“No one is getting on the train,” he said. “I talk to people, and they say, ‘I can’t afford to take an Uber, but I took an Uber.’ There’s a state of any and everything goes in this city.”
Adams, a moderate Democrat, former police officer and Brooklyn borough president, praised Mike Bloomberg — who championed an aggressive policing method called “stop and frisk” — as one of his favorite mayors in the city’s history. He even credited former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is reviled among New York Democrats, for “taking on some dysfunctionality in the government,” while offering broader criticisms of his tenure.
Whether Democratic primary voters share his dystopian vision of a struggling Big Apple and turn toward law-and-order policies will determine whether Adams becomes the next mayor — and will speak to how New York sees itself as it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic and picks a new mayor for the first time in eight years.
Next Tuesday’s primary comes after a year in which covid-19 killed more than 30,000 in New York and brought the city to a near standstill. Unemployment surged, thousands of businesses closed and much of the city’s moneyed elite escaped. Crime has risen, though it is far from the heights of the 1980s. Midtown remains considerably emptier than before the health crisis, though business leaders say people are slowly returning.
Adams has invoked the city’s new shadows in a campaign that challenges the call by the Democratic Party’s liberal wing to overhaul policing — he has called for more police on the streets, not fewer.
“His win depends on public safety being the top issue,” said Kathryn Wylde, who leads the influential Partnership for New York City, an organization of the city’s top business leaders.
The race is fluid, but the field appears to be down to four main contenders. Along with Adams, there is Kathryn Garcia, a longtime city official and former Sanitation Department commissioner who has surged in recent polls after securing prominent endorsements. Maya Wiley, a former City Hall lawyer and the daughter of a prominent civil rights activist, has secured influential liberal backers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her promises to slash the size of the police force, among other issues. One-time presidential candidate Andrew Yang — the only bona fide celebrity in the race, who once led the polls with his unorthodox policy positions, city boosterism and name recognition — has faded some but remains in the running.
A splintered field and the city’s new ranked-choice voting — in which voters pick their preferences if their first choice is eliminated — have made it difficult to assess the race, according to strategists and consultants. No one knows how many people will vote. And in rough-and-tumble New York politics, there is always a possibility for a final surprise. Last week, for instance, Adams was forced to show reporters the inside of his Brooklyn house — even the contents of his refrigerator — after Politico reported that he had been living at his office and in New Jersey.
Still, Adams is largely viewed as the front-runner. Of 26 New York political consultants, lobbyists, strategists and other influential New York political figures interviewed by The Washington Post, 18 predicted he would win.
“It’s a weird, messy race in a weird, messy time,” said Jonathan Rosen, a prominent consultant who was a key strategist for Bill de Blasio’s successful mayoral bid in 2013. “It’s great.”
'Stay focused, don't be distracted'
As two Chinese lion dancers performed last week at an opening of an Adams campaign office in Queens, a skirmish broke out.
Two protesters in the crowd holding signs declaring that Adams loves billionaires began shouting. Some of his supporters shoved them. Others shouted back. His news conference, a mundane ribbon-cutting, had become a chaotic scene with cameras rolling. Adams tried to quell the disruption.
“Stay focused, don’t be distracted, and grind,” Adams, 60, told supporters. They chanted the words back in response.
That, in some ways, has been the message of the Adams campaign. Liberals have flayed him for past comments supporting Giuliani, for previously registering as a Republican, for his unwillingness to make some commitments on affordable housing and his support of “stop and frisk” policing.
His campaign said earlier this spring he would amend his federal tax filings after he failed to report rental income from a Brooklyn property. And he has been criticized for telling state investigators pursuing a corruption probe that he did not recall certain interactions with donors. He recently came under fire for suggesting that teachers could handle a massive class of up to 400 students via Zoom — only to say later that he misspoke. And his reliance on real estate contributors and other donors, including those with business in front of the city, has drawn scrutiny.
“We have incredible transparency,” he said of his fundraising practices.
Adams, who has called for moving police officers from behind desks and hiring more officers, has stayed atop the polls as he has talked about crime and quality of life in the city.
“Eric has been consistent on his message the whole time,” Rosen said. “All the chattering class were saying he’s not speaking to the mood and the moment.”
But, he added, “Adams had a sense where the median Democratic voter was on issues, and he came into this with a sense that people feel hard-fought and long-held gains on community stability and crime are slipping away.”
Evan Thies, a political consultant for Adams, said that during the past few months, crime had been the top issue in every campaign poll. “The premise of the campaign was, and the reality of New York is, people feel unsettled,” Thies said.
