The Machine Man

The case for and against Eric Adams

Eric Adams is clearly ahead in the race to be the next mayor of New York City. He leads in most polls and has the biggest campaign apparatus. But for someone who is a clear favorite, there has been little press coverage of what he would do as mayor. 

By contrast, Adams’s background has been explored by the media. There have been articles about his time as a cop, his relationship with the Nation of Islam, his brief stint as a Republican, his role as borough president, and even some questions about the possibility that he secretly lives in New Jersey. But his policy ideas, management style, and political strategy have been mostly ignored with only a few exceptions, while the press focused on other candidates like Andrew Yang and Scott Stringer.

That’s too bad, because Adams has a completely different theory of politics from what we’ve grown used to in the city. He’s a throwback to an earlier era when mayors represented a political party and coalition of interests rather than an ideological vision or an individualistic style of leadership. For the last half-century, our mayors have been famous personalities (Koch’s “How am I doin’?” or Bloomberg’s elite technocracy) or ideological figures (de Blasio’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” Dinkins’s “Gorgeous Mosaic,” or Giuliani’s war on crime).

Adams isn’t like that. His campaign has not laid out a clear set of ideas about how to govern the city but instead has focused on building a coalition between leading unions, some business interests, churches, and what’s left of the Democratic Party apparatus. These groups are part of the warp and woof of the city and its politics, providing campaign workers in off-off-cycle city council races, lobbying administrative agencies, and mastering the dark arts of navigating the city’s Byzantine ballot access system. Adams has held event after event touting and cementing this coalition. 

By contrast, the policy section of his website is a bunch of blog posts and platitudes — an afterthought. The coalition is the point. Adams is trying to create a political machine for the 21st century. 

And this could be just what New York City needs. As Esther Fuchs argued in her classic book “Mayors and Money,” New York City’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s was caused in part by the demise of the old Tammany Hall machine. Suddenly, each political group and special interest demanded new programs, and there was no one with enough political power to say no. The city ended up paying for more than it could afford because every group got what it wanted. 

Today, we see the same thing with land use and development. Every neighborhood, at the margin, wants less new housing and development than the market would provide, generally citing particularistic complaints about highly localized impacts regardless of the broader implications for citywide affordability or economic growth. Without strong leadership, the City Council defaults to “councilmanic privilege,” letting each member of the City Council block developments in her district. The result is no growth. New York City adds new housing on a per-capita basis at about half the rate of famously-development-shy San Francisco. The city’s slow growth and housing crisis are a direct result of this political stalemate. Even a mayor like de Blasio who explicitly favors more housing struggles to deliver because he doesn’t have the political means to push things through.  

The optimistic case for Adams is that he will centralize local politics, telling Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) types, ideological outliers, and groups outside his coalition to go stuff it. Because he has backing from groups that turn out voters and participate in politics more than once every four years, he might be a very powerful figure. If this ends up being the case, he might be able to push needed re-zonings through over selfish NIMBY groups like the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. He might be able to tell those interest groups outside his coalition demanding new spending that they can’t just get what they want (the ones inside will be a different story!). Activists with unpopular-but-modish political programs likely will not get very far. And Adams has the backing of large numbers of Democrats in Albany, suggesting he may be influential there, too.

But there’s also the possibility that neo-machine politics could go horribly awry. If he’s elected mayor, he will need to tend to the interests that make up his machine. Adams does not have a clear ideological vision, so his mayoralty might descend into corruption, or worse, aimlessness. We just don’t know, really, what he wants to achieve as mayor. 

De Blasio and Bloomberg brought into government extremely talented commissioners and advisors, people like Richard Buery, Vicki Been and Kathryn Garcia (DeBlasio), and Janet Sadik-Kahn, Marc Shaw, and Ed Skyler (Bloomberg). The city’s agencies have been mostly well-run, and even if the housing crisis has not been solved, it has at least been correctly understood on a technical level. We have no idea who will serve in an Adams administration, and it may end up being a cesspool of hackery and incompetence. 

As a result, an Adams administration has great promise and great peril. The last time New York City faced this type of political debate was when the Democratic Party split into “regular” and “reform” branches in the 1960s. For as long as most of us can remember, City Hall has been dominated by the reformers or by Republicans or independents. Adams represents the return of the regular Democrats, for good or for ill. 

Whether this is something you want, New York, well, is up to you.