David Firestone: Hi, Mara, and welcome to a year that’s going to be full of news about Mayor Eric Adams and the long-term health of New York City.
City Hall is playing nothing but defense these days, and it seemed fitting somehow to learn that Adams is considering removing reporters from Room 9, the municipal press room, as well as the press offices in One Police Plaza. Between his personal scandals, the big budget cuts and widespread accusations that he has mismanaged the migrant crisis, there has been very little good news to cover about the Adams administration. Flailing politicians often lash out at the press, and for Adams, who clearly hates the coverage he has been getting, that seems like a substitute for doing a good job.
Mara Gay: Hi, David! I’m glad we’re having this conversation. So many eyes are focused on a hugely important presidential election this November. But what’s happening with the mayor of the nation’s largest city is pretty weird. Embattled by investigations into his campaign and the rest of the problems you mention, David, the mayor seems to be acting in some erratic ways and picking unnecessary fights. This week Adams lashed out in a personal attack against the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, for supporting a bill he doesn’t like that would require the Police Department to report more complete data on police stops throughout the city.
“He lives in a fort,” Adams said at a police briefing, referring to Williams, who rents a private apartment in a development inside the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn. Williams told reporters later the mayor “sounded like a 5-year-old throwing a temper tantrum.”
I think part of Adams’s problem is his lack of a signature initiative that would focus some of this energy on more productive pursuits and draw attention away from the drama. Previous New York mayors have sparked national trends like cigarette bans and universal prekindergarten programs. So far, Mayor Adams’s most significant contribution to the national dialogue seems to be to complain about the migrant crisis. He’s not wrong that New York and other affected communities where large numbers of migrants are arriving need help from the federal government. You just wish he would stop demagoguing and come up with a brighter, more positive vision for New York City.
David: Yes, he seems to have fallen directly into the trap of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who wanted to show that so-called sanctuary cities and liberal states would do no better than Texas in handling the huge influx of migrants from the southern border. Rather than demonstrate that New York has the capacity and heart to help the migrants, Adams has instead tried to end the court mandate that required the city to provide shelter, and failing that has stuck thousands of them in tents in an abandoned airfield in far southern Brooklyn, where they are shivering and hungry and dependent on neighborhood clothing drives.
Do you think Adams’s abilities are overwhelmed by this crisis, or that maybe he never wanted to manage it well in the first place, preferring to blame it all on Biden, Abbott and others?
Mara: It’s a good question. Adams had little management experience before becoming mayor and seems uninterested in the day-to-day management aspect of the job that some mayors, like Michael Bloomberg, loved. There are absolutely things Adams could do to better manage the crisis, especially in terms of the colossal private contracts the city has been using to provide some of the services to the migrants. Even so, the arrival of more than 160,000 people over a year and a half who are in need of basics like food and shelter would overwhelm any city in the world.
I suspect Adams’s bluster over the migrants is at least in part an attempt to deflect forthcoming blame from the painful budget cuts underway. Did you see that the city is removing some of its 23,000 trash cans from New York’s already dirty streets to reduce costs at the Sanitation Department? Yikes.
David: Those cuts suggest that a new reality for New York City’s government is arriving. You wrote in November that previous mayors had engaged in irresponsible overspending and that the bill was coming due, especially because the Covid stimulus funds have dried up and the city never really recovered from the downturn caused by the pandemic. Brad Lander, the city comptroller, said recently that the mayor should stop blaming migrants for the city’s financial problems and start doing a better job of managing its long-term costs and consider a tax increase on the very wealthy. Do you think New York residents are ready to accept a city government that simply doesn’t do as much?
Mara: At the moment, raising taxes is a no-go in Albany, which would have to approve such measures. If quality of life in the city seriously declines amid the budget cuts, though, the politics could change, especially on the heels of a stronger-than-expected year on Wall Street. In a way, Adams could face the same problem President Biden has: convincing a base of voters experiencing huge increases to their cost of living — especially housing — that life is better when he’s in charge anyway.
Do you think Adams is strong enough to shut down any primary challengers next year, David? How weak is the mayor politically?
David: The latest poll numbers suggest that he’s incredibly weak, with the lowest approval rating (28 percent) for any New York City mayor since 1996. And that approval falls even further on specific issues like homelessness and his handling of the budget. That’s practically an invitation to be primaried. But who’s going to do it? The left would love to see him gone, but it’s hard to see local voters lining up behind a progressive politician, given their obvious concerns about crime, homelessness and mental health. (That’s how Adams won in the first place, though he has fallen far short of those expectations.) A moderate Republican might have a shot, not that there are many of those these days, and so might a center-left Democrat like Lander. But running against Lander, a white politician who lives in the gentrified Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, would give Adams just the opportunity he wants to bring racial grievances into the campaign, and that might be effective with his base, even given their disappointments in him. Of course, if Adams is indicted, then all bets are off.
How do you see the 2025 election playing out?
Mara: Twenty-eight percent. Wow, that’s abysmal. I still wonder how much this has to do with a general post-pandemic malaise. I tend to agree that it’s hard to see a strong challenge from the left, but I wouldn’t rule anything out this early. I’m not sure how much racial grievance Brad Lander would inspire, given his strong record on social justice issues, which dates back over a decade to his role alongside Jumaane Williams in pushing to end Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk program. That said, the only challenger who would obviously pose serious problems for Adams is State Attorney General Letitia James, who is said to have her eyes on higher offices.
Are there any moderate Republicans left, David?
David: They’re in hiding, or toiling in Trump’s underground sugar caves. But it feels like a lot of city residents are hiding, too. Take away the holiday tourists and Midtown Manhattan feels sleepy compared to the old days. Downtown, too. As much as I like getting a seat on the subway, it makes me nervous to always get one, which never used to happen. So many people are working from home, or not working, or not in the city anymore. There are many vacant storefronts around town, and empty building floors and presumably lost jobs. It feels like the postwar office culture that created modern New York City is at an inflection point. Some of that is because of overblown fears about crime, but as you have also written, it’s also about high housing costs that are driving people away and an economy that has lost a lot of entry points. Do you think the city is changing in a profound way, or this is just a brief anomaly that will pass?
Mara: Whew, I worry about all this, too. I do think New York can no longer rely on the commuter economy and will have to become more creative about getting people back to its business centers, especially in Midtown. Building more affordable housing there to replace the unused office towers (is there a bingo card for “housing”?) is one way to go about this. But we’ll likely need to get creative, too, using our assets to draw pedestrians back to public spaces. That could mean more events and festivals, but also transforming more public spaces into attractive pedestrian plazas, or bringing art from some of the city’s world-renowned museums into the street. I continue to think the subway musicians deserve a bigger spotlight.
I think you’ve lived in New York longer than I’ve been alive, David. Is the city in trouble? Or is it simply changing as it always has?
David: New York is too smart, too vibrant, too creative and ultimately too vital to ever really be in inescapable trouble. When that came close to happening in the 1970s, a bunch of brave and brilliant people rescued the city, and smaller, less-heralded rescues have happened many times since then. What I do worry about is the declining quality of the city’s civic and political leadership, caused in part by the polarization of the country and the deep economic and class divisions that keep so many New Yorkers from contacting and understanding each other. Most city residents have no idea what life is like in neighborhoods like Soundview, Maspeth, Hollis, Corona or St. George, and have little interest in knowing. Politicians speak only to tiny fractions of the electorate. Until we find a unifying figure who can speak with understanding to this vast city, we may continue to stumble through a series of crises. But I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
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