Eric Adams’s Administration of Bluster
By Ian Parker
Mayor Eric Adams’s exuberant self-regard stops just short of biceps-kissing. He has talked in public about the warmth of his own smile. Describing “Healthy at Last,” a book that he published in 2020 about his disciplined response to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, Adams told a podcast host, “Every time I read it, I find another nugget, and say, ‘Wow! This was a good point that I made.’ ” Adams once told an audience, “I get out of the shower sometimes and I say, ‘Damn!’ ” He has said that he is the face of a new Democratic Party.
On a recent Sunday evening, Adams—who is sixty-two and was born in Brooklyn, although he has sometimes said that he was born elsewhere—was in a restaurant on the Upper West Side. His shirt was white and uncreased, and he wore a stud earring, an adornment that he adopted while running for mayor. He removes the stud ahead of events likely to have a more serious tenor, as if lowering a flag to half-mast. Adams ordered French fries and, unprompted, said, “This is going to be one of the most fascinating mayoralties in history.” He later added, “Anyone who believes there’s not a God, they need to watch my journey.”
Adams is well into his second year in office, but his mayoralty still has a victory-night air. He often repeats a phrase that makes a parable of his electoral success, by linking it to stories about his troubled teen-age years which became central to his campaign: “Dyslexic, arrested, rejected—now I’m elected!” Adams likes to ask, “When does the hard part start?,” although there are members of his staff who wish that he wouldn’t. He has said that if God had found the Eric Adams story less compelling he “could have made me the mayor of Topeka.” (Michael Padilla, Topeka’s mayor, responded by saying that he, for one, values humility.)
A politician without ego is unlikely to get elected. And a politician’s identity can buoy constituents, even before new policies have been enacted: Adams is the city’s second Black mayor, after David Dinkins, but its first working-class Black mayor from an outer-borough family. Yet Adams still seems unusual, in a democratic setting, for the extent to which he treats his own self—both his physical presence and his biography, as relayed in a few truncated scenes—like a civic asset, and a form of government. In the late eighties, when Adams was in the New York City transit police, he could bring a little order to a beery Coney Island subway car just by stepping onto it. His mayoralty attempts to reënact this stance. To borrow from the Jadakiss song that played as Adams approached a hotel-ballroom stage on Election Night, he runs a “The Champ Is Here” administration. The Mayor doesn’t paint a picture of a brighter future; he invites us to be inspired by him. When Hillary Clinton interviewed Adams, at the start of his term, she began with the softest softball: What were his priorities for the city? He replied not with his agenda but with his story, in which he overcame youthful “dark moments” to pursue “justice and safety.” (Becoming mayor, he assured Clinton, was “a natural transition for me.”)
Mayor Adams attends all his budget and land-use meetings, which are largely held on Zoom, and at which he is likely to be seen bobbing on an exercise machine. He’ll ask sensible questions and then thank colleagues for “delivering good product.” He monitors municipal data, most often by reviewing spreadsheets on an iPad in the back of his mayoral Suburban. And he regularly confers with the half-dozen deputy mayors who have offices in the northwest corner of City Hall, near his, and who oversee the commissioners running the departments that employ some three hundred thousand people.
But his overriding instinct is to find ways to be visible. Adams’s diary of official events seems far fuller than those of his predecessors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg. They might have been glad to skip, say, a Croatian flag-raising, or a mayoral forum on drones. New York is now led by someone who takes deep pleasure in the pleasure people take in seeing him. Adams recently told an audience, of his visits to an outreach center for unhoused people, “If you can see their faces when they walk down the line and they’re given food—and they see their mayor!” (Adams has dismissed less responsive constituents as “naysayers,” “haters,” and “little people.”)
Adams also has a personal schedule, which includes cigar-bar time with his son, Jordan Coleman, and late nights at Zero Bond, a members’ club in NoHo. One spring evening, I saw Adams at a boxing event, in midtown, that pitted members of the Police Department against members of the Fire Department. He was drinking cocktails with Johnny Petrosyants, a friend who is a restaurateur and a convicted felon. When we’d met for dinner a few weeks earlier, Adams had agreed that he could be thought of as someone trying to embody New York. As one of his advisers told me, “To him, he is the city, because he’s running the city.”
To sustain this ambition, Adams follows a self-care regimen that includes meditation, a diet rich in plants, naps in the car—and the kind of breathing exercises that he has ordered city schools to teach, and that he encourages his staffers to emulate. Rachel Atcheson, a close adviser, told me, without complaint, that under Adams’s influence she now sleeps with her mouth taped shut, “in order to force myself to breathe through my nose.” (Her dreams, she said, have become more vivid.) Adams defends his life-style enthusiasms but isn’t always earnest about them. When I sounded skeptical of Wim Hof, a Dutch ice-bath evangelist whose program Adams has started to follow, he laughed, saying, “You’re going to call my idol a lunatic?”
Adams’s schedule keeps him in contact with voters and donors, and shows him to be comfortable in any room, ready to hear people out. But his daily zigzagging across the city doesn’t create confidence about his administration’s likely impact on sustained municipal problems. His old friend Norman Siegel, a civil-rights lawyer and the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, recently said, “Sometimes I look at those events in the evenings and think, Why the fuck is he going to this thing?” Siegel recalled dryly suggesting to a mayoral-communications staffer that the staffer arrange a photo op of Adams sitting at his desk.
At the eighteen-month point in de Blasio’s administration, tens of thousands of four- and five-year-olds had finished a year in a new program of free pre-K education. The Adams administration—working in admittedly more straitened times—has no equivalent achievement. Mayor Adams can point to any number of smaller initiatives—composting, free Internet in public housing—and can note a plan to create fourteen hundred new shelter beds for people who are unhoused, even as the city contends with an unprecedented influx of tens of thousands of asylum seekers. But if Adams stepped down tomorrow he might be remembered largely for a baffling redesign of the “I ❤️ NY” logo, and for his willingness to recognize—or, in the eyes of critics, to recklessly amplify—the fear of crime felt by some residents. Last year, Adams proposed, with wild inaccuracy, that the city was more crime-ridden than he’d ever known it. (Recent crime increases haven’t brought city crime anywhere close to the peak of the late eighties and early nineties.)
At the restaurant, the Mayor picked at his fries, and talked, as he has many times, about his shock on learning, in his mid-fifties, that he was diabetic. “Everything broke at one time,” he said. “It was frightening.” He couldn’t see in one eye; his fingers tingled. Adams has claimed that six doctors he consulted said nothing about diet, and could promise only medication and future amputations. In his telling, he switched overnight to a plant-based diet, and within weeks he’d lost considerable weight and seen a “reversal” of his disease. “It’s empowering to know that you could not be imprisoned by medicine,” he told me.
His remarks on this theme went in some odd directions, as his remarks often do. He talked up a company that sells at-home gut-microbiome tests. But he could also point me to policy—to changes that his administration has made to the menus of schools and hospitals. Food is a favored topic. It allows Adams to connect political action to personal anecdote, a rhetorical move that’s harder to pull off for most issues pressing on City Hall—say, the huge annual cost of police overtime (eight hundred million dollars) or inmate deaths in the dysfunctional jails on Rikers Island. An argument for eating more beans is where municipal politics looks most like the online inspirational videos that Adams enjoys. With food, he has a story about taking control and, against élite expectations, turning things around. He often sounds frustrated that people don’t characterize his mayoralty in exactly these terms.
“Remember, our minds are hard-wired to hear stories,” Adams told me. He got ready to leave, having eaten perhaps four fries. He explained that he had two more dinners scheduled. That night, then, he was giving a number of New Yorkers the opportunity to tell a story about sitting down to dinner with the Mayor, which is almost the same thing as eating dinner with the Mayor. Adams eventually headed out to Brooklyn, where, among other things, he shopped for sweatshirts and visited a pop-up art gallery. At a party celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of hip-hop, he appeared onstage with Ice-T.
