People have to be inspired again.”

We rode back from the market to Adams’ street, and finished up our interview standing near his front stoop. The 2021 race is still years away, and it will be weeks before we even know whether there will be a public advocate’s race in 2019. Adams still has a lot more time to talk about healthy eating, to build political relationships, to raise money. I expected Adams to go inside, but instead he mounted his bike again and started to ride. “Where are you off to?” his aide, Ringel, shouted after the swiftly shrinking borough president. “I got a couple more stops!” Adams said with a bright smile, as he rode off.

NEXT STORY: Who's up and who's down this week?

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