Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams speaks at a rally at the West 4th Street Station to demand restoration of service C and F lines to pre-pandemic levels. – New York, NY – March 23, 2021 (Shutterstock)
Eric Adams has spent 14 years in office, the last seven as the Brooklyn borough president, and is the leading Black candidate in the New York City mayor’s race. Black voters will likely make up more than 30 percent of the Democratic electorate, but a big question hanging over the Adams campaign — which has raised millions of dollars — is whether he can lock down support from the city’s most powerful Black leaders. Or whether he’s even trying.
The race itself is shaping up to be the most volatile in years; not only is this the first time the primary will be held in June, three months earlier than usual, but it is also the first citywide election under the city’s new voting law, which allows voters to pick not one but five of their favorite candidates, ranking them in order of preference. Adams’s early polling position is largely owed to the overwhelming support he has received from the base of the city’s Black Democrats, unsurprising since voters tend to fall along strict racial and ethnic lines. But there remains an influential cadre — more specifically, four Black community leaders who play a large role in signaling to voters which candidates are worth their time — whom Adams has yet to win over.
The Big Four have been friends for over 20 years: Hakeem Jeffries is likely the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, someone who was pegged as a political star before he won his first election. Carl Heastie, the Speaker of the State Assembly, is the canny backroom operator who was propelled into his position from his previous role as the boss of the Bronx Democratic Party. Greg Meeks is the understated, pro–Wall Street head of the Queens County Democratic Party who represents a sprawling Black middle-class district. And Al Sharpton is, of course, still the brash civil-rights leader who drew most of the field of Democrats running for mayor out to his House of Justice in Harlem on Martin Luther King Day in the midst of a pandemic to pay tribute before his congregation.
People close to the quartet of gatekeepers say they talk all the time about this race. They may not all jump in together for a single candidate, but they are always aware of who’s up, who’s down, who has a chance, and who is fading fast. And Adams is very much on the outside of the club.
“It can be infuriating,” said one Adams ally. “But Eric very much sees himself as a guy who got here on his own and has no use for political games.” “I talk to all the candidates all the time,” said one unaffiliated lobbyist. “Eric is the only one who never once wants to gossip.” But that kind of political gamesmanship is exactly what securing the mayoralty may come down to.
Two days before Thanksgiving, everyone who mattered descended upon the Bronx. The occasion was scarcely a notable one — a rally for Kevin Riley, a shoo-in candidate in a special City Council election to replace the disgraced Andy King, who was expelled after being accused of serial sexual harassment and siphoning off campaign funds for personal use. Most of the leading candidates for mayor, including Scott Stringer, Shaun Donovan, and Maya Wiley, showed up to the socially distant event at a parking lot in the Bronx — notably missing was Adams. Many presumed it was in deference to King, a longtime political friend. But Adams’s absence was also part of a long-standing frostiness between him and the aforementioned pillars of the Black political Establishment, who, sources say, are looking on his candidacy with a mixture of skepticism and dread.
In many respects, Adams’s inability to court the group is surprising. He’s the kind of candidate that they would usually want to rally around: He is faring second best overall, trailing only Andrew Yang; raised the most money ($8.6 million so far, according to the New York Times); and is starting to get endorsements from his fellow electeds. And unlike the other leading Black candidates in the race — Citigroup executive Ray McGuire and civil-rights attorney Maya Wiley — Adams has been involved in New York politics and government for the past decade and a half, a key selling point to a city looking for a tested leader to usher it out of crippling public-health and budget crises. And at least for Heastie, Meeks, and Jeffries, Adams is a fellow traveler ideologically — a center-left Democrat who is pro-business and opposed to the surge of largely white progressive energy that has toppled incumbents up and down the ballot over the past few years; someone who has resisted calls to defund the police and who defends the real-estate industry despite pressure to eschew donations from developers.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed, though, that Adams was also a registered Republican from 1997 until 2001 and a police officer for 22 years. “In this time of George Floyd and questions of police accountability … his being a policeman is something he is going to have to deal with,” Sharpton told me. Adams has called for reconstituting the notorious anti-crime unit of the NYPD as an “anti-gun unit” and rejects the notion that “you are either with the police or against them.” The Brooklyn BP is trying to thread something of a difficult needle — securing huge numbers of Black voters while also appealing to conservative-minded whites in the outer-boroughs who appreciate his relative moderation on criminal justice and the economy.
Part of these Democratic leaders’ reluctance to wade in, sources close to the four say, is also motivated by concerns about Adams’s viability in the long run.
“I think Carl thinks that Eric is smart, a hard worker, and definitely not somebody who is a panderer,” said one person who has recently spoken to Heastie about the race. But “there is a sense that he is unreliable. You never know if he is going to say something and self-destruct.” The aspiring mayor has a history of making wild comments whenever he is near a microphone. He once told New Yorkers who were born elsewhere to “go back to Iowa,” and responded to the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting by telling off-duty police officers that they should bring their guns to church.
Sources say these Establishment Democrats are beginning to wonder among themselves if Adams is avoiding them as part of his strategy: Is Adams attempting to govern while alienating some of the most important stakeholders and the city and federal government? Or is he, despite spending a good chunk of his life in politics, still somehow an independent operator, unbossed by the powers that be and only focused on the work at hand?
Every week that goes by without an endorsement gives other candidates an opening. Heastie hasn’t met with Adams since the campaign got under way. The only candidate he has met with, in fact, is Maya Wiley, when they had a masked lunch at a Caribbean restaurant over the summer. Sharpton is close to McGuire and, in our interview, sounded intrigued by Wiley and Andrew Yang. It wouldn’t be the first time he prioritized ideological purity over personal or community connection. In 2013, he went with Bill de Blasio over Bill Thompson, the only Black candidate in the race and a friend for a quarter-century, because of Thompson’s defense of stop and frisk. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for old grudges or self-interest in the race. Scott Stringer is unlikely to receive the support of these gatekeepers primarily because he aligned himself with candidates running against Establishment picks, but Sharpton has said of him, “He is steady and he has management skills.” Meeks, meanwhile, has raised nearly $100,000 from Citigroup in the past decade and a half and is said to be intrigued by the prospect of a McGuire mayoralty as well; McGuire and his wife have donated nearly $15,000 to Meeks since 2014.
The biggest hurdle for Adams’s future — in and outside the mayor’s race — may be Jeffries himself. The two arrived in Albany at the same time, both representing the same swath of Central Brooklyn. Jeffries was immediately pegged as a star, someone who could appeal both to longtime Black residents of his district and the white gentrifiers moving in. Adams was the ex-cop who made sagging pants and proper nutrition his pet issues. They never got along, never endorsed one another in their races, and were rarely on the same side of internecine battles. Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned Jeffries as someone standing in the way of the quartet getting behind Adams, no matter how much he did to work for their support.
“It’s a Brooklyn fight. Why get involved in a Brooklyn fight?” said one person close to the quartet. “Jeffries is the next Speaker of the House. Sharpton, Meeks, and Heastie need to keep Jeffries probably more than they even need the next mayor of New York.”