Evan Thies, a key political adviser to Adams, recently described the months leading up to his client’s election as mayor, in 2021: “Within a year, we went from ‘Everybody hates the police—got to defund them,’ to the guy who wins is an ex-cop who is saying the opposite.” Thies’s sense of achievement is understandable. Of New York’s fifty-one City Council members, all but six are Democrats, and twenty-one are in the progressive caucus that considers police reform an urgent priority. The Mayor is a former Republican whose political character has been shaped largely by a police career. One can fairly think of his election as the N.Y.P.D.’s arrival in City Hall. If that points to potential virtues in an Adams mayoralty—indefatigability, perhaps; an alertness to working-class and outer-borough interests; trains running on time—it’s also easy to detect, in his administration, the N.Y.P.D.’s historical weaknesses. These include an immense appetite for deference, and a readiness to think of external scrutiny as an affront. Adams shares some rhetorical habits with Patrick Lynch, the combative, Trump-endorsing former head of the Police Benevolent Association, the biggest police union in the city. For Adams, criticism is “demonization”; investigation is “disrespect.”
When I asked Thies about the mayoral campaign, he described a turning point, in 2018, when he heard Adams address a church congregation. Adams was then in his second term as Brooklyn borough president—largely a ribbon-cutting and mayoral-prep role. As Thies recalls it, Adams talked about how his diabetes scare, two years earlier, had led him to “a bigger-picture way of thinking about the world, and his place in it,” and how, as a police officer, he’d often scarfed down “a bunch of cheeseburgers from McDonald’s” without realizing “that this was a bad idea.” Thies was taken aback: “I thought, That might be the first vulnerable thing I’ve ever heard him say.”
Adams, who joined the transit police in 1984, eleven years before it merged with the N.Y.P.D., has said that he felt the first stirrings of mayoral ambition in the early nineties. His former N.Y.P.D. colleague Corey Pegues, a drug dealer turned cop who, like Adams, grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, remembers hearing Adams talk about having “a twelve-year plan” to become mayor. Pegues told me, “Took a little more than twelve years. But, damn it, he did it.” In one of my conversations with Adams this spring, he said, “I never thought for one moment I was not going to be mayor. Never.”
Adams retired from the N.Y.P.D. as a captain, in 2006. He went on to secure four two-year terms in the New York State Senate, representing a district in central Brooklyn. He was elected borough president in 2013 and 2017. But in six elections Adams had never faced a serious challenger, not even in a primary. Frank Carone, a lawyer and a Brooklyn Democratic power broker who became Mayor Adams’s first chief of staff, in 2022, recently explained how Adams had come to run unopposed in the 2013 primary. “We knocked some folks off the ballot,” he told me, in a businesslike way. “Some other folks, we spoke to.”
Adams could be a powerful public speaker, but he had the unsmiling manner of a police officer who’s had about enough of your bullshit. As a first-term state senator, he made his mark by pressing for higher pay for state senators. (On the Senate floor, in Albany, he demanded, “Show me the money!”) A decade ago, he gave an address to graduating students at Medgar Evers College, in Brooklyn, in which, dispensing with celebration, he told them to smarten up. There was an echo of a billboard campaign that he’d launched in 2010, “Stop the Sag!,” which was ostensibly pitched at under-belted young men—“raise your pants, raise your image!”—but could also be described as a ploy for media attention. Adams, who around this time drove a BMW convertible and wore a thin strip of mustache, informed his audience that, as a public official, he met some of “the most intelligent, attractive ladies” in the city. He added, “And I’m not going to take you anywhere if you’ve got a tattoo on your neck with two cherries saying ‘Lick Me.’ It ain’t happening.”
In 2018, Adams no longer had a mustache. He had recently bought an apartment with his partner, Tracey Collins, a New York City schools administrator. The long balcony of their home—toward the top of a thirty-one-story building in Fort Lee, New Jersey—offered a panorama of Manhattan’s skyline. It was minutes from one of the properties owned by Johnny Petrosyants and his twin, Robert, who in 2014 were convicted in a medical-billing-fraud case. Adams’s son had been brought up in Hackensack, New Jersey, where his mother, a former Daily News reporter, lived with her partner. Adams also owned two properties in Brooklyn: a co-op in Prospect Heights and a house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, whose basement apartment he kept as his own.
By 2018, Adams and Thies were years into discussions about a mayoral run in 2021, when de Blasio’s second term would end. But they had barely discussed policy. “The message conversation really starts once you’re about to declare,” Thies told me, describing a path to City Hall that would have sounded familiar to a candidate running a hundred years ago. The first objective was viability: “It’s about building support politically, and knowing you’re going to be able to pay for a campaign—you know, the logistics, the machinery.” Adams, who had been registered as a Republican for several years at the turn of the millennium, and whose career had not been defined by sustained ideological commitments, was building an unusual coalition that came to include Black homeowners, Orthodox Jewish communities, and some key unions and real-estate interests. He’d set up an organization, One Brooklyn Fund, that accepted donations to finance events that promoted the borough—and promoted the borough president, too. Between columns of Brooklyn Borough Hall, he’d hung a banner showing his face.
Adams had always presented himself as “a very in-control, powerful person,” Thies said. “Because he is! But that doesn’t always work in politics. You need to show you’re human—you’re like everyone else. You need to say, ‘I can lead you because I am you.’ ”
Adams’s account of burger-scarfing was a useful “crack in the façade,” Thies continued. “That was the beginning of this process of unlocking his story in a way that we could then use.” Thies and Nathan Smith, a strategist who later became Adams’s campaign director, extracted more biographical material. “He wasn’t used to digging in his past like that,” Thies said. “It was ‘Eric, I know your family struggled when you were growing up. Tell me stories.’ ”
In one conversation with Thies and Smith, Adams talked, laughing, about how his mother had always told him and his five siblings to be ready with a Plan B. Thies explained to me, “Eric said, ‘Sometimes she would send us to school with a garbage bag full of clothes, because she didn’t know if the marshals were going to come.’ Nathan and I were, like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s a striking visual.’ And it went into the stump speech.” So, eventually, did the phrase “I am you.” Thies also recalled Smith telling Adams, “Eric, you’re very attractive. Please smile more. Your base loves it.”
Thies said that, in recent years, Adams has become “much more open—and, I think, happier and more centered.” He added, “There’s a little bit of therapy in running for office. It can make you reveal things to yourself about yourself.” Adams has thanked Thies for having “captured my voice.”
Between 2018 and 2021, Adams appeared on dozens of podcasts with names such as “Plantstrong” and “Spiritual Shit,” and talked primarily about his response to diabetes. He sometimes recorded three or four episodes in a day. He attested to the power of turmeric, the importance of doing one’s own medical research, and the grim contents of his fridge at the start of 2016. “It was all processed,” he once said. “It was all heavy with sugar, heavy with fat, heavy with processed oil. And I just threw it all out.” He frequently allowed himself to be introduced as a vegan, and once or twice said that he was one. Adams proposed that, as mayor, he’d bring food issues into every classroom. “How many apples does it take to make a salad? That is math,” he said. Or, for geography: “Where does a banana come from?”
When the pandemic began, Adams sometimes tied his food journey to that crisis. Before a vaccine was developed, he argued, rashly, that a diet like his enhances a person’s immunity, and that natural immunity is the “best defense against viruses.” (Unusually for an elected official, Adams had announced, at a public event in 2018, that he didn’t need a flu shot that year; he’d also said, falsely, that the “jury is still out” on whether the M.M.R. vaccine causes autism. Later, he didn’t hesitate to support the COVID vaccines.) In pandemic-era interviews, Adams correctly noted that by mitigating preëxisting conditions he’d reduced his risk of severe illness from covid. But this led him to refer pitilessly to those less fortunate: an ambulance will be “taking your butt to the hospital, where you are going to die,” he said.
The wellness conversations prepared Adams for the storytelling campaign to come. But a self-approving account of a personal transformation doesn’t exactly signal “I am you.” Adams’s clearer message was, as he once put it, “You could be the you you’ve always wanted to be.” When on the campaign trail Adams began describing himself as “perfectly imperfect,” it was with the implication that his imperfections were obstacles, such as dyslexia, that he’d already overcome. Later, in 2022, he had to deploy “perfectly imperfect” to stave off criticism, after Politico reported that Adams wasn’t a strict vegan: he ate fish. He initially denied this; he denied to me, untruthfully, that he’d ever claimed to be a vegan. His statements about diet continue to surprise. Adams told me, “If I see a piece of chicken, I’m going to nibble on it.”
