Who Is Eric Adams? That Depends.
Eric Adams could not resist the story. In a 2019 commencement address, Mr. Adams complained that a neighbor’s dog kept befouling his yard — no …
Eric Adams could not resist the story.
In a 2019 commencement address, Mr. Adams complained that a neighbor’s dog kept befouling his yard — no matter how polite he was to the owner, no matter his standing as Brooklyn’s borough president. Then a pastor gave him an idea. Mr. Adams slipped on a hoodie and Timberland boots, rang the neighbor’s doorbell and reintroduced himself a little less politely, he said. After that, the dog stayed away.
“Let people know you are not the one to mess with,” he advised the predominantly Black graduating class at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. He closed with a prediction for those who said he would never be mayor: “I’m going to put my hoodie on, and I’m going to make it happen.”
That electoral prophecy might well hold up. The story does not.
It was the pastor, Robert Waterman, who actually had the neighbor with the dog and the confrontation at the door, both men said in interviews. Mr. Adams just liked how it sounded. “It was a great story I heard,” he told The New York Times recently. “I heard him preach, and I told him, ‘I’m going to tell that story.’”
With Mr. Adams, 61, now poised to become New York City’s next mayor, the episode at once reflects his political superpower and greatest potential vulnerability: a comfort with public shape-shifting that would make him the biggest City Hall wild card in decades. He propagates and discards narratives about himself, rarely sweating the details.
His highest principle can appear to be the perpetuation of the Eric Adams story, one that he hopes will deliver him from a streetwise childhood in Brooklyn and Queens to the seat of power in Lower Manhattan. He speaks with almost spiritual zeal about his personal evolution — he is a meditating, globe-trotting, vegan former police officer — but can slide into vague aphorisms on policy matters.
“I am you,” he tells voters.
That this slogan has rung true across multiple constituencies — police critics and police officers, service workers and real estate barons — speaks forcefully to Mr. Adams’s embrace of ostensible contradictions: He can be, and prefers to be, many things at once, presenting himself as living proof that they are not mutually exclusive.
Primary voters responded to Mr. Adams’s message that police reform and public safety did not have to exist in tension. Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times
He has alternately referred to himself as a “pragmatic moderate” and “the original progressive.” He claims to take bubble baths with roses and has said he would carry a handgun in church. He is openly self-aggrandizing and self-critical, appraising himself as a transformative leader while insisting he ends each day with a self-flagellating diary entry: “How did you drop the ball today, Eric? How did you blow it?”
He is, perhaps most bewildering of all to his primary opponents in the spring, a Democrat celebrated by the right-leaning New York Post. He dined in Manhattan earlier this year with Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corp, the paper’s parent company, and others from the organization. “Good conversation,” Mr. Adams said. (His campaign noted that Mr. Adams has also met with the leaders of other major daily newspapers in the city, including The Times.)
Such world-straddling dexterity has served Mr. Adams well as a candidate. Primary voters warmed to his core message that public safety and police reform could coexist. Benefactors as distinct as Mayor Bill de Blasio, a professed progressive, and Michael R. Bloomberg, his billionaire technocrat predecessor, have allowed themselves to see validation in his success.
But the mayoralty is about choices: the priorities to pursue, the compromises to accept, the company to keep. By his own account, Mr. Adams — who is expected to win election next month — has been plotting a path to City Hall since at least the 1990s.
It is far less clear how he might proceed once he gets there.
While he has produced a raft of proposals, some more detailed than others, on subjects ranging from expanded child care to affordable housing, Mr. Adams has defaulted most often in public forums to a broad emphasis on keeping the streets safe, reversing government dysfunction and being business-friendly as the city emerges from the pandemic.
Across 130 interviews with friends, aides, colleagues and other associates, the only consensus was that the range of possible outcomes in an Adams administration is vast. Relentless reformer or machine politician? Blunt truth-teller or unreliable narrator?
“This should be a very interesting experience for us, having him as mayor,” said David Paterson, the former New York governor and a longtime friend.
