At a high school in Southeast Queens, not far from where he grew up, Mayor Eric Adams began addressing the crowd at a community conversation. Introductory pleasantries quickly yielded to complaints of indignities the mayor said he has suffered, and he began excoriating his critics, mostly unnamed.
Except for one.
“Let me tell you what’s really despicable about this the most,” Mr. Adams said, referring to criticism of his handling of the migrant crisis. “You have the comptroller of the City of New York running around” and criticizing the administration’s efforts.“He’s saying we’re anti-immigrant.”
Nine minutes later, toward the end of his diatribe, Mr. Adams again admonished his fellow citywide leaders, resorting to a familiar taunt he has used against the comptroller, Brad Lander, and others. “Don’t send out tweets,” he said. “Get your ass out on the streets.”
Few elected officials are immune to the effects of criticism, and that is especially true of New York City’s mayors, who tend to be thin-skinned and combative. But Mr. Adams voices his frustrations in unusually public and unsolicited ways, despite his insistence that he is above doing that.
When a housing activist yelled at Mr. Adams for supporting a rent increase, the mayor likened her to a plantation owner. When he was asked to respond to criticism from Mr. Lander, he mocked the comptroller by imitating his voice in a nasal tone and accusing him of wanting to be the “shadow mayor.”
He called Curtis Sliwa, the Republican he defeated in the general election, a “buffoon” after Mr. Sliwa was arrested earlier this year protesting the city’s use of shelters for recent migrant arrivals. When a protester disrupted the mayor’s rally calling for expedited migrant work permits, Mr. Adams said the man was a “fool.”
Last week, the mayor was criticized for not delivering a timely warning about the impending major storm, potentially leaving New Yorkers ill prepared for the heavy flooding that submerged parts of the city and caused half the subway system to be suspended.
He curtly rejected any suggestion of blame, saying: “If anyone was caught off guard, they had to be living under a rock.”
Mr. Adams is certainly not the first mayor in New York or elsewhere to respond gruffly to criticism. In recent decades, Edward I. Koch and Rudolph W. Giuliani seemed to almost enjoy taking combative stances; even less outwardly pugnacious leaders like Michael R. Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio were known to brusquely dismiss their critics.
“I think every person who’s elected mayor goes into office believing that they have a very thick skin,” said Eric Phillips, Mr. de Blasio’s former press secretary. “Everybody who’s human realizes very quickly that it’s impossible to have thick skin in this job because you get criticism, fair or unfair, nonstop from every walk of life.”
Mr. Adams, however, insists that he does have a thick skin. “All my haters,” the mayor is fond of saying, “become my waiters when I sit down at the table of success.”
He insists that people have misinterpreted his remarks. When he called Mr. Sliwa a buffoon, for example, he said he was merely “giving a definition of what a buffoon is.”
“Listen, I don’t mind the critique,” the mayor said last month. “This is a quote you should go with: What God means for you, no man can take away. What God does not mean for you, no man can give. I’ve been critiqued all my life.”
Charisma White, a volunteer at Safety Net Activists, a nonprofit fighting evictions, would disagree with the mayor’s self-assessment. She recently asked Mr. Adams as he was leaving a public appearance why he had vetoed a package of bills that would make it easier for at-risk New Yorkers to receive a housing voucher.
Before long, Ms. White and Mr. Adams engaged in a spirited discussion that the mayor ended by suddenly walking off, asserting that he was being talked over. Ms. White followed behind, asking when they were going to meet to discuss the issue further. “We’re not,” the mayor replied.
“He needs to listen to the people that are living here,” Ms. White said in a subsequent interview. “He’s not communicating on a professional level as mayor.”
Lincoln Restler, a councilman from Brooklyn, had been critical of the administration’s stance on redesigning McGuinness Boulevard in Greenpoint to make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians. When the mayor was asked about the plan, he responded, “Who’s the local councilman?”
When he was told it was Mr. Restler, he said with a laugh, “OK. Now ask another question.”
Last week, Mr. Adams again dismissed Mr. Restler, when told in a television interview that the councilman was “dumbfounded by the lack of communication from City Hall” in the hours before the storm hit.
“You talk about you get a lot of opinions, you start with Lincoln Restler,” the mayor said with a smile.
Mr. Restler said he did not know why the mayor seemed to dislike him and voices his feelings in public.
“You’d have to ask him,” Mr. Restler said. “But it’s clear to me that our city is not being governed with the rigor and confidence that New Yorkers deserve.”
Mr. Lander said in a statement that city comptrollers typically cause friction with mayors, given their role as a watchdog of the city’s fiscal health and overall performance. “There’s always been some tension and there always will be,” he said.
Mr. Adams has said he will not allow what he deems to be unfair criticism or disrespect to be unchallenged. His late mother, he said in an interview with NY1, gave him an important piece of advice: “Don’t ever let anyone disrespect you.”
That has become a through line in many of the mayor’s on-the-fly responses. When reporters shout questions at him, Mr. Adams will often halt the news conference and lecture the assembled press corps about respect.
The mayor said that the woman whom he likened to a plantation owner was out of line, “disrupted” the meeting, skipped others waiting to speak before her and, when allowed to speak anyway, “spoke in a disrespectful way.”
And at the community conversation in Queens, Mr. Adams asserted that he and his administration were unpopular because they were too diverse — another common refrain of the mayor’s.
Mr. Adams has compared himself to the main character in the novel and mini-series “Roots,” an enslaved African named Kunta Kinte who, in a memorable scene, was whipped until he accepted a new name, Toby.
“I know every day, I read the articles, I know you think you can whip me and make me go from saying Kunta Kinte to Toby, but damn it, Kunta Kinte is all I know,” Mr. Adams said at a Juneteenth celebration at City Hall.
At the National Urban League conference in Houston in July, Mr. Adams said that Black leaders are often afraid to respond vigorously to criticism because of how they are perceived.
“If you get the title of angry Black man, you will not raise up in corporate society, you will not raise up in Hollywood, you will not raise up on a sports team, you will not raise up on politics,” Mr. Adams said.
The only New York City mayor in the last 40 years known for his diplomacy was David N. Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor.
One of the defining moments of Mr. Dinkins’s tenure was when 10,000 off-duty police officers and their supporters demonstrated outside City Hall. Egged on by Mr. Giuliani, who would defeat Mr. Dinkins in a rematch, police officers called Mr. Dinkins racist slurs.
Ken Sunshine, who was Mr. Dinkins’s chief of staff at the time, recalled how the mayor resisted responding, only showing his anger in private, after entering City Hall and escaping the demonstrators.
“He had a certain style in 1989 that would probably not work as well now,” Mr. Sunshine said. “He was criticized for being too genteel, for being too polite, for using very polite language and never doing anything like what Eric Adams does or what all politicians do.”
Marc H. Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans and current president of the National Urban League, said he appreciated Mr. Adams’s willingness to spar with critics because Black mayors often received more scrutiny and faced more doubt about their leadership skills.
“I mean, who was more combative than Giuliani? Did they call him an angry white man? No, they said, ‘Oh, they’re tough,’” Mr. Morial said. “So it’s fair to say Mayor Adams is tough.”