On the health podcasts, Adams was never coy about his political ambitions. But he also seemed to be claiming a place among inspirational speakers—to be a guru-in-training. In one conversation, Adams enthused about the way that, thanks to ted talks, YouTube, and podcasts, “an accumulation of believers are now at a centralized spot, out there in this place we call cyber.” He went on, “We’re going to start to see believers start to come together, and build these communities and these colonies. . . . That excites me—that I can go out and find other believers, and I believe our energy, our vibration, will start to deal with some of the major issues that have held us back.” If Adams was talking primarily about dietary views not embraced by the medical mainstream, he was also open to a broader agenda of woo-woo thinking. He once declared a “firm” belief in reincarnation, and described a previous life as an ancient Sumerian.
Adams often brought up Joe Dispenza, the author of such books as “You Are the Placebo” (2014). Adams told me that Dispenza is still one of his favorite writers. Dispenza, a chiropractor by training, writes self-help books that draw on his scientific reading. “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself” (2012) proposes an interconnectedness among people, across time and space, akin to quantum entanglement in particle physics. (Adams has publicly referred to quantum entanglement.) The book cites a paper that Leonard Leibovici, an Israeli medical researcher, published in the British Medical Journal in 2001. Leibovici had directed prayers, from afar, toward a randomized sample of hospital patients with infections. The results appeared to show that prayed-for patients had done better: shorter infections, fewer deaths. Dispenza doesn’t note that Leibovici’s paper was published in an annual holiday issue featuring experiments on absurd topics: unicycles, lost teaspoons. The absurdity in Leibovici’s paper, which was plainly satirical, was that he’d studied retroactive prayer: the measured infections had all run their course, fatal or not, years before Leibovici offered prayers. Dispenza tells readers the experiment shows that “our intentions, our thoughts and feelings, and our prayers not only affect our present or future, but they can actually affect our past.” Extending the self-help truism of creating a better future, Dispenza dangles the possibility of creating a better past.
A few weeks ago, I heard Adams speak at the Bethel Gospel Assembly, in Harlem. Adams, who has claimed a history of fighting in boxing matches, told the congregation, “I was so good in the gym—but I’d get knocked out in the ring.” In the spring of 2021, Adams made a campaign stop at Gleason’s, the Brooklyn boxing gym. As Adams’s hands were being wrapped ahead of a photo op, he was asked, “Have you ever boxed before?” “No,” Adams replied, adding that he’d sometimes punched a bag at his gym.
The Mayor apparently reserves the right to mix incidents from his own life with material from his quantum lives: things that could have happened, or almost happened, or happened to someone he once met. All potentials exist simultaneously. An Adams untruth will not be outrageously grandiose and grifty, like those told by Representative George Santos. But Adams doesn’t just polish anecdotes. He is unusually ready to repeat things that are confirmably untrue, or that—in their internal contradictions, or avoidance of specifics, or mutability from one telling to the next—seem very likely to be untrue. There’s an echo of Donald Trump, whose messaging style Adams praised after the 2016 election. “All of those one-liners, it was nothing complicated,” Adams said. “Everybody else wanted to be so sophisticated and talk about their major plans of doing X, Y, and Z, and Donald was just A, B, C.”
It’s a rare day when Adams doesn’t reference Desmond Tutu talking about the importance of fixing problems “upstream,” rather than “pulling people out of the river,” half-drowned. Tutu never said this. (The Mayor’s office noted that a Google search yields many attributions to Tutu.) Online, Adams has posted uplifting quotes falsely or dubiously attributed to E. M. Forster, Winston Churchill, George Eliot, Rosa Parks, and many others.
Some people in New York politics seem to regard Adams’s untruthfulness as a quirk deserving little more than an eye roll—like de Blasio’s rooting for the Red Sox. “Cops sit in their patrol cars and they love to bullshit,” a veteran public official who has informally advised the Adams administration told me. But some of the Mayor’s autobiographical claims have a strange air of recklessness. Last year, after the murder of two police officers in Harlem, Adams made a speech in which he described having long carried, in his wallet, a small photograph of a police-officer friend who was murdered in 1987. A week later, Adams showed this crumpled keepsake to journalists. The Times recently reported that, in the days following the speech, City Hall aides had manufactured the wallet photograph by downloading an image from the Internet, then staining a print with coffee, to make it look old. Adams did not admit to the deception and attacked the paper for checking, before publication, whether he’d truly been the officer’s friend.
Last summer, during a speech at a Dominican flag-raising ceremony in Bowling Green park, Adams ebulliently noted, “I may have been born in Alabama, but I’m Dominican, baby!” I heard Adams repeat the line six months later, at an event hosted by the New York congressman Adriano Espaillat. Adams’s mother was born in Alabama, but Adams was not—he was born in a Park Slope hospital.
In 1968, when he was seven, the family moved to Queens. Adams’s mother, along with Adams and his siblings, began attending a local church. Adams has often said that they called it “the ‘Cheers’ church—everybody knew your name.” The sitcom “Cheers” débuted in 1982.
Adams has said that, when he was six or seven, his father took him to Harlem on Saturdays, to hear a man giving fiery speeches. Only years later did he realize that the speaker was Malcolm X. In the first few years of Adams’s life, Malcolm X did make occasional high-profile speeches in Harlem, but he was not making regular Saturday appearances. When he was assassinated, in February, 1965, Adams was four.
As Adams tells it, his adolescent years were marked by extreme highs and lows. He has often said that by the age of twelve he had an important role in New York’s networks of illegal gambling. Earlier this year, he declared, “I was one of the top illegal numbers runners in the city.” He has also said that when he was a teen he worked for tips as a squeegee guy—washing windshields at intersections—but couldn’t afford a squeegee. Adams once said to an interviewer, “When I played football for Bayside High School, we used to win championships all the time.” He told me that he never played football for Bayside.
Adams has sometimes talked of the death of Clifford Glover, a ten-year-old shot by a police officer in South Jamaica, in 1973. Adams once said that, after the killing, he “was marching and leading the protests.” (The Mayor has also referred to the police killings of Randolph Evans, in 1976, or Arthur Miller, in 1978, as the start of his involvement in protests.) When Glover was killed, Adams was twelve; there’s no evidence that he led protests.
In a speech given at Columbia University earlier this year, Adams repeated the frequently cited but famously untrue notion that if you put a frog in cold water and then heat the water slowly, the frog will allow itself to be boiled to death. Adams added this gloss: he’d done the experiment himself, in school. “If you think about it, it was a terrible experiment,” he said.
In October, 2020, Adams published “Healthy at Last,” as a prelude to his more formal mayoral-campaign launch, a month later. He shared recipes for soups and salads, and prefaced these with the story he’d now told a hundred times. It starts with an addiction to junk food, formed in part by the stresses of a police career, including his experience of 9/11. In the book, Adams writes that, at the time of his diagnosis, his breakfast was eggs and pastries; his kitchen had “a small mountain of Big Mac cartons in the recycling bin.”
On a Zoom call not long ago, which began while Adams was sitting on the ferry that runs between Governor’s Island and Manhattan and ended with him in a halo of light in the back of his Suburban, I asked him about this foundational story. He has said that he avoided medical checkups for so long that when he finally saw a doctor, after a February, 2016, trip to Israel, his A1C blood-sugar test produced a reading of seventeen per cent—an extraordinarily high number. (David Dunaief, a physician who has since treated Adams, appeared with him in a video promoting plant-based diets, and rattled off that number. But in a recent interview Dunaief couldn’t confirm its accuracy.)
I asked Adams if there was perhaps a longer period, starting before 2016, where he was aware of his disease, and not eating Big Macs. As Adams writes in “Healthy at Last,” his mother was diabetic, and Tracey Collins, his partner, was prediabetic. As borough president, Adams had promoted National Diabetes Month. And, as I mentioned to Adams, I’d seen videos from well before 2016 in which he’d spoken very highly of kale.
Adams had me repeat the question, then said, firmly, “No.” Until 2016, he considered pastrami a health food. “I never ate kale until I was diagnosed with diabetes,” he said. “I didn’t even know what kale was.”
“Meet the Regulars,” a book of interviews done in Brooklyn bars and restaurants, included a 2015 lunch with Adams, at a Petrosyants restaurant. Adams compared Brooklyn’s recent cultural flowering to an “overweight but gorgeous” woman he dated in college. For lunch, he ordered lamb and a salad of his own invention, which included kale and had no dressing.