Even Mr. Adams can seem unsure precisely what to expect of himself. Speaking at the White House in July, as part of a national introduction that found him anointing himself the “face of the new Democratic Party,” Mr. Adams took a moment to dwell on his uncommon résumé.
He was a former officer, he said before the assembled cameras. A former Republican. A former juvenile scofflaw assaulted by the police.
He held for a beat.
“I’m so many formers,” Mr. Adams said, smiling a little. “I’m trying to figure out the current.”
Every politician curates. But few can seem as dedicated to the craft as Mr. Adams.
He has a deftly embroidered anecdote for every city occasion, as if his ups and downs were interwoven with New York’s: born in Brownsville, Brooklyn; raised in South Jamaica, Queens; the son of a single mother, Dorothy, a house cleaner and a cook — a union woman, he reminds union audiences.
When Mr. Adams speaks about homelessness, he says he grew up on the verge of it himself, taking a bag of clothes to school in case of sudden eviction and caring for a pet rat named Mickey. When he pushes a plan for universal dyslexia screening, he describes his own long-undiagnosed learning disability and the teacher who smacked him so hard “it left a handprint on my face.” Weeks before the primary, Mr. Adams said that he had been a teenage squeegee man — and was thus best equipped to handle any resurgence in squeegee men.
Many of these accounts are difficult to verify. They have also proved irresistible to voters: No candidate was as determined, or effective, in placing the personal at the center of the campaign. “I wanted to tell my narrative,” Mr. Adams said, sipping peppermint tea last month during a wide-ranging interview at a diner near Borough Hall. “People could say, ‘Hey, this guy is one of ours.’”
In Mr. Adams’s telling, the signal event of his young life came at 15, when he and his older brother were arrested for trespassing and beaten in custody. Rather than embittering him, Mr. Adams has said, the trauma helped coax him to become a police officer and change the profession from within.
His 22 years in law enforcement, until his retirement from the New York Police Department in 2006, ran parallel to a career as an activist and a burgeoning interest in politics.
In 1995, Mr. Adams helped form an advocacy group, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, that pushed for racial justice and burnished his reputation as an irritant to police leadership. (Mr. Adams has suggested that he may have been targeted for his outspokenness — perhaps by another police officer — when, he said, an unknown assailant once shot at his car. The car had a shattered back window, but no other evidence corroborated his speculation about the shooter.)
Around the same time, Mr. Adams began speaking with Bill Lynch, a top adviser to David N. Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, about what it might take to become the second.
Mr. Adams said Mr. Lynch had four pieces of advice: get a bachelor’s degree (John Jay College, 1998); rise in management ranks in the department (he retired as a captain); work in Albany (he joined the State Senate in 2007); and become a borough president.
“He wanted to be mayor as much as I wanted to be borough president,” said Marty Markowitz, his Borough Hall predecessor, who served three terms as an enthusiastic booster for Brooklyn.
For Mr. Adams, the 2021 primary campaign amounted to the triumphant melding of meticulous planning and finely tuned biography. He likes to say that his opponents hoped voters would “hear” their message; he wanted them to “feel” his. He is now heavily favored next month against Curtis Sliwa, his Republican opponent.
Yet like any worthy storyteller, Mr. Adams has made choices about what to emphasize and what to elide, carefully guarding certain pieces of himself and working to recast others.
When his mother died earlier this year, he surprised friends by not publicly revealing it for months, even as he continued speaking about her on the campaign trail. He instructed siblings not to write about her on social media because it might create a “circus,” according to a comment on Facebook from one of his brothers.
He speaks little of his first campaign: a congressional run in 1994, when he did not make the ballot, claiming his petition signatures had been stolen. Police said at the time that they had turned up no evidence of this. Mr. Adams also jumped to the Republican Party during the Giuliani administration and has strained to explain why, by turns calling the move a protest against failed Democratic leadership and saying he ultimately regretted the whole thing.
