The Man Who Wants to Be Mayor: A Conversation With Eric Adams

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. (Photo: Facebook)

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. (Photo: Facebook) Facebook

Let’s get this out of the way–Eric Adams wants to be the next mayor of the New York City.

While other ambitious Democrats play at least a little coy, the new Brooklyn Borough president, an ex-police captain with Popeye muscles and an ego to match them, checks his modesty at the door.

“As a beat cop, I was talking about one day wanting to be mayor. And people laughed,” Mr. Adams, 54, told the Observer in an October interview at Brooklyn Borough Hall. “I think it’s hypocritical for me to tell my son at American University, you know, reach toward your dreams, be proud of what you want to be, then play this game that political operatives play–you can’t say what you want to be in life.”

“I don’t have a problem with saying, this is what I want to be. I think any young associate attorney is saying, ‘One day I want to be a partner.’ I don’t know any surgeon that doesn’t want to one day open his own practice or head the hospital. Trying to keep your dreams under a basket so nobody can see it–I don’t operate that way,” he explained.

In a world where the self-aggrandizing will-I-run-or-won’t-I tease has become the defining and tiring staple of political theater, Mr. Adams’ honesty can feel refreshing. Many 21st century politicians, terrified of the media’s propensity to pounce on gaffes, adapt poll-tested operative-speak, hedging just enough to say absolutely nothing.

This is not Mr. Adams’ problem.

Elected last year as the successor to the iconic and bombastic Marty Markowitz, Mr. Adams is every bit the pun-loving ham that Mr. Markowitz, the ultimate cheerleader of Brooklyn’s swift transformation from schlub hub into Lena Dunham’s lucrative playground, always was. They are both former state senators who never met a camera or microphone they didn’t like.

Mr. Adams earlier this year. (Photo: Kelly Weill)

Mr. Adams earlier this year. (Photo: Kelly Weill)

Mr. Adams called himself a “tough” cop and a “tender” borough president on the front page of his first borough-wide newsletter, a Markowitz tradition that to some detractors was even more an exercise in self-love. He knocked down a few pins for the cameras after a Williamsburg bowling alley reopened following a visit from the city’s first Ebola patient. He patrolled the Coney Island boardwalk in a polo shirt advertising, in very bold black letters, that he was the Brooklyn borough president.

And there are obvious differences. Mr. Markowitz is a portly white Jewish man. Mr. Adams, the first Brooklyn borough president to not be white, looks like the black Mr. Clean. Mr. Adams speaks in the graver terms of Brooklyn’s affordable housing crisis and stubbornly high obesity rate; Mr. Markowitz, a deft politician in his own right despite the shtick, never went there.

“We are like Lethal Weapon,” Mr. Adams said, referring to the series of buddy cop action films. “Every sequel brought its own flavor.”

It would be too easy to say one was about style and one is about substance, when the office itself is still a vestige of a time, pre-1990, when the borough president had a crucial vote on the old Board of Estimate. When the board was ruled unconstitutional, the borough president became a ceremonial bully pulpit. Beeps can allocate money from their budgets and introduce legislation, but the real municipal power lies with the mayor and City Council–no borough president from the post-Board of Estimate era has become mayor.

Does this bother Mr. Adams? No.

“Being a Brooklyn borough president is an awesome responsibility. It’s the largest borough, 2.6 million people. Being able to move throughout the entire borough, hear the concerns of people and coming up with plans to effectuate some kind of change [is special],” he said. “And people will say, you know, ‘You don’t have the power of the mayor.’ But even a mayor wants the power of someone else–you never have enough power as an elected official, but the questions becomes: What can you do with what you have? That’s the name of the game.”

Assuming Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat Mr. Adams has worked closely with and is not likely to primary, wins re-election in 2017, Mr. Adams will have up to seven years before he’s term-limited to burnish the sort of profile that makes a serious mayoral bid possible. Mr. Adams has taken a more à la carte approach in his first year–there’s not one single issue or cause that has defined him, a sign of flexibility or lack of focus, depending on who you ask.

Mr. Adams on the campaign trail. (Photo: Ross Barkan).

Mr. Adams on the campaign trail. (Photo: Ross Barkan).

His office trumpeted a pilot program that will introduce iPads in select Brooklyn schools (Mr. Adams said he wants to be known as the “tech” borough president). As a former cop and lawmaker from heavily African-American central Brooklyn, he freely comments on policing issues, like when he said he couldn’t call the November police shooting of an unarmed East New York man an “accident,” as the mayor and the police commissioner did. He is also unabashedly pro-development (“build, baby, build” is one mantra).

What exactly would Mr. Adams bring to the table if he is ever elected mayor? “There’s one thing that I can add that is different than all of them and that’s that I patrolled these streets. I wore a bulletproof vest for 22 years and I protected the families and I know on a micro level of how policies impact a community, how bad policies impact a community better than anyone that has been in office, that has ever been on that level,” he said.

“Not until you have stood on those corners, ran into those buildings to save someone who has been a victim of a robbery or a rape, not until you stood over a body riddled with bullets and saw the emergency room filled with victims of crime–not until you’ve done that do you have a different view of the city and you take that view with you,” he argued, calling that the “raw view.”

Now, Mr. Adams said, he is learning the “city system” after spending several terms in Albany, where he was not always comfortable. His political past drew a bit of scrutiny when he ran virtually unopposed for borough president last year. Few remember that he was a registered Republican from 1997 until 2001 or once tweaked Herman Badillo, a former Bronx congressman and mayoral contender, for being Hispanic and marrying a white woman.

Mr. Adams faced criticism for the role he played in the flawed bidding process to bring casino gaming to the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The state Lottery Division in 2010 disqualified a winning bid from the Aqueduct Entertainment Group and Mr. Adams, then the chairman of the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, was castigated in the report for not being diligent enough in his oversight of the bidding process. (Mr. Adams repeatedly defended his oversight.)

In 2013, he was named as one of the elected officials who was wiretapped by then-State Senator Shirley Huntley, who was sentenced to a year in a prison for embezzling nearly $90,000 from a sham nonprofit. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office that year, eight of the nine people whom Huntley secretly recorded were the subjects of an ongoing investigation, including Mr. Adams. Mr. Adams said prosecutors never contacted him.

More recently, the New York Post reported that Mr. Adams solicited donations for his nonprofit, One Brooklyn Fund, months before filing the necessary permission forms with the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board. Mr. Adams also failed to initially report to the COIB rental income from a Brooklyn property that he owns, the Observer reported in July.

The occasional bad headline, though, does not rile the excitable Mr. Adams.

“It’s part of the territory. The Post can’t control my policies, I can’t control their headlines,” he said. “My mentor told me years ago from the media business that the only bad press is the obituary.”

The Man Who Wants to Be Mayor: A Conversation With Eric Adams