(CNN)For the first few months of New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, the campaign seemed to be trundling along in search of a defining issue.
Covid-19 numbers were dropping, Democrats in Washington delivered financial aid to head off a potential budget crisis and, with the outlook generally bright, the candidates’ plans — many of them crafted in painstaking detail — blurred together as the contest, which often played out in a long series of interminable Zoom forums, took a backseat to other provincial political dramas.
But with the race now entering its final stretch, a series of high-profile shootings, instances of graphic street and subway violence and a rise in hate crimes — especially against Asian Americans and Jews — have sharpened the debate. Voters, as they finally zero in on the election, are listing crime as one of their leading concerns. The spike in violence has pushed visceral concerns over public safety into the spotlight and rekindled the brand of fiery rhetoric over policing that had mostly faded during more than two decades of diminished crime rates in the city.
The upswing in gun violence, which surged during the pandemic summer of 2020 and continues to climb this year, has set off a sprint among the mayoral candidates to sell their solutions. But the issue has been seized on with particular vigor by one in particular, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a retired former captain in the New York Police Department. Adams has been the field’s most vocal advocates of stepped-up policing, calling for the return of a remodeled version of the city’s controversial plainclothes anti-crime units, which were disbanded last year. Believed to be one of the frontrunners in a wide-open race, Adams argues that he is singularly equipped to beat back and reverse the current trend.
Adams can be a confounding figure. For decades, he has been a prominent voice against racism in the NYPD, including during his time in its ranks. But the man who could become New York’s second Black mayor is just as likely to criticize the department as roll his eyes at calls for funding cuts and has defended — with caveats — some of its most controversial practices.
“People want to classify me, but because I’m complicated, it’s difficult to put me in a box,” Adams told CNN this week. “I support closing Rikers (Island jail), but also support closing the pipeline that feeds Rikers.”
Fear of ‘the bad old days’
Rises in violent crime like New York has seen over the past year are difficult to explain. Academics and public safety experts having differing theories on why crime plunged in the 1990s and, for now at least, are similarly at odds over the causes of its resurgence.
The historian and author Kim Phillips-Fein, whose 2017 book “Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics” rigorously documented the hollowing out of the city’s public sector during the 1970s, said the scars of the past were inextricable, even where the comparisons fail, from the current debate.
“Memories of the fiscal crisis and that whole period have hovered over the city over the whole past year. And certainly with the increase in crime, there’s this quick parallel, both to the 70s and 80s and 90s, when there was actually a higher level of violent crime and homicide, in particular,” Phillips-Fein told CNN. “So as soon as crime starts to go up, there is this sense that, ‘Oh, it’s all gonna come back.'”
Adams has not been the only mayoral contender to lean into those anxieties.
Andrew Yang, the businessman and 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate, has repeatedly denounced calls to “defund the police” — even as the movement has subsided and none of his rivals, save for Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive and left-most candidate in the field, have embraced it. Others, like Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and former counsel to outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner, have put more emphasis on addressing root causes with beefed up social services.
“I’ve been concerned to see crime emerging as it has in the mayoral race. I think we should avoid a politics that is focused on not going back to the ‘bad old days,'” Phillips-Fein said. “It’s important to try to understand why there’s this uptick in violent crime now and to address it in ways that don’t exacerbate the problems that drive crime in the first place.”
Adams says that his public safety platform is more well-rounded than he is given credit for. And endorsements from civil rights champions like Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, underscore his argument. But he is also more inclined than others in the field to lay blame at the feet of agencies outside of law enforcement, which he says are in as desperate need of reform as the police.
‘This is not the huggy-feely good stuff, no, this is straight logic — 55% of people in jail have learning disabilities, 80% don’t have a high school diploma or equivalency diploma,” Adams said. “So the crime is not only what (incarcerated people) did, it’s what we’re doing every day in our school system.”
‘I’m going into the deep water’
But many progressives and even some moderate Democrats are skeptical of Adams’ priorities.
After nearly four decades in or around some of the city’s most volatile political fights, the 60-year-old has gained a reputation as a nimble, aggressive practitioner with ambiguous ideological bearings — and a plainly held exasperation with parts of the activist left, which he seems to regard as either naïve or disconnected with the reality on the ground.