That year, Adams said at a public event that he started his mornings with a smoothie made of green vegetables, including kale. In 2014, Adams had hosted a “Cut the Salt!” event outside Brooklyn Borough Hall, at which he described using a NutriBullet to make smoothies. “This is how I start my morning! I put kale in the NutriBullet,” he said. He added, “Health is better than wealth!”
Recently, Adams told me that it’s fair to detect some “mumbo jumbo” in his storytelling—“Hey, your data is mixed up, Eric!”—but that he used “the stories of my life to say that, no matter where you are, you can overcome.”
Inspirational embroidery can get in the way of a genuinely inspiring story. I recently had lunch with Bernie Adams, who is the youngest of Eric’s siblings and, like Eric, a former N.Y.P.D. officer. At the start of his brother’s administration, Bernie, who is fifty-eight, accepted Eric’s offer to oversee City Hall’s security. After the administration made a belated referral to New York City’s Conflicts of Interest Board, Bernie’s role was downgraded to senior security adviser, and his salary was reduced from two hundred and ten thousand dollars to one dollar. He left after fifteen months—earlier than planned. The brothers hadn’t fallen out, though Bernie told me that it was nice to no longer have Eric teasing him that he was a wimp for sometimes going home at ten.
Bernie resembles Eric to the extent that crowds sometimes applauded him when he exited a mayoral car. On these occasions, he would give a thumbs-up. He’s easy company—it’s as if someone had dialled down his brother’s alpha weirdness, leaving only self-possession and sociability. It’s unsurprising to learn that Bernie has weighed a political career of his own.
He was three when their parents, Dorothy Mae and Leroy, left Brooklyn and took out a mortgage to buy an eight-hundred-square-foot house in South Jamaica. In an upstairs room, under the eaves, the four boys initially shared two beds. The elder of their two sisters had her own little room; the other slept in a hallway.
“We grew up in a poor household,” Bernie said. It could be hard to pay the mortgage. “But our household was fun. Friday night used to be games night. And we had a devotional night, too—sit around talking about the Bible.” On Sundays, they attended the Church of Christ on Rockaway Boulevard: “Dad took us. He didn’t go himself. Load us in the car, get us there, pick us up.”
Dorothy Mae worked as a house cleaner, and later as a cook in a child-care center; Leroy had worked as a butcher. “Mom ran a strict household,” Bernie said. “And when my mom wasn’t there my sister was her eyes and ears. So there was no hanky-panky. You didn’t come and go as you wanted to. You went to school, you got your homework done.” Bernie detects in Eric’s spreadsheet orderliness the impact of dyslexia, but also of their upbringing. “He’s a systems guy,” he said. “Everything has to have a system.”
Bernie’s details are helpful, given that Eric’s childhood memories sometimes have the shadings of amateur devotional art. When the Mayor spoke to the press on International Women’s Day, earlier this year, in front of a new art work at City Hall—three flags resembling dirty dishcloths—he recalled his mother using a single rag “not only to wipe her hands after cooking the meal” but also “to wipe her eyes, to hide her tears of the uncertainty of the next day . . . to hide the tears of trying to figure out why her son couldn’t learn in school.” Adams proposed that the day recognized not only women of individual achievement but also the mothers of such “great men” as David Dinkins, Thurgood Marshall, and himself. In one of my conversations with Adams, he said of his mother, “She adored me. I gave her hell growing up. But, it turned out, she was very, very proud. She just enjoyed being Eric Adams’s mom.”
Until the older children began earning money, the family relied largely on Dorothy Mae’s modest income; Leroy was an increasingly irregular part of the family. “He would be there today, go for a pack of cigarettes, and come back a week later,” Bernie recalled, laughing. “If it wasn’t so sad, it would be comical. I remember writing him letters. Like, ‘I want to hang out with you.’ ” His mother’s instructions, Bernie told me, were “Love Dad. He’s your father. Respect him. He sucks as a husband, sucks as a father, but he’s your dad.” Eric described his father to me as “one of the nicest human beings, but he wasn’t a father.”
Eric and his siblings later learned that, during their childhood, their father had started a second family, and that they had a half brother and two half sisters in Brooklyn. “That was devastating,” Bernie told me. “One sister was, like, five months younger than me. I thought I was the youngest, I thought I was the baby!” (Leroy died in 2016; Dorothy Mae died two years ago.)
Eric was “naturally smart,” Bernie said. “If he wasn’t dyslexic, he’d be an Einstein.” Eric, like his three older siblings, attended Bayside High School, in the north of the borough; it was then a majority-white school. (Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street, was two years behind him.) Bernie said of his brother, “He was a leader—a guy that people will follow. He wasn’t going to school to become a scientist, but ‘This is where my fans are.’ ” He added, “You’re a rock star, you play to your crowd. He loves being right in the center. So it was fun going to school. Even now, as mayor, he thrives off that energy. Getting people—not so much bowing down to him, but just really excited to see him. He’s excited to see them.”
As a high-school student, Adams was never told that he had dyslexia—he later made the diagnosis himself. He has said, “From K through 12, I used to walk in the school building—they used to put ‘Dumb Student’ on the chair.” Adams, speaking of his “horrific experience in high school,” recalled “being embarrassed to be called on to read, laughed at, just about bullied.” I mentioned Bernie’s point about it being fun to see his fans, and he laughed: “Let me tell you where the fans were. They were in the park playing Cee-Lo, playing craps with me. They were not in the classroom.”
Adams has said that in the mid-seventies, when he was a teen-ager, he was on the periphery of a Queens gang called the Seven Crowns. “We were not bad kids,” he told me. “We were mischievous.” This description was backed up by Corey Pegues, the former drug dealer. Pegues, who is about a decade younger than Adams, sold crack for the Supreme Team, a violent South Jamaica-based gang, in the eighties. The Seven Crowns, he said, was primarily about “hanging out with your boys,” adding, “It wasn’t a stickup crew. They weren’t selling drugs and doing all this crazy stuff.” An association with the Seven Crowns would have given Adams—who wasn’t from a housing project, and was bused eight miles north to school—some local standing. “The kid that’s going to school every day and church on Sundays is cornball,” Pegues said. “To get the street cred, you’ve got to get some street knowledge.” Adams, interviewed for a recent documentary about the Supreme Team, which was linked to at least twenty homicides, was almost admiring of the gang’s brutal entrepreneurship: such “street-corner C.E.O.s” shouldn’t be judged from an “intellectual, born-on-third-base mind-set,” he said. Adams can sometimes sound more forgiving of criminals with felonious ambition—go-getters—than of those guilty of misdemeanors. Last year, Adams criticized the incoming Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for indicating that his office wouldn’t prosecute turnstile jumpers.
I asked Bernie if one could think of the high-school-age Eric as an essentially good kid. “No!” he said. “He was a bad kid!” But he wasn’t “robbing old ladies,” and it was a momentous event when, at some point in the mid-seventies, Eric and one of his older brothers, Conrad, were arrested for criminal trespassing and held overnight. “I had this pit in my stomach all day—my brothers are in jail!” Bernie said. “And that was a foreign concept. You know, we didn’t get arrested.”
Eric has told the story of his arrest in different ways, but he consistently describes a crime of restitution—almost of righteousness. A woman who danced at a local strip club owed Eric and Conrad money for some errands they’d run for her; the brothers maybe took a money order and a TV from her apartment. (Bernie supposes that this was Eric’s plan, not Conrad’s.) The brothers were apprehended and taken to the 103rd Precinct, in Jamaica.
Decades later, Bernie learned that, when Eric and Conrad were in custody, officers kicked them both repeatedly in the groin. Bernie told me, “He was a smart-mouth. I can see him saying something smart—and then, ‘O.K., take him downstairs.’ ” In 1999, Adams talked about this incident in an unpublished interview with the journalist Juan Williams. Adams recalled that a Black officer had interrupted the abuse by his white colleagues: “This Black guy was able to go among those white guys and stop this. He got juice—j-u-i-c-e, as the kids would say.” Williams, recounting this conversation in a 2021 article for The Atlantic, wrote, “Eric was drawn to power. He thought the cops had a great hustle.”
