A pro-business retired cop sparks liberal revolt in first few weeks as mayor

NEW YORK — New York City picked a pro-business, former police captain who wants to get paid in Bitcoin and hobnobs with Republicans to lead City Hall. The left flank of the Democratic Party is already chafing at the choice.

If the past two weeks are any indication, the feeling is mutual.

By the time Eric Adams was sworn in as the city’s 110th mayor on Jan. 1, he had already tangled with progressives on criminal justice policy. The following week he tussled with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) over a comment he made about service workers. And some left-leaning Democrats are unhappy with his approach to remote learning.

That dynamic, which is shaping up after a particularly fractious contest to lead the City Council, threatens to burden the city’s new executive with policy challenges at a time when most mayors are at the peak of their power.

“He was not my first pick,” said Stanley Fritz, political and campaigns director for Citizen Action of New York, a left-leaning nonprofit. “I have serious concerns about how close he is with the police department and [Police Benevolent Association] President Pat Lynch who is, best-case scenario, not very friendly to Black and brown people and, worst-case scenario, a full-blown white supremacist.”

“Having said that, I want to see him succeed because if he does well, the city does well. But his general attitude toward progressives is concerning,” Fritz said.

Like Adams, Fritz is a Black man focused on racial inequities in New York. But where he and like-minded liberals see solutions in a smaller police force and restrictions on real estate projects, Adams has signaled a different approach. The new mayor — a Democrat who joined the Republican Party for seven years in the 1990s — wants more cops on patrol amid a spike in shootings and has spoken enthusiastically about development.

That tension is emerging in the 51-member City Council, a legislative body that welcomed an energized progressive bloc of roughly 10 lawmakers into its fold this month.

Against this backdrop will emerge a budget negotiation likely to test the mettle of dueling camps over NYPD funding as Adams looks to beef up police presence in subways and on increasingly dangerous city streets. He also has signaled a desire for more real estate development across the city and an acceptance of charter schools — issues that threaten to further erode his relationship with far-left Democrats.

“I think you’re going to start to see a number of progressive groups and elected officials stop giving him this honeymoon or grace period, considering he is not taking it,” said progressive political consultant Camille Rivera, who worked for an opposing mayoral campaign.

The friction on display mirrors a national feud within the Democratic Party between the left and centrists most recently over calls to cut police budgets.

Adams, a 22-year police officer who ran a tough-on-crime campaign, is banking on support from a crucial contingent of Council members from both parties who either share his views on policing or are willing to compromise on the divisive subject. POLITICO spoke with eight members, most of whom expressed a desire to build a productive relationship with the new mayor, despite ideological differences.

“We’re not interested in fighting his administration. We want to work collaboratively, and I think that we have been honest about that,” said Bronx Democratic Council Member Diana Ayala, whose bid for speaker failed after Team Adams raised concerns about her position on a central tenet of his policing agenda. “We have strong objections to some issues and it would be nice to be able to sit and discuss those in an adult way, but I think ultimately it doesn’t help to have both sides of City Hall at odds.”

Yet even before he was sworn in on New Year’s Day, Adams had already rankled progressives and mainstream Democrats by vowing to reverse a ban on solitary confinement in Rikers Island jails. And last week Ocasio-Cortez publicly chastised the new mayor for referring to cooks and Dunkin’ Donuts employees as “low-skill workers.” (He subsequently derided Ocasio-Cortez as the “word police” and said he meant “low-wage workers.”) Finally, left-leaning city and state lawmakers are pushing him to reinstate a remote learning option for students, which he opposed before agreeing to consider the approach following pressure from the teachers union.

Despite the early tension, Adams senior adviser Stefan Ringel depicted a rosier picture of the emerging relationship, noting the friendship between the mayor and the new Speaker Adrienne Adams, despite his unsuccessful efforts to install a different ally in the job.

“Mayor Adams is excited about governing in partnership with Speaker Adams and the City Council,” Ringel said. “He enjoys close relationships with a broad coalition of Council members across the ideological spectrum, and is ready to work with anyone who genuinely wants to sit at the table with him to work on the issues facing our city. When campaigning ends, governing begins [and] we’re ready to govern.”

Progressive professionals are, to varying degrees, less convinced.

Bill Neidhardt, a left-leaning consultant who worked as press secretary to former Mayor Bill de Blasio, does not share his former boss’ affinity for the new mayor.

“He is a conservative. That’s what the first week has proven — conservative and problematic,” Neidhardt told POLITICO. “He’s signaling that this is going to be a conservative tenure that needs to be really closely monitored, and something that the City Council needs to be ready to push back on.”

Neidhardt pointed out that Adams’ position on solitary confinement — which the mayor’s team says is more nuanced than news coverage has let on — was opposed by Adrienne Adams, a relatively centrist Democrat.
On Dec. 21, the speaker and a majority of the Council sent a letter to the mayor outlining their concerns. The missive was not well received.

“Those who are romanticizing this issue, I’m asking them, go do a week on Rikers Island. Spend time there. Then you come out and tell me that dangerous [people] should walk up and down and not be held accountable,” Adams said.

The intra-party dispute is somewhat unconventional: Adams, the city’s second Black mayor who won with deep union support, often speaks about his time as a dishwasher and one of six children whose single mother held low-wage jobs. His biography makes him an uneasy target for the left, as he is keenly aware.

“I was a dishwasher. I went to school at night. My mom was a cook in a daycare center,” Adams said during a TV interview last week, when asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s response to his remark about “low-skill” workers. “The blue-collar workers run this city in a real, productive way. So the word police are going to try to criticize. Eric is so focused and disciplined, and won’t be distracted by Twitter.”

And after receiving the Council letter, he implied politicians who lack a law enforcement background have no standing to challenge him.

“The one thing that’s different from everyone that signed the letter and Eric Adams? I wore a bulletproof vest for 22 years and protected the people of this city,” he said. “And when you do that, then you have the right to question me on safety and public safety matters.”

Adams’ policies have endeared him to centrist Democrats and Republicans — another source of scorn for left-leaning legislators. Billionaire Republican donor Jeff Yass, for example, gave $500,000 to a political action committee supporting Adams’ run. And after clinching the election, the new mayor received praise from supporters in the orbit of former President Donald Trump — including his son.

“It is so great to have a new mayor in New York who wants to fight crime and keep schools open,” Eric Trump tweeted on Jan. 3. “Wishing [Eric Adams] incredible luck! This is a breath of fresh air for New York City.”

Adams has responded in kind, appearing at fundraisers, parties and dinners hosted by Republicans. He also gave prominent City Hall jobs to two members of the GOP: former City Council Member Eric Ulrich, who supported Trump, and ex-Staten Island Borough President Jimmy Oddo, a political moderate who had a good relationship with de Blasio as well.

Queens Democrat Tiffany Cabán — a member of the Democratic Socialists of America — said the Council hopes to collaborate with Adams on shared goals, but pledged to hold the line on key issues.

“The body is there to be a check on the mayor’s power and administration,” Cabán said. “And I think particularly with policing, we are going to see a lot of tension.”

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