Eric Adams has made many curious moves in his first two months as mayor. He’s attempted to hire his brother for a $200,000 a year NYPD gig and installed a deputy mayor for public safety who was embroiled in a corruption scandal. Now he is barreling into another controversy by naming three pastors with noted antigay views to his administration.
Fernando Cabrera, a former city councilmember who once called Uganda “godly” after the nation made some homosexual behavior punishable by life in prison, will be a senior adviser in the mayor’s newly created Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, where he will work alongside Gilford Monrose, a Brooklyn pastor who once said being gay is “a lifestyle that I don’t agree with.” Adams also named Erick Salgado, a Brooklyn pastor and former mayoral candidate once endorsed by the National Organization for Marriage’s political action committee, assistant commissioner for external affairs in the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Adams defended both moves, pointing to how these men have allegedly evolved in their views. “This is a different America when marriage was first brought to the floor. If we say, ‘Everyone who did not get it then should be banished permanently,’ that’s the wrong message,” Adams told reporters last week. “The goal is to convert, allow people to evolve so that they can see the error of their ways. That’s who we are.”
LGBT groups, advocates, and politicians staged a furious protest outside city hall. It was the kind of rally that hasn’t been seen in New York for some time — activists like these marshaling their forces against a fellow Democrat, even one who was an early supporter of same-sex marriage.
Why, then, did Adams decide to let bigots into his administration? An ordinary Democrat would not have bothered. Bill de Blasio, for all his foibles and dalliances with right-wing Orthodox Jews, would never have decided to elevate men like Cabrera and Salgado in his city hall. Their viewpoints are offensive, and the value they add is minimal. If Adams is right that many left-of-center Democrats today once opposed same-sex marriage, it’s important to draw a distinction between those who were forcefully antigay in their views and those who quietly took politically expedient positions.
Adams, of course, is not ordinary, and he is not easily susceptible to public pressure. If he wants to reward allies, he will do so, even if he’s widely condemned in the press. Cabrera and Salgado are both pastors who come from a rising evangelical Latino community that can influence Democratic primaries. In the mayoral race last year, Adams performed well with Latino voters, winning over the Spanish-speaking Bronx, where Cabrera has a church.
Choosing socially conservative pastors is a signal, to religious working-class communities at least, that Adams is listening. The activists who protested outside of city hall probably didn’t vote for Adams. But the people showing up at Cabrera and Salgado’s churches maybe did.
The danger for Adams, though, will lie in failing to expand his base. Over and over again, he has made the mistake of assuming he won a significant mandate with his victory last year. In the Democratic primary, he beat the runner-up, Kathryn Garcia, by less than ten thousand votes in a ranked-choice election. Were the vote totals of Garcia and the third-place finisher, Maya Wiley, added up together, Adams would have been easily defeated.
The Wiley-Garcia voters — taking in the affluent, liberal neighborhoods of the city and the young middle-class areas that are home to the rising socialist wing — are no more likely to support Adams today than they were last June. This could be a problem for Adams as he goes forward and tries to ward off the threat of a primary in four years. For all of de Blasio’s political stumbles, he retained a strong enough Democratic base to deter serious challenges when he sought reelection.
Adams is polling well and his emphasis on fighting crime, for older voters, has been enough to see him through, as well as his knack for the performative aspects of the role. Press coverage of his administration has been largely friendly. If Adams has greater policy ambitions — he has been mostly lacking in them so far — there is still plenty of political capital left to get them done.
But intentionally ignoring LGBT activists could harm Adams long-term, especially if he fails to build his political base beyond moderate and more socially conservative voters of the outer boroughs. Rewarding them with a Cabrera or Salgado will mean the loss of potential support elsewhere. New York Democratic voters as a whole are far more progressive on gay rights than they once were, and Adams is feeding a more retrograde segment of the electorate that will not, on its own, be able to sustain him. He feels invulnerable now, but he won’t be forever.