Why Top Democrats Are Listening to Eric Adams Right Now


When Eric Adams won New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, his supporters in Congress were bombarded with questions about him from colleagues representing districts in Michigan and Florida, Chicago and Los Angeles.

When a national group of Irish American Democrats gathered in Manhattan recently to toast President Biden’s victory, Mr. Adams was there too, touting his admiration for Irish American former co-workers in the Police Department.

And in the span of a week, Mr. Adams met with Mr. Biden at the White House and with the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, on Capitol Hill. He appeared with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to discuss combating gun violence. And he stood with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand outside Brooklyn Borough Hall, endorsing her proposal for federal gun trafficking legislation.

Mr. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, has been his party’s mayoral nominee for less than three weeks. But already, many national Democrats appear eager to elevate the former New York police captain, as gun violence shatters parts of major American cities and Republicans seek to caricature their opponents as naïve about crime.

Mr. Adams, for his part, is seizing the mayoral bully pulpit, moving to cement a national reputation as a Democrat who speaks with uncommon authority about both public safety and police reform.

“Every year, you have these different playbooks,” said Donna Brazile, a former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee who recently encountered Mr. Adams on the set of ABC’s “This Week.”

“He has the commanding playbook for the moment,” she said.

In some ways, it is a difficult playbook to replicate. Mr. Adams, who will be New York’s second Black mayor if he wins in November, as expected, grew up in poverty and says he was beaten by police officers before joining the force himself.

He spent years drawing attention for challenging police misconduct, only to emerge as the most public safety-minded candidate in this year’s mayoral primary. His striking trajectory and promises to combat inequality helped him connect with a broad swath of Black and Latino voters and with some white working-class New Yorkers. And the buzz around him now is due in part to interest in the likely next mayor of the nation’s largest city.

But some party officials and lawmakers also say that Mr. Adams offers a template for how to discuss matters of crime and justice, urgent issues for Democratic candidates across the country as the early contours of the 2022 midterm campaigns take shape.

“He’s a unique messenger carrying a message that we should all be carrying,” said Representative Thomas Suozzi, Democrat of New York.

Whether party leaders are ultimately comfortable with Mr. Adams as a national standard-bearer will hinge on how he governs, should he win, following a primary campaign in which he faced significant scrutiny over issues of transparency and ethics tied to tax and real estate disclosures, his fund-raising practices and even issues of residency.

But for now, many Democrats seem ready to promote Mr. Adams, whose primary win has fueled fresh intraparty debates about which kinds of candidates best represent the base of the Democratic Party. And the good relations Mr. Adams is working on building with Democratic leaders could yield help from Washington — where the city already has powerful representation — as New York emerges from the pandemic.

Some argue that Mr. Adams’s victory is a potent reminder that many Black and Latino voters object to the most far-reaching efforts to curtail the power of the police, even as those same voters revile police misconduct.

Mr. Adams insists that those views are not inherently in conflict, and he has not shied away from bluntly challenging left-wing Democrats on the subject.

Last fall, a conference call of House Democrats devolved into an emotional brawl over key issues, including whether the “defund the police” movement had damaged their candidates — a subject that remains deeply divisive within the party in New York and nationally.

David Axelrod, the veteran political strategist, said Democrats who believe that “the policing issue was a negative in 2020 for Democratic candidates” appear especially interested in Mr. Adams’s pitch.

“Whether they’re in love with him or not, they seem to be in love with his message,” he said. “Adams gives you a way to talk about crime and civil and human rights in the same sentence.”

Mr. Suozzi said that colleagues from other states have taken note of Mr. Adams’s primary victory and peppered him with questions about the candidate. Representative Adriano Espaillat, another New York Democrat who backed Mr. Adams, said he has had similar experiences — and added that strong relationships between the federal government and the city’s next mayor have tangible implications for New Yorkers.

“We’re joined at the hip,” he said. “I’m sure he recognizes that and he’ll try to make his voice be heard here.”

Mr. Adams is engaged on his local agenda, including weighing his transition, he has said. But he also has federal priorities, including a focus on what the current infrastructure negotiations and federal resources to combat gun violence mean for New York.

“Eric is always going to leverage whatever political capital he has on behalf of the city,” said Evan Thies, a spokesman for Mr. Adams.

But given Mr. Adams’s message around public safety, justice and combating inequality, Mr. Thies said there may also be opportunities “to talk to mayors who are struggling with the same problems across the country, and members of Congress who are facing tough re-elections or candidates who are running for office outside of New York.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Adams has appeared to relish his turn on the national stage, declaring himself the “face of the new Democratic Party” before he had even won the nomination.

Celinda Lake, who was one of Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign pollsters, said national Democrats have so far been taken by Mr. Adams’s life story and the diverse coalition he built, adding that some believe he offers a vital new perspective on policing issues ahead of the midterm elections.

“A lot of Democrats are really nervous about that issue and are really, really intrigued by the idea of having such a great new voice,” she said.

On the day before Primary Day, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, endorsed Mr. Adams. Less than a week after he emerged as the winner, Mr. Adams, rather than the current mayor of New York City, was at the White House discussing ways to combat gun violence, and soon after the administration featured him in an Instagram video. Mr. Adams also posed right next to Mr. Biden in a photo from the White House.

“If he can show that you can be both pro-law enforcement and pro-reasonable reforms, then he will greatly help the perception of Democrats when it comes to criminal justice,” said Representative Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania, an early Biden endorser.

Still, many Democrats caution against drawing sweeping political conclusions from a pandemic-era municipal primary that was decided by fewer than 7,200 votes. Mr. Espaillat suggested that applying lessons from deep-blue New York City to the midterms landscape has limitations, noting that “it’s a whole different ballgame internally in every district.”

And while Mr. Adams prevailed at the top of the ticket, candidates with more left-wing messages won elsewhere on the ballot.

“It’s about having a strong message and actually working hard, and what a lot of people are taking from this election is the split between what happened at the highest level and what happened everywhere else,” said City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who won the primary for Brooklyn borough president.

Mr. Adams is hardly the first mayoral nominee to be embraced by the national party early, reflecting the stature of New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was initially celebrated by many Democrats as a champion of economic equity and police reform, with glossy national coverage of his family.

But as he faced the challenging realities of governing and his administration experienced numerous controversies, his star faded.

Still, there is no question that Mr. Adams has quickly made a national splash.

Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, the president of the United States Conference of Mayors, has been texting with Mr. Adams and intends to speak with him soon, she said. She plans to invite him to the Conference’s annual meeting, slated for Austin toward the end of the summer.

Mr. Adams is also navigating critical relationships closer to home. He met with Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, over the weekend. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, among others, has also reached out.

And then there is his dynamic with the governor, historically a fraught relationship for mayors to manage.

Ahead of the joint appearance with Mr. Cuomo, the governor’s team said that the attire for the event involved ties, according to someone familiar with the conversation. (Mr. Thies declined to comment. “We made no requests, but we told them what others were wearing to inform their own decisions,” said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo.)

When the two men appeared together at a Brooklyn church, Mr. Cuomo was indeed in a suit and tie. Mr. Adams had decided to chart his own course.

“I said it then and I’ll say it again,” declared a tieless Mr. Adams. “I am the face of the Democratic Party.”


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