In recent years, Eric Adams has described the violence of that day as traumatic. In November, 2020, six months after the murder of George Floyd, Adams released his first campaign video, in which he said, “Some people talk about police brutality. I want to tell you how it is to live through it.” Yet he also seems protective of the officers involved. “Sometimes we expect perfection from those who put on the uniform,” Adams told me. But “if you’re met with ill-conceived hatred, it’s going to play out in how you police.” That is, South Jamaica was a place of “great, hardworking, middle-class and low-income New Yorkers. But the police were encountering the worst of people—they weren’t encountering the average person.” The policemen who kicked him, he said, were surely telling themselves, “Here’s some more badass kids. We’re going to teach them a lesson.”
Adams’s empathy for his past self can, of course, coexist with empathy for the men who assaulted him. But that combination creates odd political messaging. Even as Adams declares his solidarity with the abused—“I am you”—he puts himself in a category of people whose abuse by police was meant for others. He was victimized because lesser people had been disrespectful to the police.
Bernie Adams said of his brother, “He loves cops. The guy loves cops. And he’s going to give the cop the benefit of the doubt until we can prove otherwise.” (Bernie added that Conrad Adams, now a farmer in South Carolina, never welcomed his brothers’ police careers. Conrad could not be reached for comment.) It puzzles Bernie that Eric has apparently never sought out the details of his arrest. Eric made his assault a cornerstone of his campaign, and held a press conference outside the 103rd on the first day of his mayoralty. But he told me that he’d never even tried to identify the officers involved. Bernie said that, had he been in Eric’s place, he would have wanted to know more: “I would have asked those cops, ‘What were you thinking when you did that? And how many times did you do it?’ ”
On an evening in February, after midnight, Adams was at the World Trade Center subway stop, where the E train terminates. He was with a TV news crew, and some city social workers who had the job of nudging people to use shelters rather than sleep on the trains. Such persuasion relies largely on patient talk, but the workers also handed out flyers showing photographs of available accommodation, and they could make an icebreaking offer of a new pair of sneakers.
A young man was standing on the platform, underdressed for the weather, marching in place. Adams, always the joyful center of attention, and always ready with a “Good to see you, brother!” or a “Hey, ladies!,” had the peculiar experience of being ignored.
“You want another pair of shoes?” Adams asked, pleasantly, from about ten feet away. “Want a pair of shoes?”
He asked a few more times, until the man said, “Am I answering your question?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” Adams said.
The man, now talking as if to a child: “Am I answering your question?” His commitment to ignoring the Mayor’s sneakers was impressive, but so was Adams’s equanimity in the face of this scorn.
The man then said, “No, I don’t want a pair of shoes.”
“O.K., fair enough,” Adams said. “O.K. if I give you a card?”
On a later occasion, Adams told me, “I was a good cop. And all of my superiors would say, ‘When Eric was on the desk, I could sleep good at night. Because Eric is not going to let any bullshit happen.’ They won’t be getting that call: ‘Hey, Volpe just stuffed a plunger up someone’s rear.’ ” (He was referring to the 1997 assault on Abner Louima by Justin Volpe, an N.Y.P.D. officer.) Adams went on, “I was always a fun guy to be around. We all bullshit, we all joke. I was a cop’s cop.”
Adams has described his decision to join the police as an act of radical politics. Despite his unhappiness at Bayside, he’d had the good sense after graduating—it still surprises him today—to start taking courses at Queensborough Community College. He later attended City Tech, in Brooklyn, and graduated with a computing associate’s degree.
As Adams has sometimes told the story, he joined the transit police after a mentor—the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, of Brooklyn’s House of the Lord Pentecostal Church—called upon him to “fight for change.” As Adams put it to me, Daughtry gave him the “assignment” of a police career.
In the late seventies, Daughtry had begun hosting a weekly political-study meeting, the Timbuktu Learning Center, in the basement of the church. Adams frequently attended, and then he became involved in a civil-rights group, the National Black United Front, that Daughtry co-founded in 1980. In a recent conversation, Daughtry, now ninety-two, told me that he had indeed raised the idea of a law-enforcement career with Adams, and with some others. Daughtry recalled, “My best friends were looking at me kind of strange—here I am, emerging as the leader of the most radical Afrocentric part of the movement, telling some kids that we need you to join the police department!” He told me that his instincts were as much pastoral as political. Acknowledging his debt to the philosophy of William James, he explained, “For people to be happy, they’ve got to find something to which they can give themselves. And that’s contrary to the way the world views life: Get what you can get. Policing is a noble career to which a person should aspire, because it’s an opportunity to save lives, to protect lives.”
In fact, when Daughtry brought up his becoming an officer, Adams had already taken the preliminary exam to join the police. Speaking recently, he didn’t challenge Daughtry’s memory. “I was an angry little boy,” he said. Daughtry could see that this path “was going to ground me.” Adams noted that, despite “all the bad things people think about law enforcement,” the “discipline is unbelievable.”
Adams has said that, for much of his police career, he was following a program to make himself electable. After a few years on patrol, he transferred to the transit police’s Data Processing Unit, in Brooklyn, becoming what some cops call a “house mouse.” (Bill Bratton, the former N.Y.P.D. commissioner, recently used that term, in a friendly enough way, when talking about this part of Adams’s career. He went on to praise Adams, whose administration he has sometimes advised, for resisting “woke” orthodoxy in the city and state legislatures, saying, “He’s really swimming upstream against Niagara Falls.”)
By 1994, Adams had been promoted to sergeant, and he’d become the president of the Grand Council of Guardians, the officially recognized organization representing Black law-enforcement officials. That year, he failed to collect enough signatures to run for the New York congressional seat held by a longtime incumbent, Major Owens. He publicly criticized Owens for having denounced the Nation of Islam; Adams said that he was ready to look past that group’s antisemitism, in the interest of taking advantage of its crime-fighting ambitions.
In 1995, Adams co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group that at first focussed on community outreach. Adams and others in the group provided security for Mike Tyson when he was paroled after serving three years of a prison sentence for rape. (This was despite an N.Y.P.D. prohibition on officers fraternizing with convicted felons.)
Adams recalls being advised that his political future would be improved by a bachelor’s degree. He began taking courses in criminal justice at John Jay College, in Manhattan. Among his professors was Eugene O’Donnell, a former N.Y.P.D. officer and a former prosecutor. In an interview, O’Donnell praised Adams as a fine student who was sanguine about sitting alongside others half his age. “He essentially co-taught the class,” O’Donnell told me.
But O’Donnell, an unrelenting pro-police pundit, was otherwise scornful of what he viewed as Adams’s disloyalty to law enforcement. There is a strand of N.Y.P.D. opinion in which Adams is not a cop’s cop. (The union that represents N.Y.P.D. captains backed Andrew Yang, not Adams, for mayor.) In 1999, the year after Adams graduated from John Jay, Amadou Diallo was killed by plainclothes officers in the N.Y.P.D.’s Street Crimes Unit. As Marq Claxton, a co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, recently noted, public attention on that case was so intense that the group’s reactions to it were widely noticed. This was “our coming-out party,” Claxton said. Adams told the media that the S.C.U. had been given “carte blanche to do as it will to the people of the City of New York, especially the African American community.” He organized an event at which a former S.C.U. member described the unit’s stop-and-frisk practice as racial profiling.
Adams told me, “If you go to the Giuliani years, and do an analysis of who was fighting against all the heavy-handed policing—that was very few voices. It was Reverend Sharpton. It was Reverend Daughtry. It was 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.” This leaves out a lot of other critics. Moreover, the year that Diallo was killed, Adams was quoted saying, “Giuliani deserves tremendous credit for the falling crime rate. What Giuliani has done was done despite serious critics who said it couldn’t be done. But he had the will to do it, so it was done.”
Adams’s record as an activist seems at times to undermine equally the observations of defenders and detractors. Norman Siegel, the civil-rights lawyer, described him to me as fearless and principled in what became an increasingly contentious role. O’Donnell, meanwhile, came to regard Adams as intolerably self-interested: “Eric’s brand is built on trashing people who were in the street. They were out doing raids, taking murderers into custody at three o’clock in the morning—a guy might have a gun under his bed.” Meanwhile, Adams “was ready to get up for his computer job, or whatever.”
That’s not a fair description of Adams’s broader police career. But neither, perhaps, is Adams’s own description. In 2021, in a disagreement with progressive City Council members about solitary confinement, Adams said, “I wore a bulletproof vest for twenty-two years and protected the people of this city. When you do that, then you have the right to question me.”
