Hello, neighbors!

Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC civics-focused newsletter. I’m journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and hope you’re all off to a great 2022! With a new year also comes a new mayor and City Council, and today we’re taking a look at how it’s going so far. As we’ve done in the past, Epicenter’s  S. Mitra Kalita is channeling the voters and sending over some questions for me. Let’s get to it.

Any questions about New York elections and politics? Reach us at hello@epicenter-nyc.com

Felipe, welcome back. How are you doing/feeling?

Good, thank you! I got some rest. Didn’t do a full disconnect from my day job at the Daily News (the editorial board doesn’t really rest, as of course the paper gets printed every day) but I did get a little bit of a reset and am going into the year feeling decently positive, as positive as you can in these times anyway.

Mayor Eric Adams. Photo: his Instagram account / @ericadamsfornyc

So Mayor Eric Adams’ first week was quite a doozy: another Covid-19 surge, thanks to the Omicron variant; deciding whether to call a snow day for NYC schools (which then affects so many other institutions); and then the deadliest fire in decades this past Sunday in the Bronx. What have we learned about him through this lens?

One thing that’s certainly come through is that Adams wants to be seen as a decisive figure, one who won’t shy away from a brawl, nor is squeamish about launching a first strike. With the response to Omicron in particular, he’s been absolutely resolute in his insistence that it’s time for the city to move forward and learn to live with the virus, savaging companies like big banks that have chosen to have their employees work from home in response to the surge. “You can’t run New York City from home,” he memorably told CNN on his fourth day in office (also memorably calling it “my city” at one point).

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the 6 train. Photo: her Instagram account / @aoc

This also gave him an opportunity to show off his skills as a counter-puncher and foil for the city’s flourishing progressive left wing. After clumsily saying that “my low-skill workers — my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoeshine people, those who work in Dunkin Donuts — they don’t have the academic skills to sit in a corner office,” he was predictably savaged, including by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pointed out that no labor is truly unskilled. In the face of heavy criticism by a number of low-wage workers themselves, another mayor may have simply eaten the PR hit, backpedaled, and slinked away out of the spotlight for a few days, but not Eric Adams. While he did clarify that had meant to say “low wage,” he went on the offensive, calling AOC the “word police” and sarcastically referring to her as “perfect.”

In what is becoming somewhat of a theme, he alluded to his own prior experience tweeting that he’d been a cook and a dishwasher, and insisting that businesses had to be open because “if nobody came to my restaurant when I was in college, I wouldn’t have been able to survive.” This has some parallels to his recent battle with the City Council over solitary confinement, before he even took office, as he scoffed at a letter from 29 incoming members asking him to reverse his position in favor of the practice. He called a press conference to immediately call the group liars—remember, 29 members is a majority of the entire legislative body that he was about to have to start working with—and claiming he supported punitive segregation, not solitary confinement (the distinctions between these are somewhat hazy). Most concerningly, he said “I wore a bulletproof vest for 22 years and protected the people of this city, and when you do that, then you have the right to question me on safety and public safety matters.”

Mayor Eric Adams. Photo: his Instagram account / @ericadamsfornyc

While the mayor has never been a teacher, he has been a student, and has often drawn on his own struggles in school, including after a dyslexia diagnosis. At the start of his term, he’s stared down teachers’ unions, and some student and parent groups, who have insisted that city schools should have gone remote while Omicron is surging. He held the line even as large numbers of students were absent in the first days of classes and schools faced staff shortages, leading some members of the United Federation of Teachers to file a lawsuit seeking a mandated remote option. Much to the chagrin of some advocates and progressive groups, Adams explicitly stated that the move was designed not only to minimize learning loss for kids but so their parents could keep working: “Parents can’t keep their children home. They have to work.”

These incidents can seem kind of comical, but they carry the darker undertone that Adams believes his governing mandate exists above reproach. He’s overcome so much—and no one can deny that the new mayor has navigated great obstacles in his life—that he can’t be criticized, not by the public, not by federal legislators, not by unions, not by his own City Council. This position was further reinforced by the controversies surrounding some of his staff choices (more on that below). Perhaps the realities of being mayor will soften him up a bit, but for now it’s a combative posture that may well blow up in his face.

Site of Bronx fire. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

Sunday’s fire did present an occasion for the mayor to be solemn and comforting for a city in mourning and crisis. It’s the sort of thing no mayor wants to respond to, and certainly not a week into their tenure, but Adams initially hit the right notes during his visit to the site, reassuring families and speaking of the pain of the community and New Yorkers’ support for them. Then, things got a little more complicated.

It’s been reported that Rick Gropper, one of the co-founders of Camber Property Group, which operates the apartment building in the Bronx, is on the Adams transition team for housing issues. Of course, the previous mayor had his share of real-estate ties and controversies, too. Can this be avoided in New York? Is this time different?