Even his political origin story, his teenage arrest, has shifted over time. He had long said that he and his older brother entered the home of a prostitute to take money she owed them for running errands. “We went into this prostitute’s apartment,” Mr. Adams said in 2015.
In his interview with The Times, the woman had been refashioned to “a go-go dancer who we were helping that broke her leg.” If she had been a prostitute, he added, “I don’t know about that.”
Other amendments to, and exclusions from, Mr. Adams’s autobiography have ranged from the procedural to the absurd. His political runs have prompted inquiries from election authorities and assorted fines. For years, he did not register his rental property in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with the city, as required. He also failed to report rental income to the federal government and blamed his accountant, whom Mr. Adams said last year he had had difficulty finding because the man was living in a homeless shelter.
The last days of the primary were shadowed by questions of whether Mr. Adams even lived in New York: After a Politico article chronicled confusion about where he spent his nights, Mr. Adams invited cameras into the Brooklyn property, where he said he resided. The campaign hoped the tour would quell suspicions that Mr. Adams actually lived in Fort Lee, N.J., where he owns a co-op with his longtime companion, Tracey Collins. It did not. Reporters noted the Brooklyn space included non-vegan food and sneakers that appeared to belong to Mr. Adams’s adult son, Jordan Coleman.
Often enough, Mr. Adams has stayed in neither residence. He made a show of sleeping at the office in the early days of the pandemic last year, in a performance of total job commitment. But former aides say this image belied a more peculiar reality: Mr. Adams created a home of sorts at Borough Hall well before the pandemic, walking the grounds in his socks, stocking the fridge with pre-cut vegetables, working out on exercise machines, meditating to Middle Eastern music and sleeping on a couch in the office (he later put a mattress on the floor).
In the interview, Mr. Adams said he might continue the practice at City Hall. “Probably have a little cot there,” he said, “getting up in the morning and just hopping right to work.”
Mr. Adams’s sleeping arrangement is the most public expression of what people around New York politics have long said quietly: He is, plainly, an unusual man.
He says his favorite concert was a 1990 Curtis Mayfield show in Brooklyn, where a stage collapse left Mr. Mayfield partially paralyzed before he ever sang a note.
He unsettled a New York official in a conversation around 2015 by praising the physical prowess of Vladimir Putin while making small talk and claiming he had a Putin book at his bedside, according to a person present.
He has appeared to suggest that holding office enhanced his romantic prospects.
“As the state senator and borough president, I’ve had the opportunity to date some of the most attractive women in this city,” Mr. Adams said in a 2015 graduation speech, discussing the importance of presentation. “And I’m not taking you anywhere with me to a $500 dinner if you’ve got two tattoos on your neck saying, ‘Lick me.’” (A spokesman, Evan Thies, said that the candidate had misspoken in implying that he had dated widely as borough president, adding that Mr. Adams was in a “committed relationship” with Ms. Collins.)
Some tend to conflate Mr. Adams’s eccentricities with his veganism — a disservice, healthy-eating advocates say, to the plant-based regimen that has come to define his worldview.
His health journey began with a diabetes diagnosis in 2016, he has said, after he experienced vision issues and nerve damage. He has credited diet and exercise with erasing the diagnosis, sparing him possible blindness and amputation and ushering him, he has suggested, to an elevated psychological plane.
“That atom stuff and Newton stuff, that is so old news in comparison to what is real,” he said at a 2019 event about food and education, describing the underdeveloped “intellectual digestive system” of others. “I tap into that in my life, and people just can’t really get it.”
The transformation has intimately informed his governance: Asked to cite accomplishments over his two terms, Mr. Adams was quickest to highlight a partnership with Bellevue Hospital to promote plant-based diets, before plugging a “Meatless Mondays” initiative in schools.
But just as important politically, Mr. Adams and his allies have adopted the language of destiny to explain his health reversal and subsequent successes, suggesting that higher forces were steering his story.
“The hand of God,” Laurie Cumbo, a Brooklyn councilwoman, said of his primary victory.