O’Donnell, remembering the mayoral campaign, said, “He was able to present himself as a police person and as an anti-police person, and was able to benefit in both directions.” He added, “It’s leveraging, it’s positioning, it’s advantage. Eric has an eye for Eric.”
Evan Thies, the political consultant, recently described a call he received, in the spring of 2021, from Nathan Smith, Adams’s campaign director. The Democratic mayoral primary was several months away. In a field of a dozen, Adams was a serious contender, but Yang led in the polls.
Smith asked Thies if he’d seen that week’s N.Y.P.D. CompStat numbers—its crime data. “And I looked, and holy cow,” Thies said. Seen today, a graph of murders in New York City shows a spike in March and April, 2021; the numbers then drop—briefly, to a level lower than that of 2020. (Other crimes, including grand larceny, also increased that spring compared with 2020, when covid had caused those numbers to fall.) The topic of crime “was good for us, we knew it,” Thies told me. Adams challenged more progressive candidates, such as Maya Wiley, on policies designed to reform or shrink the N.Y.P.D. He also used crime to change the subject.
That April, for example, Yang held an event announcing that, if elected, he would crack down on the corrupt use of parking placards by city employees, including cops. This topic could be thought of as an Adams vulnerability: his support for “broken windows” policing had carved out an exception for the everyday corruption of government officials. When an anonymous Twitter user had objected to police vehicles blocking Brooklyn turning lanes, Adams had compared this person to a Klan member. He’d protected the right of his own staff to leave their cars, illegally, in the park next to Borough Hall, on the basis that previous borough presidents had allowed it. “I fought my entire life to make sure men that look like me don’t have different rules than anyone else,” Adams said. (As if in solidarity with Adams’s position, the Petrosyants twins, when they opened Osteria La Baia—a midtown restaurant that became an Adams favorite—parked a car filled with flowers on the sidewalk, permanently.) In response to Yang’s remarks, the Adams campaign released a statement: “Violent crime is skyrocketing in New York. People are dying. Five-year-old and 12-year-old children are being shot in our streets—and Andrew Yang is focused on double parking.”
In May, Adams was endorsed by the Post. Not long afterward, Yang claimed in a debate that Adams had been investigated for corruption “everywhere you’ve gone.” Yang was referring to several internal N.Y.P.D. investigations that involved Adams; a 2010 report by New York’s inspector general into the dubious awarding of a casino license in Queens, which declared that the testimony of Adams, then a state senator, was not believable; and two New York Department of Investigation examinations of One Brooklyn Fund. (The Mayor’s office recently noted that no wrongdoing has ever been established.) Reporting during the campaign had also revealed that Adams hadn’t paid tax on rental income derived from his house in Bed-Stuy. (Adams later explained that his property paperwork was in a muddle because his accountant was homeless.) Although the media didn’t ignore the fact that Adams had repeatedly been under suspicion of ethical lapses, the question of corruption hardly dominated his media coverage.
Then, two weeks before the primary, Politico ran a story about the mystery of Adams’s home address. As a voter and as a candidate, Adams had declared that the basement in Bed-Stuy was his legal residence. Politico had staked it out: Adams was never there.
The campaign couldn’t ignore the story, because a candidate whose primary home is in New Jersey—in a building whose amenities include an indoor and an outdoor pool—can’t legally become New York City’s mayor. In fact, it seemed likely that Adams more often spent the night in Brooklyn Borough Hall than in Fort Lee. A year earlier, at the height of the pandemic, his decision to sometimes sleep at work, on a mattress on the floor, could be presented as a gung-ho sacrifice. But to make Borough Hall his home was an ethical and legal complication. Later reporting established that between 2017 and 2019 Adams had told the I.R.S. that he wasn’t living in his Bed-Stuy apartment.
The campaign considered holding a press event in the basement on the following day. Thies told me, “My theory was: If you make a spectacle, and it all seems silly, then maybe the accusations are silly.” Adams, he said, initially resisted the idea. “This is his house. His son lived there”—Thies checked himself—“you know, with him. It was really, at that moment, more his son’s apartment, because Eric was gone so much.”
Adams was persuaded, and at about 1:30 A.M. he reached the apartment and video-called Thies, who was a new parent. Thies recalled, “I’m trying to quiet my screaming infant son, with the future mayor of New York taking me around his apartment, saying, ‘Do you think I should leave this Buddha statue here? What about what’s in the fridge? Like, my son’s got all his video-game equipment out.’ ”
In the morning, reporters arrived at the basement door. Adams spoke to them outside, with Jordan Coleman by his side. Wiping away tears, Adams said that he’d always been secretive about his personal life, to protect his family; he regretted that public service had kept him away from so many of his son’s birthdays and football games. (Adams certainly puts in long hours. But in the years when Coleman played high-school football Adams was in the New York Senate—a body that, every June, goes into recess for six months. Coleman recently told me that, even when his father’s absence had saddened him, he’d valued Adams as a “metaphorical father.”)
Journalists trooped through the apartment in groups. The campaign had framed the event as a rebuttal, but the low-ceilinged apartment, with one bed, looked exactly like what it was: the place where Coleman lived, surrounded by his sneakers, and with some of his dad’s stuff on the shelves. The event was like watching a politician deny an affair while holding the hand of his mistress.
But, as Chris Coffey, one of Yang’s campaign managers, put it to me, “nobody cared.” Coffey recalled that the next morning’s Daily News “had him with a picture of his son, in the home that he did not live in, and the headline was ‘adams family values.’ ” A defeated laugh. “I just threw in the towel.” Adams won the primary; that fall, he defeated Curtis Sliwa in the general election.
I recently noticed a photograph that Adams posted to Twitter in 2017. It shows the inside of a big white French-door fridge, and the caption reads, “This is my #plantbased fridge at home in #BedStuy. These are the foods waiting to refuel and heal me. This is my absolute best #medicine.” It’s easy to identify the fridge: it’s the same Whirlpool model that was in the listing for the Fort Lee apartment when Adams bought it, in 2016. Adams did not have a white French-door Whirlpool “at home in #BedStuy.” (The Mayor confirmed that the photograph is of his Fort Lee fridge, but said that a staffer wrote the tweet for him.)
According to Bernie Adams, Eric now sometimes sleeps at City Hall, in “a little war room that’s turned into a place to hang out.” Tracey Collins still lives in Fort Lee. The Mayor has disputed a report in Politico saying that, according to five sources, he sometimes stays overnight at an apartment, owned by the Petrosyants, in the Trump World Tower.
Adams also has a bedroom at Gracie Mansion. One morning earlier this year, at six o’clock, he met me at the nearby Mansion Diner, which is decorated with mayoral memorabilia. Adams hadn’t eaten there before. One of the owners told him that Robert Wagner, who was the mayor when Adams was born, used to come in every day. Adams ordered oatmeal with “just a little banana—like, a quarter, not a half.” His phone rang. “Tracey! How are you doing?”
During the campaign, Adams announced that, if elected, he’d dispense with a security detail and carry his own gun. He does have a detail; he doesn’t carry a gun. After breakfast, four officers walked with us toward the Q train. On Eighty-sixth Street, Adams noticed a pile of bedding on the sidewalk, and asked someone in his entourage to inform the Sanitation Department. On the subway, he acknowledged admiring remarks, and chatted with some N.Y.U. drama students. “You’re lucky,” he said. “Your parents must be rich.” There was applause when he got off the train at City Hall.
In Adams’s model of city government, the mayor is, in part, a kind of secret shopper. He makes what he calls “spot checks” around town, and monitors a dozen spreadsheets that carry live data about issues that particularly matter to him. One documents homeless encampments, whose removal he championed last year—a process that he compared to the work of Jesus. “Prior mayors didn’t keep their eyes on things,” he told me that morning. “They basically hired people and said, ‘Go ahead.’ ”
Brendan McGuire, whom the Mayor appointed his first chief counsel, told me, “It’s very important for him not to get stuck in the ivory tower of City Hall, of government.” It’s important for Adams to have access to people inside and outside the building. He added, “A lot of this can be traced back to his time as a police officer. It’s pragmatic. It’s understanding the sensitivities of various stakeholders. And there’s also this sense of being not only willing but wanting to get your hands dirty.” Camille Joseph Varlack, Adams’s chief of staff, who previously held a senior role in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, told me that access to Cuomo “was very tightly controlled.” In the Adams administration, she said, with what could be called contained enthusiasm, “everybody has access—you just never know where the question is going to come from, why the question is being asked.”
