Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams knows he has a reputation for making surprising comments, like a few weeks ago when he said Andrew Yang had “never held a job in his entire life.” But if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he’s not controversial, he’s “bold” – and that’s what New Yorkers like about him.
“Eric Adams resonates with New York. New Yorkers, we have an edge,” Adams told City & State.
Adams has worked on behalf of New York City for most of his career, first as a police officer for more than two decades, then as a state senator and currently as Brooklyn borough president. Now the Brooklyn native is hoping to become a different kind of mayor. “I am going to be the first blue-collar mayor,” he told City & State in November.
Identifying as a “pragmatic progressive,” Adams is running to the right of many candidates in the race who are trying to appeal to the city’s growing progressive faction.
Adams was a registered Republican during the late 1990s before switching to become a Democrat ahead of his run for state Senate in 2006 and overwhelming victory in the general election. From 2007 through 2013, he represented District 20, which included Brownsville, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Sunset Park.
Regardless of how his actions and ideas differ from progressives in the mayoral race, Adams has been in second place in most of the polls to date.
“I do think there is an effort congealing to not only push back on (Andrew) Yang but to push back on Eric Adams as well,” Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change, which has been supporting New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer for mayor, told The New York Times. “Both of them are not really aligned with the progressive movement.”
Adams was first elected Brooklyn borough president in 2013 and he has used the post to tackle a wide range of issues, from health to housing. Adams has pushed for the expansion of Citi Bikes in low-income areas of Brooklyn, awarded more than $165 million to Brooklyn schools, hosted financial literacy workshops for residents and taken steps to make Borough Hall greener as well as advocated for greater storm resiliency efforts.
He has been criticized for his close ties to the city’s real estate industry, from which he has received a considerable amount of campaign funds. Between 2015 and 2019, it is estimated that Adams has received $322,750 in donations that were given to either his One Brooklyn Fund or to his campaign from lobbyists or developers, according to a report from The City.
Accepting real estate money has become frowned upon in the past couple years by progressives. Left-leaning political candidates are now expected to reject such donations. “At this point real estate money is toxic,” Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, told Gotham Gazette in 2020. “It’s a testament to the tenant movement that real estate money has become basically a litmus test that you can’t run in New York as a progressive if you take it, no one’s going to take you seriously.”
Adams has also taken some heat for accepting free trips (worth thousands of dollars) to nations that have a history of human rights violations, such as Azerbaijan, Turkey and China. Adams said in taking those trips he was agreeing to requests from his constituents to visit their home countries.
Another part of his record that upsets progressives is his support for new developments in Brooklyn that have contributed to gentrification and the displacement of residents.
Between 2016 and 2017, developer Two Trees Management needed the city’s approval to install artificial turf at the former Domino Sugar site, right next to its new condo development that was just about to open. At the time a foundation connected to the Walentas family, which owns Two Trees, gave at least $25,000 to the One Brooklyn Fund and David Lombino, the managing director of Two Trees, sat on the fund’s board. The park opened in the summer of 2018, and included the artificial turf portion.
In March 2020, Adams said he supported the plan to rezone Industry City, which would’ve added more than 1 million square feet of new development to the sprawling site. However, that summer, New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca came out against the plan and it all went downhill from there. Adams changed his position after the neighborhood made its opposition to the plan known. The site’s owners scrapped the idea in September.
Aside from land use, Adams has received countless complaints for violating the city’s permit parking laws, including printing out parking placards for his staff so they don’t get tickets for parking in illegal spaces. Much of the criticism has stemmed from the fact that he has said he’s the borough’s “break-the-car-culture elected official,” and thus has been seen as a hypocrite on this issue by safe streets advocates.
Adams’ NYPD influences
Much of Adams’ political career has been heavily influenced by his 22-year career in law enforcement. As a teenager in Brooklyn, Adams ended up on the receiving end of a beating from a couple of NYPD officers. The experience left a lasting impression on him and became his impetus to join the force, where he hoped to change the system from the inside. Adams joined the NYPD in 1984 and ascended to the rank of captain. While serving on the force, Adams became an outspoken advocate for police reforms, shocked by the department’s treatment of people of color both on and off the force. In 1989, he became chair of the Grand Council of Guardians, an organization for black officers. In 1995, he co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group of a similar ilk. Both groups were very vocal about the NYPD’s shortcomings when it came to protecting Black officers and civilians.
The borough president faced a lot of scrutiny from his fellow officers, as he spoke out against the injustices he was seeing while on the force – and has recently said he has suspicions that one of his fellow officers may have shot at him during the height of his involvement with these groups. “When I look back, I’m amazed I was able to get out of the department alive,” Adams told The City.
Adams has also said he was the subject of internal investigations on four different occasions but never received a civilian complaint. In 2006, Adams retired from the department.
His tenure with the police department, along with his personal experiences, has provided Adams with some unique insights into how the department is run that other mayoral candidates do not have. While Adams has always been outspoken when it comes to police brutality, he has taken issue with the rise of the “Defund the Police” movement that gained a lot of attention and momentum following the death of George Floyd. Like many other Black politicians in the city, Adams fears that defunding the police could lead to a rise in crime, especially in neighborhoods prone to violent crime. Adams told The New York Times in February that he does not “support taking resources away from crime fighting – especially in communities of color where shootings and other predatory crimes are on the rise.”
“Public safety and justice, they go together,” Adams said at a virtual mayoral forum in November. “And we don’t have to have one without the other. And I believe there are some quick things we can do to reallocate funding in the policing to become more proactive and not reactive.”
Mark Ungar, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, told City & State that Adams’ background as an African American officer makes him an interesting mayoral candidate “at this particular time of national dialogue (regarding police reform) in which these real proposals are actually getting traction.”
Ungar added: “He’s mentioned he wanted to transform the anti-crime unit into an anti-gun unit. That to me sort of exemplifies a good concrete, feasible and productive change. … As we all know, unfortunately, gun trafficking and the use of firearms and possession especially, is a real problem, so that to me is striking a balance that I think would serve him well as mayor.”
However, many of Adams’ own views on guns and gun ownership are still strikingly conservative.
In 2020, Adams said if elected mayor, he would carry a gun on him, rather than make use of the NYPD security detail typically provided for the mayor. Adams said that humorous comment was taken too seriously at the time. And after the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people, Adams suggested that off-duty and retired police officers attend their houses of worship with firearms in tow, which seemed reminiscent of the National Rifle Association’s approach to gun violence. New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson responded at the time by saying that’s not “how we heal and move forward.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of money Eric Adams has awarded to Brooklyn schools over his tenure as borough president.
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