In Criticism of Eric Adams, Some See Echoes of David Dinkins
To former Gov. David A. Paterson, it all seemed too familiar: the condemnations, the diminution of character, the absence of any honeymoon period.
That, he said, was his experience as governor of New York. He remembered that David N. Dinkins had gone through it as the mayor of New York City. And now, he said, it is happening to Mayor Eric Adams, the second Black mayor in the city’s history.
“There is certainly an attempt to make elected Black elected officials, particularly those who became executives like mayors and governors, to make them look not serious,” Mr. Paterson said in an interview. White leaders, he said, were rarely scrutinized so closely over where they ate or how they dressed, and he suggested that unconscious bias was at play.
“It’s an effort to reduce the competence of the leader,” Mr. Paterson said.
Mr. Adams is nearing the end of his first year as mayor, a difficult period in which he faced the challenge of helping the city recover from the pandemic, a weakened economy and increased fears of crime.
Some New Yorkers have questioned whether the mayor has moved quickly enough to solve the city’s most intractable problems, like homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. Complaints have also focused on his hiring practices, his response to the crisis at the Rikers Island jail complex and how he handled the influx of migrants from Texas.
But several Black leaders in New York have begun to publicly raise concerns that some of the criticism of Mr. Adams has been shaped by race. They suggest that a level of implicit racism, in a city known for its strong liberal leaning, undermined Mr. Dinkins and is threatening to do the same to Mr. Adams.
The leaders, all supporters of Mr. Adams, have begun to warn fellow Democrats that continued criticism of the mayor could weaken him to the point where he could meet the same fate as Mr. Dinkins, who was voted out of office after one term. He was defeated by Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican.
“There are stories about where he goes at night,” Hazel Dukes, the head of the New York State N.A.A.C.P., said. “All of this is not what we see happen with a majority of white men when they’re in office,” she said, citing Abraham D. Beame and Edward I. Koch as well as Mr. Giuliani. “I worked for David Dinkins during his administration. We could not even bat our eyes without a story about us. I lived through Koch and Giuliani and Beame — this just didn’t happen.”
The mayor has indeed faced scrutiny over the clubs that he frequents, whether he regularly breaks his vegan lifestyle by eating fish (he does) and the company he keeps.
Of course, previous mayors attracted similar critical attention for their personal routines: Bill de Blasio for his late-morning workouts at the YMCA in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Michael R. Bloomberg for his frequent jaunts to Bermuda, where he had his own favorite table at Greg’s Steakhouse.
So the messaging by Mr. Adams’s allies might be in part an effort to discourage criticism of the mayor at a time when his popularity may be waning: In a recent Siena College poll, 50 percent of voters in the city viewed Mr. Adams favorably and 35 percent unfavorably. Statewide, the racial divide among voters was striking: 42 percent of Black voters across the state supported him, while only 27 percent of white voters viewed him favorably.
Maya Wiley, a Democratic civil rights leader who ran against Mr. Adams for mayor last year, acknowledged that some of the attacks against him were personality-based, but said there was still room for criticism.
“We should focus on policy and not on personality,” Ms Wiley said. “I’m focused on policy decisions and whether Black communities are being served and protected.”
David Dinkins, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson after a 1989 campaign rally, would become New York City’s first Black mayor.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Mr. Adams said in an interview that he was accustomed to criticism, but that when some people “look at these two Black mayors, Dinkins and my role now, there are those that wish we fail.”
Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Adams, elected more than 30 years apart, share some similarities. They both ascended to the role from the relatively ceremonial position of borough president. Mr. Dinkins was one of Harlem’s fabled Gang of Four, lifted to the mayoralty by the old guard of Black Democratic power; Mr. Adams emerged from a newer core of Black political strength in Brooklyn.
Their victories were celebrated as a triumph for Black New York, and, in Mr. Adams’s case, for working-class Black voters.
When Mr. Dinkins became mayor, he was immediately confronted with the challenge of responding to rising crime. Mr. Adams won a competitive Democratic primary last year by convincing voters that his background as a police captain made him the ideal person to address a spike in major crimes during the pandemic.
Mr. Dinkins came to office in an era of racial strife. Shortly before he was elected, a Black teenager was murdered by a white mob in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn.
He sought to portray the city as a “gorgeous mosaic” where people of different races could get along. But tensions persisted, finally erupting in 1991, after a car in a rabbi’s motorcade killed a Black child in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mr. Dinkins struggled with how to respond to the resulting violence and chaos, an episode that shaped the narrative of his mayoralty.
“What concerned me is, in 1993, a lot of us were saying Dave Dinkins should be doing more for Blacks,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview. “He was going to too many banquets, playing tennis too much. He’d had the whole battle around Bensonhurst through Crown Heights. And it was all of that criticism that created a climate to where Giuliani won.”
Crime was far worse during the Dinkins administration. During the last year of his term, New York City recorded nearly 2,000 homicides. So far this year, there have been 414 homicides, a 12 percent decrease compared with this time last year.
