Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who officially launched his run for mayor of New York City on Wednesday, is quick to draw a contrast between himself and all the previous mayors: his professional background. “I am going to be the first blue-collar mayor,” Adams, a former NYPD officer, said in an interview with City & State before his campaign kickoff. “My nails are not manicured. They’re chipped. People shake my hand, they feel the callouses.” It’s a point that Adams has made to other reporters. “I am not Ivy League,” the John Jay College of Criminal Justice alum told New York magazine. “I am just a blue-collar guy scraping along.” Perhaps wary of being fact-checked, Adams threw in a qualifier with Politico New York. “I’m potentially the first blue-collar mayor,” he said.
But is it true that Adams would be the first blue-collar mayor of New York City? Not quite, but we haven’t had a mayor with Adams’ kind of resume in 70 years.
Of course, American politics today is rife with highly educated professionals affecting a working-class persona to bolster their street cred, such as former President George W. Bush clearing brush in his brand-new ranch and playing up his Texas twang. So, before looking at past mayors, you have to consider whether Adams is even describing himself accurately.
Adams’ biography on the borough president’s website says he grew up in a working-class household with five siblings, the son of a house cleaner and a butcher. He was raised in South Jamaica, Queens, an officially designated “poverty area” by the federal government. He paid his own way through college – earning an associate’s degree at the New York City College of Technology – by working as a mechanic and in the mailroom of an accounting firm. But that wasn’t for long. He joined the New York City Police Department in 1984, working there for the next 22 years, rising up the ranks to captain. He went to night school during that time, and didn’t complete his bachelor’s degree until 1998.
Adams’ spent years literally wearing a blue-collared shirt, as part of his uniform, but is law enforcement a blue-collar job, in which somebody earns a wage through manual labor? By most definitions, one would say yes. Cops spend most of their time away from a desk, often have to wear protective gear and are unionized. You need a certain level of physical fitness to qualify for the NYPD, and while you need college credits, you don’t need a bachelor's degree. However, police officers are generally well-paid, and other unionized workers often refuse to associate with police unions, which are seen as too conservative and out of step with the ideals of the labor movement.
By rising through the ranks, Adams left blue-collar work behind. When he was promoted to lieutenant, then captain, he became management. His uniform changed accordingly, to include a white-collared shirt.
And he traded that for a suit and tie in 2006, when he was first elected to the state Senate. He got a master’s in public administration from Marist College, and he now makes a $179,200 salary as borough president and thousands more as a landlord, renting out the townhouse he owns in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Adams lived a blue-collar life in childhood and early adulthood, but he doesn’t now, and he hasn’t for years.
But looked at through that lens, no one is really blue-collar once they enter politics, so perhaps we’re being overly literal. The way Adams is talking about it, being “a blue-collar guy” isn’t just defined by his career – it’s about life experience. He feared getting evicted as a kid. He was arrested for trespassing at age 15 and brutally beaten by a cop. He went to public schools, then public colleges. He lived and patrolled in high-crime neighborhoods. His life story isn’t that of the typical politician who graduated from an expensive college and went directly into politics, with perhaps a pit stop in law school.
Like countless politicians before him, Adams is emphasizing the parts of his life that connect him with voters who don’t wear a suit and tie to work. “It’s time to have a mayor that has gone through a lot, so they will help the people who are going through a lot,” he said before his campaign kickoff.
While some recent mayors also grew up without social or economic advantage, none have had blue-collar career paths. Bill de Blasio was a political operative from a young age, after graduating from NYU. Michael Bloomberg went to Harvard Business School before he worked on Wall Street. Rudy Giuliani was a lawyer by 24.
David Dinkins faced the extreme racism of the 20th Century and enlisted in the Marines, but after his service he quickly earned degrees and became a lawyer. Ed Koch had a similar path, becoming a lawyer fresh out of the U.S Army.
But Adams’ claim becomes more strained the further back you look. William O’Dwyer, mayor from 1946 to 1950, was an immigrant from Ireland who moved to New York at age 20 and took a series of unquestionably blue-collar jobs, like carrying bricks at a construction site and tending the fire in a steamship. He then joined the police department, and served for about six years while taking law school classes before becoming a lawyer.
John Hylan, mayor from 1918 to 1925, grew up working on his family’s farm in the Catskills, then took jobs fixing railroad tracks. He worked his way up, eventually becoming a train motorman. He also became a lawyer in his 30s.
So would Adams really be the first blue-collar mayor? Not technically, because he isn’t more blue-collar than Hylan or O’Dwyer. But it’s also fair for Adams to point out that he’d arguably be the first in 70 years. And it’s perhaps less typical of candidates than it was in Hylan or O’Dwyer’s day, as the already-low number of politicians from working-class occupations has decreased in recent decades. .
Looking only at the 19 mayors since the five boroughs consolidated in 1898, Adams is atypical as somebody who worked as a police officer for decades, who didn’t get a bachelor’s degree until later in life and never studied law. Adams can hardly be blamed for playing it up on the campaign trail – even as he admits to also having some stereotypically white-collar tastes. “Here is a guy that is comfortable drinking merlot in one community or drinking a beer in another,” Adams said of himself. “And I don’t have to fake it.”
With reporting by Kimberly Gonzalez