“That’s a new lease on life,” Mr. Adams said of his recovery. “Everything becomes possible.”
Mr. Adams has a talent for making friends with the politically friendless.
During the primary, he was the only mayoral candidate to reach out privately to Scott Stringer, a competitor, after Mr. Stringer was accused of sexual harassment, people close to Mr. Stringer said.
In Mr. de Blasio’s case, the bond was strengthened in tragedy. In late 2014, the murder of two police officers plunged the mayor into political crisis. He had campaigned on a pledge to remake the department. Now, rank-and-file officers were turning their backs to him in public. Union leaders said he had blood on his hands. City Hall aides struggled to find surrogates to defend him. Mr. Adams did not hesitate.
“Blood is not on the hands of the mayor,” he said on “Meet the Press,” giving Mr. de Blasio a measure of cover from a former lawman.
Seven years later, Mr. de Blasio’s choice of successor surprised few who knew the mayor well: While he did not endorse in the primary, he communicated privately with labor leaders to boost Mr. Adams and undercut his rivals, including former members of the de Blasio administration and those with whom the mayor appeared more ideologically aligned.
“During the low moments,” Mr. Adams said in the interview, “people remember who was there.”
To the extent that Mr. Adams has been underestimated, as he often says, this skill has been most overlooked: He is a canny builder and keeper of relationships, a long-game player in a short-attention-span business, rarely rushing to call in a chit but always mindful of the historical ledger. He has spent years cultivating bonds with power brokers — lawmakers, developers, religious leaders — who proved crucial to his primary victory.
Public visibility at street festivals and block parties has been paramount in his borough presidency. Mr. Adams once asked staff for the names of every Turkish restaurant in South Brooklyn to help him build ties with that community, a former aide said.
“You know who was ringing my phone saying, ‘You’ve got to endorse Eric’?” recalled Mr. Paterson, the former governor. “It wasn’t African Americans. It was people I knew in the Orthodox community in Brooklyn.”
Yet there is a flip side to such savviness, friends say. Mr. Adams has been known to keep politically unsavory company: the scandal-tarred, the lobbyist class, the donor with business before his office. He says he makes his own determinations about people, never judging others by their lowest moments, even when colleagues think he probably should.
Mr. Adams’s first exposure to elected power — his seven years in Albany — is perhaps the most telling barometer of how he might operate in higher office, a testing ground for the kinds of alliances and ethical temptations likely to surround him at City Hall.
Mustachioed and burly back then, shuttling to the capital in a BMW convertible, Mr. Adams could be known more often for his forcefulness at a news conference than his follow-through on a policy.
He pushed for legislative pay raises as a freshman in 2007 (“Show me the money!” he thundered from the Senate floor), lamented the low-slung pants of Brooklyn’s male youth (“Stop the Sag!” read his neighborhood billboards, placing Mr. Adams’s headshot beside the backsides of the belt-averse) and filmed an instructional video showing parents how to uncover contraband in their own homes.
“Behind a picture frame, you can find bullets,” Mr. Adams said, finding bullets behind a picture frame in what appeared to be his own home.
But such stunt work and media baiting could obscure his growing clout. When two Democratic senators imperiled the fragile majority the party had won in 2008 by aligning with Republicans, Mr. Adams helped negotiate an end to the standoff and worked to install a new leader, John Sampson.
Mr. Adams became chairman of the Senate’s committee on racing, gaming and wagering, where he raised money prodigiously from the industry. Lawmakers and lobbyists praised him as curious and engaged, willing to spend hours on the road visiting racetracks and conveying deep interest in his audience. “I was really impressed with how smart and inquisitive he was,” said Rory Whelan, a Republican lobbyist who hosted fund-raisers for him. “Then I realized, ‘OK, of course, he’s a former police officer. He asks a lot of questions.’”
Mr. Adams sponsored some 20 bills that became law. These included expanding affordable housing access for veterans and requiring greater disclosure of refund policies at stores.