One thing Adams did in the wake of the fire—which killed 17 people, including eight children—was plead with apartment dwellers to close their doors in the event of a fire, which struck many observers as thoughtless for a couple of reasons. First, it was immediately pointed out that the apartment doors, by law, were supposed to be self-closing, and in fact tenants had previously reported that there were deficiencies including door failures. Something else that tenants had repeatedly complained about was a lack of heat in the building, leading to the use of space heaters like the one that malfunctioned and started the fire. The building had also been issued two notices of violations for broken or defective fire retardant equipment by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in the last year.

As with most big questions of public policy and accountability, this took on the dimension of personal versus systemic responsibility. Was it right to chide people for not having prevented the fire or the spread of smoke in the first place when the building and its management had failed to provide basic protections against this very sort of situation? The conversation is magnified by the fact that the building’s residents are almost exclusively low-income people of color. The building is a so-called Mitchell Lama development, a type of public-private partnership meant to sustain affordable housing (which also makes the relocation of the people displaced by the fire more difficult, as that article explains). Most of those killed were part of a tight-knit local community of Gambian immigrants.

Gropper’s involvement in and of itself isn’t necessarily indicative of anything, or at least anything we didn’t already know. The fact of the matter is Adams is and has been notoriously close to real estate, and in fact is a landlord himself. As many advocates point out, while his ties are extensive, they are by no means unprecedented or hugely notable in the world of New York City politics, where despite a population mostly composed of renters, real estate has outsize political power. De Blasio was perhaps an outlier in his antipathy to real estate interests (though he of course was also a landlord), and Adams is closer to the norm here.

Nonetheless, he has not shied at all away from engendering controversy in his early tenure, particularly with his staff selections. He is facing a firestorm for naming his own younger brother to a high-level executive security position, a move he did not clear with the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board ahead of time, and which many commentators have already criticized as naked nepotism. He also appointed former NYPD higher-up Phil Banks as his deputy mayor for public safety, essentially overseeing the entire NYPD and safety infrastructure, despite the fact that Banks had resigned in a cloud of suspicion and controversy related to his being named essentially an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal corruption investigation. Banks had, among other things, unforgettably kept some diamonds in his official office safe, which belonged to a now-federally convicted real estate developer.

None of this per se means that Adams is corrupt or is going to lead a corrupt administration, but it certainly indicates that he doesn’t mind creating some iffy optics and taking the firestorm of media and political criticism head-on. That is certainly avoidable, but Adams is making it clear he has no interest in avoiding it.

Mayor Eric Adams. Photo: his Instagram account / @ericadamsfornyc

There was also another side of the mayor we saw in these early days, one I don’t think we’ve seen in some time — he called 911, he slid down a pole in a firehouse, rode a bike to work. I think this is a departure, comedic and otherwise, from mayors De Blasio and Bloomberg. Does this matter in terms of Adams connecting with the electorate?

It’s very clear that Adams is trying to cultivate a certain “man of action” persona in pointed contrast to his predecessor, who for myriad reasons came to be known as, how should I put this, a somewhat lethargic person. He’s famously energetic, staying up late and holding meetings early in the morning, bolstered by his strict exercise and diet routines. Adams wants to be everywhere, doing everything, bounding from budget meetings to public events to press conferences, as a living embodiment of his plain message that New York is back. That’s partly just who he is, but also an advertisement for his governing style and intent for the city, which is something he’ll hope connects with voters. He will not be a mayor to recede into the background, nor be content with incremental management. Eric Adams will be out there, walking the streets, and bringing the city back from the brink. Love it or hate it, it’s an appealing message right now.

I don’t want to gloss over the history of the new City Council, in terms of racial and gender diversity. Any insight into how it’s going there? Is the more progressive council at odds with the mayor and the reality of getting things done yet?

It’s a bit early for the dynamics to have quite shaken out in the Council yet. Let’s not forget that, for the first time, the majority of members are new, and many are still in the finding-where-their-seats-are phase of things. It’s also the case that Adams did not get the Council speaker he had been pushing for, Francisco Moya, as at the last minute the body consolidated behind now-Speaker Adrienne Adams (yes, the shared last name is going to make things very difficult for political writers). It’s not that Speaker Adams is ideologically on a different plane than Mayor Adams—they’re rather on the same page—but she’ll be wanting to exert her independence after defeating his candidate of choice.

As exemplified by the solitary confinement episode referenced above, though, the broadly progressive Council and Adams are already setting up some showdowns that will no doubt come to the fore in the coming weeks. One big clash was narrowly avoided as Adams allowed the city’s new noncitizen voting law to go into effect after raising concerns and vaguely threatening to veto it. It won’t be the last time the mayor and the council play chicken, and next time someone might not swerve.

We plan to continue these Q&A series with Felipe. Do you have questions you want answered? Let us know at hello@epicenter-nyc.com.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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