To be sure, crime in New York has not skyrocketed — and it is far from the violent days of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s. City statistics show murders and other violent crimes are higher than they were before the pandemic, but a fraction of the 2,000 homicides a year that New York saw decades ago. There have been 181 murders this year in New York compared with 162 at the same time last year, an uptick of 11.7 percent.
Much of the city has roared back to life. On a recent evening, a line snaked down the block in the Meatpacking District as 20-somethings rushed to enter nightclubs such as Tao. The hum of street dining chatter punctuated Brooklyn Heights as people sipped on $15 frozen tiki drinks with palm fronds. Subway trains were packed on a recent Thursday during a rush hour with professionals heading home from Manhattan.
“This is the safest big city in the U.S.,” said Bryan Clampitt, a Chelsea voter and Wiley supporter. “He’s pandering to the most base fears of people who think that crime is out of control.”
Still, crime has worsened, particularly in Midtown Manhattan — with a spike in homelessness and robberies — and in other neighborhoods around the city, according to police statistics.
“Every single day of the week, we see people lying on the street, passed out, needles in their arms,” said Barbara Blair, a longtime New Yorker who leads the Garment District Alliance, adding: “The conditions are inexcusable. There is a really high level of frustration.”
Sid Davidoff, who worked for Mayor John Lindsay in the 1960s and has lived in New York since, said the mood had shifted since 2013. Then, he was a leading backer of de Blasio, who championed aggressive reforms at the New York Police Department and waged an ideological crusade against income inequality.
“All of that rhetoric is taking a back seat to our jobs, being safe and getting the city back. This is a time when we need more moderate leadership,” Davidoff said.
This time, the four leading candidates have said they were not seeking de Blasio’s endorsement. Another longtime New Yorker who is staying out of the race: the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader who said he likes Adams but is unsure he would make the kind of changes he wants at the Police Department and whether he could “strike the right balance.”
Adams, meanwhile, has cultivated the business and lobbying community with private calls and fundraisers with billionaire donors where he has promised to be pragmatic, according to interviews with more than a dozen lobbyists, as well as business and real estate figures. Wylde, the head of the business group, said her members were most comfortable with him — a sentiment shared by others in the city’s real estate and business community. Some privately joke that he is still a Republican.
“Nobody thinks he is going to be ideological at all,” said George Fontas, a prominent lobbyist. “He has been explicitly pro-business.”
'They didn't arrest a soul'
Wiley, 57, is making an entirely different bet.
The police force in New York, she says, will shrink if she wins. In a recent debate, she would not commit to officers being armed, although she later did. In an interview, when asked about effective policing, she cited an initiative in Glendale, Ariz., in which police worked with managers of a local convenience store on a plan that increased staffing and redesigned stores to help prevent thefts.
“They didn’t arrest a soul,” she said.
Wiley praised a 1970s-era New York police chief who stayed out of largely Black communities when unrest was likely, fearing police would make it worse. She talks about slavery and racial injustice and touted a recent conversation with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a liberal icon.
She said she envisions a larger city government, a broader safety net and hiking taxes on the wealthy, with no New Yorker paying more than 30 percent of income in rent. She spent some of a recent event talking about her enslaved forebears, calling it a “reality we have never addressed in our country.”
“Our path has been the same since day one, which is Black, Latino, progressives of all races and ages, and White women,” Wiley said. “That has always been our path and coalition.”
Wiley faces staunch opposition in the city’s business class but has gained some momentum in recent weeks, with progressive forces coalescing behind her after other liberal candidates largely fell off the radar. Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, said he decided to endorse her recently after hearing other candidates talk in dark terms about crime in the city.
“We don’t need to give into old narratives and false choices. For so many of us, those bad old days ran through Bloomberg and Giuliani,” he said.
Some remain skeptical of Wiley’s ability to make changes inside the NYPD. “There are some real questions about her leading at the CCRB,” said Sharpton, referring to a police oversight agency she led for a year.
Other critics note that as a lawyer in the mayor’s office, she came up with the legal explanation de Blasio used to shield much of his correspondence from the public and approved some of his relationships with donors that were later investigated by federal authorities. She has no experience running a large bureaucracy, they say, and even allies say she has been an uneven campaigner.
'You want a picture?'
Yang, 46, pulled up to the Lower East Side in a Land Rover on a recent Wednesday morning around 9 a.m. and went into a bodega. Unrecognized, he ordered a hot dog and wandered around Delancey Street aimlessly with two aides until people on the street started to notice the former 2020 presidential hopeful.
“You want a picture?” he said repeatedly, standing by a subway stop and handing out fliers.
He posed for selfies. Over and over and over. It was a scorching morning — sweat poured off most everyone — but he remained starched and sweat-free. “Even when he takes his jacket off, there aren’t any stains,” said his wife, Evelyn Yang.