“You stand in the shallow part of the pool, I’m going into the deep water,” Adams said. “I don’t want a system that responds to people after a crisis exists. And so I communicate with them and they sit down and talk. Some people are so far on the fringe, they don’t want to talk with you. But others know, ‘Listen Eric, we’ve known you for 35 years. We know you’ve been a leading voice of police reform.”
New York is no stranger to confrontational mayors, and Adams’ promises to reform the NYPD, to implement and enforce a new brand of policing in the city, are also familiar.
De Blasio’s first campaign, in 2013, was largely centered on his own reform plans. Two terms later, the NYPD and its biggest officer union, the Police Benevolent Association, are unbowed. By the time demonstrations exploded across the city last summer following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, de Blasio had all but given up, frequently defending the department even in the face of clearly documented police abuse of protesters.
Adams insists that he would succeed where others have failed for a simple reason: He was a cop, he knows cops, and — unlike the rest of the Democratic primary field — has a deep understanding of how the police undermine civilian leaders.
“The police department would run rings around (the other candidates). They are masters. If you’re a good mayor, you’re only here for eight years. I’ve been here for 30-something years in the department. Police departments will wait you out,” Adams said. “And they know that whatever you hand down, they have to implement. But if you know the system, if you know the crevices, you know how to go and ensure you’re getting what you want.”
‘He comes across as complicated’
Adams’ road to political prominence began in the cauldron of the late 1970s and 1980s, when New York City, after narrowly avoiding bankruptcy in the mid 1970s by imposing an austerity budget under pressure from its creditors, spiraled into near chaos amid surging violence, a drug epidemic and rampant corruption. Adams says he decided to join the police force with a mission to change it from within — a decision that came years after he was viciously beaten, at 15 years old, by officers in a Queens precinct house.
His willingness to issue scathing denunciations of the department and fellow officers after he joined made him a divisive figure among his peers and leadership. It also helped make him a fixture on the local news, often in his capacity as the co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group that spoke out against police abuses and did outreach work in minority communities.
After a failed run for Congress in 1994 and a few now harshly scrutinized years as a registered Republican, he was elected as a Democrat to the state Senate in 2006. Later, in 2013, Adams won the first of his two terms as Brooklyn Borough president.
Adams’ entry into politics and subsequent ascent coincided with a steep decline in crime, in New York City and around the country, and the emergence more recently of a robust new progressive social justice movement.
The result has been a messy political collision drawn as much along generational as ideological lines. Adams, though impatient with some elements on the left, has nonetheless sought to assure voters he can — at once — be trusted to both stomp out police and criminal violence.
“Adams was front and center critiquing (former NYPD Commissioner) Ray Kelly during the ‘stop and frisk’ controversy,” said Mason Williams, a political scientist at Williams College and the author of a forthcoming book on New York City since the 1970s. “And yet, on the other hand, he still views the NYPD as essential to the health of the city. And he’s willing to put more resources into it, which separates him from the radical reformers who want to rethink what they see as over-policing. So that’s why he comes across as complicated — he’s embodying these two legacies of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years that typically set people against each other in politics.”
That conflict is alive in the way Adams discusses how he is perceived by a younger generation of activists and, more pointedly, political opponents who question his progressive credentials.
His anger boiled over during the first official primary debate on May 13, when Wiley brought up his past support for “stop and frisk.” Adams has defended the policy as a useful tool, but also criticized its deployment by the department as abusive — including in testimony at the 2013 trial that ended with a federal judge ruling the NYPD’s practice of it unconstitutional.
“Every time you raise that question it really just shows your failure of understanding of law enforcement,” Adams said to Wiley. When Wiley interjected to note that she had served as chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the top city police oversight body, Adams snapped back.
“We both know how much it was a failure under you,” he said, before touting his work with New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a high-ranking Brooklyn congressman widely viewed as a potential successor in Democratic House leadership to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Jeffries, though, has backed Wiley — delivering perhaps the most influential endorsement in the borough Adams runs to one of his fiercest rivals.