Is New York Really Going to Elect Eric Adams?

New York City mayoral election was bizarre. And it's not over: Eric Adams’s unique blend of supposedly anti-racist law-and-order politics, pro-landlord policy, and appeals to outer borough resentment of liberal Manhattan elites won the first round.

Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams speaks to his supporters in Flushing, Queens. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

One of the stranger New York City mayoral primaries in modern memory ended, for me, with being barred from the election night party of Eric Adams, the Democratic frontrunner.

The Adams campaign stopped me, along with a New York magazine reporter, at the front door of the swank Williamsburg nightclub where the party was held, insisting with no further explanation that we were not “on the list” despite both of us having RSVP’d. Our educated guess was that the denials had to do with some of the reporting we have done on Adams’s dubious political history.

This anecdote may be a self-indulgent tidbit to relay, but it’s a revealing detail: Adams, who is fond of issuing slashing criticisms of the media, was telegraphing that he doesn’t really need us, the nattering press corps. He is a machine mayor who is on the verge of assembling his own victorious coalition: working-class whites, blacks, and Latinos, along with the wheezing outer borough Democratic organizations and the oligarch cash raining down from the real estate and finance lobbies.

This sort of blend — elite cash and blue-collar roots — is difficult for the Left to counter, and could herald a new era for post-COVID New York. Much-maligned for his eight years, Bill de Blasio had an affinity for progressive organizations and movements. His wars with the media never ended with reporters shut out from City Hall or campaign events. He was conventional, of the center-left, committed to protecting capital but making the city a bit more tolerable for the working-class and poor.

Adams, a former police captain, will be no such mayor. Right now, we must wait for absentee ballots to be tallied — retrograde New York law prevents this from happening until after Election Day — before the new ranked-choice vote calculation can be made. Results will be certified in July. Adams appears likely to win, because most first-place vote-getters do, but New York’s first foray into the new voting system could produce surprises. That’s what Adams’s top rivals — Kathryn Garcia and Maya Wiley — are counting on.

If New York gets a Mayor Adams, he will be free to ignore those who did not help him get to his perch. That includes the media class, which he can deride as a bunch of lily-white elitists who don’t understand the struggle of a black man from the outer boroughs. Fair enough. But Adams, a wealthy landlord who owns multiple properties, long ago transcended the blue-collar pedigree he continually touts on the campaign trail. For the last twenty years, he has cozied up to the most influential real estate developers in the city, billionaires who wish, in the words of their old patron Mike Bloomberg, to make the city a luxury product.

Most working-class blacks, Latinos, and Asians in New York are tenants. Adams does not want to protect them from sharp rent increases. His allegiance is to the landlords, who make up his donor base, and it’s this cash that insulates him from true popular pressure. One of the canniest politicians on the municipal scene, he can posture as a populist while doing the bidding of those who revile popular movements. For the capitalists who make up the permanent government of the city, Adams is something close to an ideal vessel.

Of course, Adams still has competition. Kathryn Garcia, a top rival who could perform well when the RCV tabulation occurs, offers a similar approach with a more palatable sheen: she has never run for office before, spending her recent career in municipal government. She ran de Blasio’s Sanitation Department admirably and was briefly in charge of the city’s beleaguered and underfunded public housing stock. She lacks Adams’s history of incendiary statements; unlike Adams, she was never a Republican and doesn’t readily pick fights with anyone. Her ability to project technocratic competence, along with an appearance of liberalism, won the hearts of many affluent Democratic voters in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Garcia, like Adams, is uneasy with the broader left, if not openly hostile. She supports charter schools, is wary of rent stabilization, and has told voters she’d govern to the right of de Blasio’s tepid liberalism. The power elite would be comfortable with her in charge. She invokes the neoliberal managers of the 1970s and ’80s who effectively controlled city governance in the wake of the fiscal crisis, technocrats who cared little for preserving the social safety net.

For leftists, a Garcia mayoralty would be easier to contend with, and she may be more likely to negotiate with them. Unlike Adams, her coalition does include many people who would, otherwise, self-identify as progressive. She would arrive in office with the support of very few elected officials, labor unions, and Democratic organizations. Without these institutions, she will be a weaker opponent, more pliable, more easily opposed.

Wiley, who narrowly leads Garcia right now, would be the best-case scenario for the Left among the viable candidates — no socialist ran this year and other alternatives crumbled away — but she, like Garcia, has a long road back in the RCV tally.

And that, ultimately, is the last, and most important, question looming over this race. Did enough New Yorkers put Garcia and Wiley on their ballots to overcome Adams’s lead? The history of RCV suggests this is highly unlikely. But the times are only getting stranger.