If you had polled a hundred NYC political observers and experts on the defining issue of Adams’ first couple of years in office, you probably would have gotten a mishmash of responses concentrated roughly around four or five general loci: post-pandemic economic recovery, including job loss and the emptying out of offices; public safety, with an emphasis on pandemic-era serious crime upticks and some sense of a Covid-generated malaise and disorder; affordable housing, centered around a rare moment of rent dips and with a view towards attracting people back to the city with additional housing stock; environmental resilience, highlighted by the accelerating pace of climate change and recent disasters like Sandy; and perhaps entanglement of government and private industry with concern for transparency, downstream of both Adams’ clear personal affinity for the tech and real estate industries and his own questionable ethical conundrums over the years.
Probably no one would have landed on asylum seeker arrivals, very much including yours truly, despite the fact that I’m a longtime immigration beat reporter. It’s not that we wouldn’t have expected immigration to be an issue of importance, in the same way that education or transit are always hugely significant, but it wasn’t really teed up to be a defining preoccupation of the 110th New York City mayoralty.
Trump had lost his reelection (not according to him, of course) and with him left Stephen Miller and his viciously anti-immigrant agenda, which had set up a federal government in opposition of sanctuary states and cities. Sure, Biden had been kind of a letdown for immigration advocates in maintaining Trump-era policies like the Title 42 expulsion order, but the urgency somewhat faded (to the chagrin of some of us who were trying to get readers to keep caring). Things, the thinking went, would be getting back to normal.
Things did sort of go back to a different kind of normal, one from an earlier era when NYC saw enormous levels of immigrant arrivals, numbering in the thousands each day. It started out with a political stunt by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who began busing asylum seekers to NYC in the early summer of last year, but the arrivals have long since become cyclical, with migrants hearing through the grapevine about NYC’s shelter mandate and generally the city’s identity as a land of opportunity. As of now, more than 150,000 asylum seekers have gone through the city’s care, with about 67,000 still in shelter, a number that has more or less stabilized after sharp upticks.
Feelings have soured on both sides here, as Adams has sometimes skirted close to conservative border restrictionist fare, mixing his asks for more federal financial assistance with what sound like demands for the Biden administration to restrict immigration. Adams has moved to suspend that right to shelter provision in court, although several administrative moves like forcing migrants to reapply periodically have made it so that, as THE CITY recently put it, “‘right to shelter’ no longer exists for thousands of migrants.” Many, in turn, are disillusioned and considering leaving altogether, which of course is in large part what the administration intended. The back-and-forth has dominated headlines for well over a year, particularly as the budget consequences spread.
None of this means that those expected big governing questions I put in that list above have fallen by the wayside. The affordable housing crisis, NYC’s never-ending emergency that preceded and will probably outlast pretty much every other quandary, just keeps getting more acute. The state legislature torpedoed Gov. Kathy Hochul’s housing plan, and as we noted recently, approval of an affordable housing project seems to have been the straw that broke the reelection campaign of incumbent Bronx Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez. It’s not all bad news; just yesterday, developers broke ground at the site of a massive development in Willets Point, Queens, that is slated to eventually provide 2,500 affordable homes (as well as a soccer stadium).
Adams’ City of Yes housing proposal aims to cut back on all sorts of redundant and counterproductive zoning and code restrictions that have stifled housing development for years, and even if it is, as Christopher Bonanos put it in NY Mag, “100 small ideas in a trenchcoat,” their cumulative impact could be a legacy-defining achievement for Adams if it goes well. In the future, these proposals could stanch the hemorrhage of middle-class New Yorkers leaving the city, even as millionaires return from their pandemic hiatuses. The trouble for Adams is, this success will be judged retroactively; the fruits of any changes won’t really be felt in the next two years.
The tech and public safety spheres have intermixed, with Adams enthusiastically embracing some eyebrow-raising additions like police robots and GPS guns, and constantly talking up how much he loves things like facial recognition. The mayor himself has not managed to outrun the cloud of ethical concern that has seemed to follow him around; if anything, it’s exploded, with federal agents raiding the home of his chief fundraiser and now investigating him for allegedly improper financial and political ties to Turkey. That one, I’ll admit, was not on my bingo card. At this stage, the chatter is that he’s more likely than not to face an indictment in the next year.
If there’s one consistent big-picture criticism I hear from people around New York City politics about the mayor’s term so far, it’s the lack of what seems like a big-picture philosophy at all. Adams pitched himself as the “get stuff done” mayor, but it’s not abundantly clear what that stuff is, exactly, at least not in the way that de Blasio had his great pre-K success and seemed to have some top-shelf policy launch every other week (one could of course criticize the former mayor for just the opposite, a big governing vision with too little follow-through). Adams’ emphasis on a return to competent management, already kind of a hard sell given that he’d spent the last decade and a half in a legislative and then largely ceremonial role, lacked a certain statement of purpose, and one hasn’t cohesively emerged.
Adams himself can and has said, to me and others, that this is both parsimonious and a failure to see the forest for the trees, while also something of a consequence of the particular moment of uncertainty and interlocking crises we’re in. This much is fair; the mayor came into office during the Covid Omicron wave, as it seemed like the virus would never stop battering the city where it had wreaked more havoc on than anywhere else in the world. As Covid itself was blunted, so too was the spigot of federal assistance that accompanied it, threatening both the city budget as a whole and the financial prospects of individual New Yorkers who had experienced what was, for a brief time, something similar to a European-style social democratic safety net.
Serious crime had ticked up a little after decades of relatively consistent downturn, which turned the narrative of urban decay — unfortunately a somewhat irresistible one for a certain type of news outlet and political commentator — into something of a self-reinforcing one. And, of course, no one really expected the current migrant situation, which has been a management problem in itself but also an issue for City Hall’s broader project of governance in the form of its budgetary impact. While outside observers like the City Council and the Independent Budget Office (and, a few times, me) have raised questions about the administration’s spending practices and forward projections, it’s indisputable that there is a significant price tag here.
Would the spending panorama be all peachy in the absence of migrant arrivals? Perhaps not; this might just be the endpoint of what The New York Times’ Mara Gay described as the city’s “era of overspending.” Still, this was a significant accelerant, and it falls now to Adams to be the bearer of bad news, slashing budgets (in a way that many have seen as clumsy and flailing) to almost universal condemnation. This, in addition to the encroaching federal investigation, have plenty of political operatives and would-be candidates sniffing blood in the water.
There are plenty of roundups about who might be waiting in the wings, with some general agreement about figures like State Senator Jessica Ramos and Comptroller Brad Lander, but the most nauseating of the would-be challengers is disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has himself been beating the drum about his comeback. A recent poll by Slingshot Strategies (in coordination with Cuomo? Not officially, anyway) found that most voters wanted Adams to step down if indicted, and favored Cuomo as a potential replacement. To those voters, I’d like to point to a powerful counterargument to any potential Cuomo candidacy: his own record.
Whatever the next couple of years bring, it’s clear that they’re going to be far from a cakewalk for Adams. How he handles multiple crises and delineates a real governing vision will shape not only his reelection chances, but how his mayoralty is viewed in years and decades to come.