His most enduring contribution while in the Legislature did not involve legislation: As the police tactic of stop-and-frisk proliferated under Mr. Bloomberg, with stops overwhelmingly ensnaring Black and Latino men, Mr. Adams supplied key testimony against the department. The judge cited him favorably in her 2013 ruling that police had targeted such New Yorkers unconstitutionally.
Mr. Adams also focused on matters of race more particular to the capital. He pushed people with interests before his committee to hire Black lobbyists, people who worked with him said. And he demonstrated unfailing loyalty when allies succumbed to scandal, telling fellow Democrats that some charges against legislators of color were a racially motivated plot, according to people present.
When one friend, Hiram Monserrate, a former police officer, was expelled from the Senate in a lopsided vote after being convicted of misdemeanor assault for dragging his girlfriend down a hallway, Mr. Adams opposed the measure.
When Democrats moved to replace Mr. Sampson, who was later convicted of trying to thwart a federal investigation, over questions of ethics and ineffectiveness, Mr. Adams tried in vain to keep him in charge.
Mr. Adams’s own conduct in Albany often troubled watchdogs and good-government groups.
He was criticized in a 2010 inspector general’s report for fund-raising from and fraternizing with bidders for a casino contract. Mr. Adams told investigators that staff memos on the bids were “just too wordy,” and he educated himself by talking to lobbyists and looking at a summary document. The matter was referred to federal prosecutors, but no action was taken.
Mr. Adams also drew unwelcome attention for traveling to South Korea in 2011 with Ms. Collins, Mr. Sampson and an Albany lobbyist, among others, nominally to learn about renewable energy. Mr. Adams would say little when questioned about the trip, which was paid for in part by campaign funds and described by people familiar with it as a junket.
He has continued to travel widely as borough president, taking several official trips that extended well beyond the typical purview of a local politician. He has made at least seven foreign trips under the banner of his office, some of which were paid for in part by foreign governments or nonprofits, to destinations that included Senegal, Turkey and Cuba. Presenting himself as a global wheeler-dealer to voters in his multicultural borough, Mr. Adams signed at least five sister city agreements on Brooklyn’s behalf in countries he visited, including two in China.
A proposed “friendship archway” partnership with the Chinese government, planned under his predecessor, became a major governing priority: Mr. Adams allocated millions of dollars toward a plan to build a 40-foot structure in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Sunset Park, flummoxing some city officials who wondered why he had invested so much time and travel in the venture.
Other locations were likewise dear to him. Mr. Adams has said he would like to retire in Israel someday. Also Lebanon. And Azerbaijan.
“When I retire from government, I’m going to live in Baku,” he said in 2018 at the Baku Palace restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
Mr. Adams also made personal trips in recent years to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, according to his campaign and people familiar with his travel.
Mr. Adams can vacillate between secretive and swaggering when discussing his travel, refusing to tell reporters where he vacationed recently (it was Monaco) but often maintaining that his air miles serve an official purpose.
“I’ve been back and forth to China seven times, back and forth to Turkey eight times,” he said in a 2019 speech. “I’m not a domesticated leader. I’m a global leader.”
But global leadership has its limits: The Chinese friendship archway was never built.
Mr. Adams would enter City Hall with an unusually strong hand. Almost no one — including, it can seem, Mr. Adams — knows how he might play it.
Unlike most mayors, who suffer from a little-sibling power deficit with state government, Mr. Adams can expect considerable deference from Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is running for a full term next year. Her success in a statewide primary will depend largely on her performance with Mr. Adams’s coalition of nonwhite voters in the city, boosting his leverage in any negotiation.
“He’s finally gotten to the point in his life where he has some juice,” said Norman Siegel, the former leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a longtime supporter. “Now that you have the power, are you going to use it?”
He most certainly will, allies say. They are just not sure to what end.
“People will make a mistake if they think they know what he will do,” said Bertha Lewis, a veteran activist who has known Mr. Adams for decades. “But I believe he will actually do something about this tale of two cities.”