Adams is happy to listen to sidewalk petitions. He’ll give out a cell-phone number where he says he can be reached. He told me of a time when a woman texted the number to report problems enrolling her daughter in a summer-school program. He introduced her to the schools chancellor by text, saying, “Get this woman’s daughter a school!” Adams told me that it surely “means the world” to this woman that she can tell people, “I fucking text the Mayor and he texts me back!” He mentioned another occasion, at a Bronx mosque, when someone asked him about delayed building permits. “Two hours later, we resolved the problem!” Adams said.
Adams isn’t suggesting that a city of eight and a half million people should be run on mayoral whim. But a government that refers to government as an “ivory tower” inspires only limited confidence in its ability to govern. Adams’s stories of intervention tend to stop at the point where he’s thanked; they don’t lead into discussions of agency reform. (And it’s of course easy to find examples of people who texted the Mayor and never heard back—including those who accepted his invitation to send him photographs of cops on the subway who appeared to be idling on their phones.) Adams has often talked of enhancing city-government transparency by publishing CompStat-style figures from agencies other than the police. This hasn’t happened. During the Adams mayoralty, the Department of Corrections quietly ended its practice of automatically informing the media after each inmate death at Rikers. (According to the Mayor’s office, this move was to avoid “bombarding everyone’s in-boxes.”)
When people close to Adams cite his availability, they’re talking about more than his responsiveness to constituents’ messages. Adams is up for a pitch. As Brooklyn borough president, Adams hosted a demonstration of an expensive contraption that drowned rats; he promoted a lasso-like law-enforcement device—in which Frank Carone, his future chief of staff, had a financial stake—and pasted the manufacturer’s advertising copy into an Instagram post. After Adams began spending time with Brock Pierce, a wealthy crypto investor—sometimes in the company of William Benson, a night-life friend who runs a champagne business—Adams announced that he’d make New York a cryptocurrency hub, and he converted his first three paychecks into Bitcoin and Ether. That year, those currencies would lose more than sixty per cent of their value. (In January, the Post ran a story alleging that Benson had misrepresented himself to investors and to romantic partners, and had talked up his connection to Adams. Benson showed me the text that Adams had sent him after the report was published. “Part of the process,” he wrote. “People will always shit on a black man.”)
As mayor, Adams has proposed installing subway metal detectors; he has approved N.Y.P.D. robot dogs. He has announced that drones will be used for building inspections. Adams spends time with people who call themselves influencers, and he has something of an influencer spirit himself: government by inspiring example. But he could also be thought of as an influencee—less generously, a mark.
I used the word “mark” when talking with Siegel. In reply, he said, “Eric is the kind of person who wants to keep an open mind, which is good. He wants to be generous to people, especially people who have never had access to power.” He then added, “You’ve got to have a couple of people around you who say, ‘Listen, this is not what you should be doing.’ ”
Even after the departures of Bernie Adams and Frank Carone, who left after a year, the administration remains dominated by old Adams allies. Among them is Philip Banks, the deputy mayor for public safety, a role that gives him considerable influence over the N.Y.P.D. Banks is a former N.Y.P.D. chief of department, the most senior officer in uniform. In 2018, he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal police-corruption case; he had reportedly accepted free vacations, foot massages, and other gifts from businessmen seeking political favor. (Banks has denied any wrongdoing.) Banks’s brother, David, is the schools chancellor. David Banks’s partner, Sheena Wright, is the first deputy mayor. Timothy Pearson, an old N.Y.P.D. friend of Adams’s, is a senior adviser for public safety and Covid recovery. Ingrid Lewis-Martin, who has worked alongside Adams since he was in the New York Senate, and whose husband was an N.Y.P.D. friend of Adams’s, is the Mayor’s chief adviser.
Kathryn Wylde, who runs the Partnership for New York City, a powerful business-lobby group, has been friendly with Adams for years. But—without mentioning any names—she observed that “it’s a big leap from the small-bore politics of Brooklyn to City Hall. It takes time.”
Adams’s “perfectly imperfect” mantra sometimes sounds like insurance paid against future embarrassment. Between 2008 and 2015, seven members of the New York State Legislature were expelled on felony convictions, including Adams’s friend and onetime travel companion John Sampson. That list doesn’t include Hiram Monserrate, a former N.Y.P.D. officer and a once close friend of Adams’s, who was expelled from the State Senate in 2010, after being convicted of a misdemeanor assault of his girlfriend. (Adams voted against the expulsion.) Adams’s old friend Lamor Whitehead, sometimes called the Bling Bishop, currently faces charges of financial fraud, which he denies. A recent indictment charged six people, including Dwayne Montgomery—an associate of Adams’s and a former N.Y.P.D. inspector—in a scheme to circumvent campaign-finance law in support of Adams’s election. (All six have pleaded not guilty.)
Brendan McGuire, who used to run the Southern District of New York’s anti-corruption unit, told me that when he was approached about becoming the Adams administration’s chief counsel he’d been wary of serving as preëmptive ethical cover. “I was very clear from the get-go that I was not prepared to be used as the white hat who would be rolled out when there was a problem,” he said. He acknowledged that people have raised questions about Adams’s hiring decisions. But, he went on, “I have never felt uncomfortable with a decision he’s made in that regard.” He added, “Corruption is not one hire, it’s not one act. It is a series of choices. And it’s a degradation of standards over a period of time. And so the goal here is to teach this team that muscle memory. And we have done a real good job of that.”
Not long after we spoke, McGuire announced that he would be leaving the administration. Several other senior officials who, like McGuire, weren’t already members of Adams’s inner circle have also recently left: these include Jessica Katz, the Mayor’s chief housing officer; Maxwell Young, his communications director; and the N.Y.P.D. commissioner Keechant Sewell. It’s been reported that Adams sought to influence Sewell’s decision about whether to discipline Jeffrey Maddrey, the N.Y.P.D.’s chief of department and a friend of Adams’s, for having improperly voided the arrest of a former N.Y.P.D. officer. The Mayor denies having done this. (Sewell reportedly proposed a punishment of docked vacation days for Maddrey; the case hasn’t been resolved.)
I was told a few times that Adams never raises his voice in anger. Meetings start almost on time. He attends to the municipal problems that engage him. People like him. Historically, bluster and attention-seeking have always been part of the job. Ed Koch famously never stopped asking, “How’m I doing?” (The “Saturday Night Live” iteration of Adams’s bombast, performed by Chris Redd, sexualizes it in a way that doesn’t seem to represent him accurately.) But the personal regard in which Adams is held by colleagues is clearly colored by an underlying uncertainty, if not trepidation, about his thinking and his possible future actions. Siegel recalled a time when he was asked by one of Adams’s deputy mayors, “What does he think of me?” Siegel was surprised. “The idea that a deputy mayor was concerned about what her boss thinks about her, because she didn’t really know him—that opened my eyes to the power dynamic. That particular deputy mayor probably wasn’t confident enough, at that point, to go in and say to Eric, ‘Don’t do that.’ ”
One of Adams’s verbal tics is to take possession of things that aren’t really his: “my police officers,” “my religious leaders,” “my D.A.s,” “my hotels,” “my shoe-shine people,” “my cooks,” “my rap industry,” “my boroughs.” So it was telling to hear the distance in his answer to a reporter’s question last year about the Democratic Party: “They have a good product.”
There was a moment, just before Adams took office, when Siegel first heard him use the phrase “Public safety is the prerequisite for prosperity.” Siegel called Adams to object, and to propose an alternative: “Public safety and social justice are the prerequisites to prosperity.” Subsequently, Adams sometimes added “social justice,” or just “justice,” but he often stuck with the original.
In the Mayor’s first year in office, Siegel was excited enough by various health and homelessness initiatives to maintain hope that Adams could become a transformational figure. But he was discouraged by the raids on homeless encampments, and by aspects of Adams’s criminal-justice message. Before last year’s congressional midterms, when many pundits predicted a Republican landslide, Adams positioned himself as a populist savior who could later rescue Democrats from their progressive foolishness—perhaps while running for President. Echoing Republican talking points, he repeatedly suggested that reforms to the state’s bail laws, enacted in 2019, had helped push up city crime rates—a causation that seemed plausible to many people, including editors at the Post, but wasn’t well supported by available data.
