The New Yorker: Eric Adams’s Administration of Bluster
The Mayor of New York City tells a personal story that is compelling and often untruthful. With a thin list of accomplishments so far, can he address the city’s problems?
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.
Afew 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.
Full Article: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/08/14/eric-adams-profile