A primary aim of American progressive politics is assembling multiracial working-class coalitions. One candidate in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary appears to be doing that. He is, unfortunately for the left, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, an ex-cop and former Republican who defends the use of stop-and-frisk, supports charter schools and is endorsed by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.
While mayoral primaries are hard to poll — especially this one, the first New York primary to use ranked-choice voting — surveys show Adams is leading. If he wins, he’ll do it with a coalition unlike any in the city’s modern history.
David Dinkins and Bill de Blasio prevailed by uniting people of color, particularly Black voters, with white liberals. Adams would win by uniting Black voters with white moderates and conservatives against liberals, particularly the “young white affluent people” who he claims lead the defund-the-police movement.
An Adams administration would most likely be a head-spinning time of marginalization for the left. Just three years ago, New York City seemed an epicenter of democratic socialism with the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. One year ago, mass demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd sparked national demands to reimagine policing. For New York Democrats to choose a law-and-order mayor now would be seen as a rebuke to progressives all over the country.
So I can hardly believe I’m going to put Adams on my ballot. But as Andrew Yang has grown increasingly strident about public order, I’ve started to think that Adams might be only the second-worst of the viable candidates.
Many progressive groups are urging people not to rank either, which makes sense if you think they’re equally bad. The contest between Adams and Yang has become less urgent as Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia, my top two choices, have surged and Yang has faded. But it’s still possible that the race could come down to the two men, and I believe in always choosing the lesser of two evils. New Yorkers can rank up to five names. I’m planning to put Adams fifth.
The writer Ross Barkan has argued that, for the left, Yang would be preferable. Lacking a real political base, Barkan wrote, Yang would be susceptible to progressive pressure. Adams, by contrast, “would be strong enough to tell the socialists, the progressives, the Working Families Party, the NGOs and the ordinary activists shouting outside Gracie Mansion that he does not need them to run the city.”
I think Barkan is right that Yang would be less hostile to left-wing organizations. But I suspect that Adams, precisely because he’s more beholden to Black voters, would end up giving us more progressive governance.
It was Yang’s answers on homelessness and mental health at the final debate that finally settled it for me. Every other candidate spoke of homelessness as a disaster for the homeless. Yang discussed it as a quality of life problem for everyone else. “Yes, mentally ill people have rights, but you know who else have rights?” he asked. “We do: the people and families of the city.”
For Yang, I suspect, a successful mayoralty would mean restoring Michael Bloomberg’s New York, an extremely safe, pleasant place for tourists and well-off families like mine, but one where many poorer people were financially squeezed and strictly policed. Even if Yang could, as a political novice, stand up to the N.Y.P.D., he’d have little reason to, since his remit would be safety at almost any cost.
As David Freedlander wrote for New York in his excellent, damning deep dive on some of Adams’s shady connections, Adams would most likely be an old-fashioned machine mayor. But at their best, the old machines delivered for their supporters. For Adams, that would mean, among other things, protecting his voters from bad policing as well as rising crime.
On Thursday, the former Harlem assemblyman Keith Wright endorsed Adams. Wright is a son of Bruce Wright, a famously liberal judge known as “Turn ’Em Loose Bruce” who was loathed by the N.Y.P.D. As a child, Wright said, his family used to receive packages of excrement in the mail; they believed the police sent them.
Wright said he’s counting on Adams, who spoke out against police brutality from within the force, to reform the N.Y.P.D. “The relationship between communities of color and police have been fractured at best,” he told me. He hopes that “a person that has served in the Police Department would know the inner workings and could address some of the problems that have become a cancer to our city.”
Given the power of the N.Y.P.D., his optimism might be misplaced. But as Freedlander acknowledged, “To this day, those who know Adams describe him as deeply committed to racial justice.” Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University, expects an Adams administration to lack transparency and be cozy with real estate developers. But, she added, “Do I think that he genuinely cares about Black people and people in Brooklyn and ergo the citizens of New York? I do.”
Unlike Yang, Adams can’t just jump-start gentrification and declare victory. He’ll owe his office to people who expect more.