Then the Democrats overperformed nationally, and Adams’s preferred candidates for office in Albany underperformed. A centrist path to higher office was now less clearly marked—and a 2025 mayoral-primary challenge from the left seemed inevitable. When I began talking to Adams, near the start of this year, his self-assurance and animation—welcomed by many, after the billionaire iciness of Bloomberg and the dourness of de Blasio—had become laced with peevishness about being underappreciated. People were feeling safer on the subways, and the city’s bond rating had been upgraded, but who was giving him credit? He’d announced the launch of an e-mail newsletter and a podcast, saying, “I need to speak directly to my consumer, in my voice.” He said that his administration had “allowed others to hijack what our successes were.” He complained about “little people” on social media. When I asked Adams to point to a particularly frustrating moment, he recalled that, in November, he had directed the city’s first responders to be ready to impose involuntary hospitalization on mentally ill people who were unable to “meet their basic needs,” even if they posed no threat to others. That directive had critics, including Siegel, but also significant support. One could imagine another elected official working carefully to build consensus—to lead, in part by sharing data. But Adams seemed focussed on online antagonists. “They just distorted the whole thing!” he told me.
On February 26th, I went to an afternoon event at Gracie Mansion, where, in a ballroom with no other reporters present, Adams spoke to sixty teen-agers enrolled in Jack and Jill of America, the African American leadership organization. He was asked about the good and the bad of being mayor. The best, he said, was holding an event like this one. The worst, he explained, to laughter, was “so many haters, man. Unbelievable level of hatred, because I don’t fit the model. Bald-headed, earring-wearing Black man.” He added, “Don’t get mad at me because I became the mayor! You go raise that twenty-two million, you go knock on thirty-five thousand doors, you deal with all of the haters yelling at you and calling you names. But no one wants to do that. I always say, ‘Let your haters be your waiters.’ ”
Two days later, he appeared at an “interfaith breakfast” at the main branch of the New York Public Library. Ingrid Lewis-Martin, the Mayor’s chief adviser, who is also a Christian chaplain, introduced him as “one of the chosen,” adding, “One hears about the importance of separating church from state. But we have an administration that doesn’t believe in that.”
“Ingrid was so right,” Adams said, moments later. “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a godlike approach to them. That’s who I am.”
This material wasn’t in his prepared remarks. Camille Joseph Varlack, Adams’s chief of staff, who was in the room, recalls telling herself, “Oh, well, this has taken a direction I didn’t expect.” Varlack had experience with Adams improvisations. “Nine times out of ten, he nails it,” she said. “And sometimes there’s . . . a sound bite. And I’m, like, ‘Jesus Christ, now we have to deal with this in the news cycle.’ ”
Adams’s remarks were indeed controversial. In subsequent interviews, he leaned into the subject: “Some people, they see me go to Mass and they get upset. . . . All I can say is ‘Get over it.’ ” He said that it was “time to pray.” He claimed that he’d been criticized in the past for expressing a “strong belief in faith.” In fact, in previous years, he’d missed countless opportunities to discuss faith. Indeed, when the hosts of the podcast “Faith Grind Inspire” had asked him their usual question—“Out of ‘faith,’ ‘grind,’ ‘inspire,’ which word resonates with you?”—he’d replied, “Grind, man, grind.”
Adams now used “faith” as an instrument of political dominance—a way to make haters waiters. He’d hinted at the strategy the previous spring, at an event with religious leaders, where he’d welcomed collaborations with them. “There will be those who will critique us,” Adams told the room, smiling. “Let’s be clear—lions don’t lose sleep over the opinion of the sheep.” There was laughter and applause. It was a remarkable moment. At a meeting of religious shepherds, the Mayor had rallied the room to a fuck-the-sheep message. His comments weren’t just un-Christian—they were Nietzschean. As Adams once said, giving advice about self-presentation, “Everything about you must say power.”
Adams has sometimes said that the achievements of his administration will eventually be memorialized in the Museum of the City of New York. I asked him what this exhibition would contain, and he first mentioned his enhancement of an existing program to help young people in foster care. (The cost of this is ten million dollars, in a city budget that exceeds a hundred billion dollars.) He then cited a pilot program, widely praised, to screen for dyslexia in city schools.
A New York mayor can do only so much. Michael Bloomberg published a congestion-pricing proposal in 2007; a similar scheme may finally be executed next year. But Adams often gives the impression of finding the political present less compelling than the myths of his past and the glories of his future recognition. He told me, “I think that the museum is going to show the uniqueness of a mayor who was not make-believe. He was authentic. He was a blue-collar mayor.”
I last spoke to Adams at the Roosevelt Hotel, on Forty-fifth Street, which has become a welcome center for recently arrived asylum seekers. On a Sunday morning in May, he was joined there by several colleagues, including Anne Williams-Isom, his deputy mayor for health and human services, and Manuel Castro, who runs the Office of Immigrant Affairs. Adams inspected a ballroom crowded with a hundred military-green cots. “Good stuff,” he said. One of the support staff there recognized Adams from an earlier life, and greeted him as Eazy-E. Williams-Isom deadpanned, “Sounds like a Brooklyn thing.”
A few weeks earlier, Adams had hosted a press conference to discuss the pressures put on the city by asylum seekers, who were arriving at a rate of about two hundred a day. Camille Joseph Varlack told me that before the event she’d alerted the White House that the Mayor would be “calling for the national government to help us”; Adams, who’d requested such help before, would be using “standard and consistent” talking points.
Then protesters interrupted the event, asking, “Mayor Adams, why are you cutting schools?” They were referring to proposals for the 2024 budget, which included a cut to education spending of more than six hundred million dollars.
Varlack told me, “I think it just enraged him.” His annoyance, as she read it, derived from the failure of New Yorkers to acknowledge the administration’s efforts on behalf of asylum seekers, and the cost of those efforts. “People don’t seem to really think it’s an issue, because we’ve done such a good job of taking care of it,” she said. It was in this mood, Varlack proposed, that Adams declared that, on this issue, “the President and the White House have failed New York City.”
Not long before, Adams had been pleased to be included in a story that listed Democratic advisers who would likely be central to President Joe Biden’s reëlection efforts. “I think the President sees something in what I’m doing in New York,” Adams had said. But when a list was published, just before I joined the Mayor in the Roosevelt Hotel, Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, were on it, but Adams was not. He told me that the “failed New York City” press conference perhaps wasn’t responsible, but said, “People want to say, ‘If he ever talks about crime, he’s hurting the Party. If he ever talks about asylum seekers, he’s hurting the Party.’ ” He added that, though he considered Biden a friend, others in the White House had “their own agenda.”
In our previous meetings, it had become clear that Adams preferred to talk while surrounded by other people. We’d met that day in Times Square, and Adams had opted to forgo the Suburban and instead walk along Forty-second Street toward the Roosevelt, wearing an “nyc mayor” windbreaker. This had led to selfie requests and, at one point, a solicitous exchange with a distraught woman who told Adams that a stranger had just spit in her face.
Now Adams and I were talking in a cafeteria at the Roosevelt, at the same little table as a half-dozen senior administration officials. It was a group interview in which I felt for a moment like the unacknowledged object of an intervention. “From Day One, I was surprised by his authenticity,” Williams-Isom told me. “He loves New York. And so it’s a joy to watch him be happy, and to do this job.”
“There was never a day that I did not feel as though ‘We’ve got this,’ ” Adams said. Any annoyance he’d felt, he added, was in response to reporting about his work, and never the work itself.
Such criticism, Williams-Isom added, was disrespectful.
“You saw people who were not lifting a finger being disrespectful to my team!” Adams said. He went on to say that people who fact-check him seem to doubt whether he could have gone through what he’s gone through in life and still “become mayor of the most important city on the globe.”
“It’s like they’re questioning your integrity!” Williams-Isom said. “And I don’t appreciate it.”
Adams tells his staff that they should keep journals. “This is an amazing moment for them,” he said. “This is going to be one of those great moments in American history.” ♦