It was an hour of photos, fist bumps and little else. Yang walked into a Chase bank and greeted the tellers counting money. He gave interviews for 10 minutes outside a market and then was pulled away.
After initially being propelled by his relentless boosterism of the city in the early days of the mayoral race, Yang has struggled to develop a coherent message, political strategists say.
Public polls show he has faded considerably after fielding attacks for never voting in a New York City election, leaving during the pandemic, running after he lost his presidential bid, having little management experience and not being previously involved in the city. It is unclear how many of those who wanted a photo with him will actually vote, though his team says he will attract first-time voters.
Some of the other campaigns said they believed his celebrity status had worked against him because he received so much media scrutiny.
Yang dismisses the doubters, and his aides said they believe he can attract first-time voters more than any other candidate: “We have numbers that say it’s going to be a close race.”
Wylde said city leaders appreciated that Yang was a booster during the city’s dark days of the pandemic. When JetBlue threatened to move operations to Florida, Wylde said Yang was the candidate who picked up the phone and dialed the CEO. “Everyone wants a mayor who would do that,” she said.
“But they just don’t think he has the experience or knowledge of the city,” she said of her members. “They question how he’s going to run a government of 330,000 employees with really no relationships or network in New York.”
Most of his rivals speak of Yang with visceral disdain. “He checks the least amount of everything,” Adams said. Garcia laughed at Yang’s suggestion he would hire her as his deputy mayor. “It tells you a lot,” she said.
Yang said he wants to be a Bloomberg-like mayor and would recruit talented people to New York, while bringing a business-minded approach to the post.
“It’s not like I’ve been scheming and planning a mayoral run for years and years,” he said. “If you look at some of the people who have been positioning themselves, they are going to be repaying the hundreds of favors that got them into office.”
'A mayor who can deliver'
Garcia, 51, rolled up to a Brooklyn park in a van plastered with her face on it and began her event eight minutes early on a recent morning. She was there to announce a new jobs plan. There was little fanfare and few cameras. The event ended by the time it was supposed to begin. She was not recognized by anyone as she sat on a park bench for 45 minutes and parried questions from a reporter. She wore a necklace with her name on it as she traipsed the city.
Garcia’s campaign has had little pizazz. A former sanitation commissioner under de Blasio and a top water official under Bloomberg, she grows animated when talking about picking up billions of tons of garbage every day and the New York watershed.
“There was tons of glamour,” she said with a joking glint in her eye, as the discussion moved to trash.
Her selling point: She will be effective.
“I will get to work early, work late and do the job,” she said. “Covid has dramatically changed what New Yorkers want in a mayor. They want a mayor who can deliver.”
She has gained significant traction in recent weeks after endorsements from the New York Times editorial board and others.
“The Times being full-throated for Kathryn came exactly at the moment that the Jerry Nadler constituent class was starting to lock in on this race and not loving their choices,” Rosen, the political consultant, said, referring to the congressman who represents part of Manhattan and Brooklyn. “It created a true stampede of momentum for her.”
During a recent fundraiser at an Upper East Side townhouse, she answered questions from some of the city’s titans in practical and nonideological terms and left the crowd impressed, according to two attendees.
“People are very comfortable with her,” Wylde said.
Garcia said working for de Blasio was a lesson in how not to manage a city. He would often show up for meetings hours late, she said, derailing entire swaths of the government for a day as they waited on him. “I wouldn’t be hours late,” she said. She added that she would also not be as reactionary as de Blasio. “We’d wake up and whatever was on the front page, that’s what we were going to do that day,” she said.
And he treated his commissioners poorly, Garcia said. “He was not the nicest person,” she said. Because, she said, he was not focused on the city agencies, “I’d just ask for forgiveness and not permission.”
In contrast, Garcia said she would pick strong commissioners, give clear directions and allow city employees to work and manage the city like she said Bloomberg did.
In a statement, Bill Neidhardt, a spokesman for de Blasio, said: “Those are clearly politically motivated comments and alienating Bill de Blasio’s coalition of primary voters will only lead to political ruin for any candidate. You need de Blasio’s voters to win citywide, a fact his elections wins show clearly.”
Garcia said she never wanted to be a politician and is still uncomfortable with reporters calling her neighbors and friends to vet her background. She said it was difficult to ask people for money. She has not received the deep-pocketed union support that many of her competitors have, and her mailing address for her campaign remains her Park Slope house. She admits she knows little about Twitter and could stand to learn more about politics.
But she said she’s not running to be an advocate or champion a cause.
“You're not an advocate as the mayor,” she said. “You have to actually manage and run and deliver every day.”