The New Identity Politics of Eric Adams

“He likes, and is liked by, both of his immediate predecessors, Bill de Blasio and Mike Bloomberg, two former mayors who happen to repel one another. He was a victim of police brutality as a teenager who then became a cop, who then became a critic of the department’s treatment of Black cops, who then became the most pro-cop candidate in the 2021 mayor’s race. He has made crime his top priority, while also keeping at least some social justice and progressive allies by his side. He has said he will meet with anybody, however unsavory the character, but rejects the idea that he might be unsavory by association. He does not identify as a technocrat or an ideologue. His aides describe his goal as reversing inequality citywide — but his agenda is best understood as a desire to restore something more ephemeral to his hometown: a feeling, a sense of confidence. He wants, simply stated, “to reenergize the spirit of New York.”

In a city of weird people and weird mayors, Adams is maybe the most idiosyncratic figure to ever hold the office. And yet he has presented himself as a national model, a new brand of politics for others to emulate, built on the notion that you can be two or more things at once. If this is a good model for his party, torn in an existential crisis about what it means to be progressive or a moderate, establishment or anti-establishment, it’s a hard one to replicate. He is telling politicians they don’t have to choose. They can, in fact, be everything, assuming they want to be. Adams has called himself the new “face of the Democratic Party,” and it’s one of the few labels he is willing to embrace, but there’s no easy way to nail down what it will mean today, tomorrow, or the day after that. It’s an instruction manual where all the parts fit in all the sockets. By his own description, Adams is “perfectly imperfect,” embracing his many facets as a feature rather than a bug — and thus leaving open the possibility for … well, anything.”

“Adams has spent his early days in office trying to restore public safety. Born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and raised in South Jamaica, Queens, he was arrested and beaten by NYPD officers at the age of 15, after he and his brother stole from a prostitute who had failed to pay Adams back for errands he’d run for her while she was injured, according a retelling of the story in the Atlantic. “He has lived a lot of regular life experiences — unfortunate ones,” said Adam Clayton Powell IV, a friend and former state assemblymember, “but ones that have built his character and have made him who he is.” Crime, and his own history with it, was the centerpiece of the Adams campaign, and it was enough to set him apart from a field of dozen rivals. But the mayor has national ambitions, too, though they are not as easily defined as, say, a presidential run, or an ideological crusade. Instead, he wants the party to free itself of litmus tests, lanes and labels.

“Politics is about reaching inside somebody and telling them something about themselves,” said Evan Thies, a senior campaign adviser who still helps manage Adams’ politics. “And the way Eric is doing that is by saying, ‘Look, I’m unapologetic about who I am — and who I am is multitudes. Who you are is multitudes.’ You don’t have to be a narrow version of yourself. By pushing back when anyone tells him he can’t be that person, he makes people feel comfortable about themselves.”

During the campaign, it didn’t take long for Adams to notice that while he restated a simple message tied to his own story — “public safety is a prerequisite to prosperity” — the other candidates were, in his estimation, trying to be “heard” rather than “felt” on policy and politics. “Look at the people I ran against. They were scholars. They were extremely bright. Maya Wiley, Shaun Donovan. Uh, for God sakes, Ray McGuire! I sat down in a restaurant with Ray McGuire, and he ordered a complete meal, speaking French. I’m like, ‘Damn,’” he says. “But Democrats need to start wanting to be felt. You go into these meetings and people start saying, ‘I passed bill HR such-and-such,’ and, ‘Do you know the Child Safety Act?’ It’s just not resonating with people.””