Early evidence is mixed. Since the primary, Mr. Adams has readily embraced the wealthy and powerful New Yorkers hoping to woo the presumptive next mayor, suggesting a tension between a campaign that stresses his blue-collar bearing and a candidate, associates say, who can relish the perks of his position.
He has collected fund-raising checks in the Hamptons, on Martha’s Vineyard and at exclusive addresses across the city, enough that he recently chose to forgo public matching funds. He has been a nightlife regular at a private club in NoHo, gabbing merrily with Ronn Torossian, a publicist with past ties to former President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Adams also caused a minor social media sensation this summer after dining at Rao’s, East Harlem’s gleefully decadent purveyor of red sauce and Mafia stories, with Bo Dietl, a roguish former police detective, and John Catsimatidis, a billionaire friend of Mr. Trump’s.
“I’m concerned people could use him,” Mr. Siegel said of Mr. Adams. “He needs to have people around him that are guardrails.”
The Rao’s outing, at least, prompted a scolding from an old friend. “You’re going to be mayor now,” the Rev. Al Sharpton recalled telling him: Appearances matter.
“He says, ‘Well, I hear you,” Mr. Sharpton said, laughing. “‘But you know me. I’m going to do me.’”
Some supporters suggest that Mr. Adams has grown more serious through the years, especially since his time in Albany.
For the past two years, he has been putting himself through what he calls “mayor school,” a series of study sessions with civic leaders and municipal experts. His campaign has been generally disciplined despite Mr. Adams’s freewheeling reputation, allowing him to edge out his primary rivals in what was effectively the first competitive race of his life.
Mr. Sharpton said Mr. Adams has occasionally asked to be reminded of an axiom from James Brown, the famed soulster who was Mr. Sharpton’s mentor. In the story, Mr. Brown points at a ladder. “He said, ‘The higher you go, the more you better watch a misstep,’” Mr. Sharpton remembered. “And Eric has asked me at least 10 times, ‘What’s that misstep thing?’ And I think he understands: You’re at the top of the ladder now.”
Mr. Adams amended the analogy. “The higher you rise,” he said in the interview, “the more people can shoot at your butt.”
But his fund-raising has again invited ethical concerns. The campaign sometimes failed to disclose the identities of people who raised money for him or to list fund-raisers thrown for him as in-kind contributions, in apparent violation of city campaign finance law.
Asked whether a pattern of missteps in his own dealings with the government should give voters pause, Mr. Adams said he would not “apologize for being a human.”
“It’s going to be a joy knowing I don’t have to manage the $98 billion budget — I have an O.M.B. director,” he said. “I don’t have to manage the Police Department. I have a commissioner.”
Still, former aides questioned Mr. Adams’s willingness to delegate, especially on policing.
While he has said he surrounds himself with people who are “brutally honest,” some employees say he does not always appreciate dissent. “This is my ship,” he would say when challenged, according to one of them. “I am the captain of the ship.”
Mr. Adams has long argued that Black leaders are held to a different standard, and former colleagues expect he will do the same at City Hall.
Confronted at a community meeting in 2019 about employees parking illegally around Borough Hall, Mr. Adams said that if other officials were abusing their placards, he would not chastise his own team. “I fought my entire life to make sure men that look like me don’t have different rules than everyone else,” he said. “It’s not going to be a rule just for Eric Adams.”
While he calls himself thick-skinned, Mr. Adams retains a mental archive of slights and grievances, describing in one breath those who were “mean” to him during the primary and insisting in the next that he holds no grudges.
For a man who seems to appreciate his own idiosyncrasies, often speaking about himself in the third person as if admiring his story at a remove, Mr. Adams can at times reduce the world around him to binary categories: winners and losers, lions and sheep, doers and haters.
“Turn your haters into your waiters,” he has told audiences, “and give them a 15 percent tip.”
At one point in the interview, Mr. Adams was asked why some doubt his capacity to surround himself with good people, to rise to the job he is likely to claim.
He laughed. He smiled. He stared straight ahead.
He had his own question.
“Why do I keep winning?”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.