“Anyone who thinks you can compare this moment to the early ’90s in terms of the problems happening on the ground, it’s night and day,” said former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who served as an aide to Mr. Dinkins. “The recession and the various really painful crises that were hitting simultaneously — AIDS, crack, more than 2,000 murders a year — really profoundly disrupted things after decades of previous decline.”
Unlike Mr. Adams, Mr. Dinkins never had the support of the Police Department and its officers. In 1992, thousands of police officers rioted during a rally at City Hall, crashing through barricades and hurling racial slurs such as “washroom attendant” aimed at Mr. Dinkins after he proposed a civil agency to review police misconduct. Driving it all was Mr. Giuliani, who had lost to Mr. Dinkins in 1989, said Basil Smikle, director of the Public Policy Program at Hunter College.
“For the four years that Dinkins was mayor, Rudy was running against him, and he would perpetuate the narrative that the city was dangerous, unsafe, and that Dinkins was not up to the task,” Mr. Smikle said. “He was stirring up not only racial tensions but also distrust of the administration in their ability to actually solve the crime problem.”
Some of Mr. Dinkins’s own supporters began questioning his crime policies, calling him weak at times, even as he started the process of hiring more police officers under the “Safe Streets, Safe City” initiative that some credit with helping to begin the steep drop in crime. White liberals who supported Mr. Dinkins “started to move away” from him, some lured by Mr. Giuliani’s race-based appeals and others citing concern about “persistent public safety challenges,” Mr. de Blasio said.
“It is a cautionary tale that Dinkins’s greatest achievement was something that only was felt really after his first term,” Mr. de Blasio said.
Bertha Lewis, a longtime organizer and president of the Black Institute, said that Mr. Dinkins’s chief political strategist, Bill Lynch, had urged critics to speak privately with the administration about their concerns.
“Those who tried to contain us were absolutely right — they saw what was coming,” Ms. Lewis said. “I think we did not take seriously the backlash.”
She added that Mr. Adams should heed how New Yorkers turned on Mr. Dinkins and take steps to avoid a similar fate.
“Eric, if you want to not be a one-term mayor, get back down on the ground where people elected you,” Ms. Lewis said. “Understand your numbers. You did not win by that much. This is a cautionary tale.”
In the recent midterm elections, Mr. Adams, who was elected on a law-and-order campaign, was blamed by some Democrats for contributing to what one strategist called the Republicans’ “crime panic” narrative by repeatedly asserting how dangerous the city had become. By doing so, they argued, the mayor helped Republicans outperform expectations in New York by flipping several Democratic seats, gains that were crucial to their winning control of the House.
After Mr. Sharpton expressed frustration last month about those attacks, Mr. Adams said in an interview that Mr. Sharpton had a “keen sense of understanding” of New York City politics in comparing him with Mr. Dinkins, who he said did not get enough credit for starting to reduce crime during his first term. Instead, Mr. Dinkins drew side-eyed criticism for his fondness for playing and watching tennis and for wearing tuxedos to cultural events.
“Look at all the mayors — Dinkins and I are the only two mayors that people talk about how we went out at night,” Mr. Adams said. “They used to say he had a tuxedo in his car all the time because he went out to different galas and balls and what have you. That’s the role of the mayor.”
Mr. Adams has sought to have a better relationship with the police than Mr. Dinkins: He brought back a controversial plainclothes police unit, dispatched waves of officers to address crime on the subway and protected police funding in his budget, while often standing by officers accused of misconduct.
Ms. Wiley said it was fair to express concern about the mayor’s aggressive policing strategy and his initiative to remove mentally ill people from the streets involuntarily.
“He ran on a platform that said he was going to reform policing, but what we have seen so far sadly is an increase in low-level stops and without the impacts on crime that were promised,” said Ms. Wiley, who is now chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Mr. Adams accused his critics of being racist when they suggested that he avoid highlighting violence that disproportionately affects Black and Latino neighborhoods.
“When people tell me — don’t talk about crime, act like it doesn’t exist — I’m not going to ignore the concerns of the people who put me in office,” Mr. Adams said at a joint event in Harlem with Mr. Sharpton shortly after the midterm elections last month.
After winning the mayoralty with a coalition of Black and Latino voters and moderate voters outside Manhattan, Mr. Adams has made sure that his base feels heard. When a Manhattan bodega clerk was charged with murder in the fatal stabbing of a man who attacked him, the mayor visited the store and defended the worker, saying that his concern was for law-abiding New Yorkers, not for people who break the law.
In the interview, Mr. Adams reflected on two lessons he said he learned from Mr. Dinkins’s loss: Focus on making “real changes in office” and do not allow your political coalition to erode.
“My secret sauce is everyday working-class families,” he said, adding that he had met some of those families on a recent visit to the Rockaways in Queens. “They’re just not complicated. They just want a safe place to raise their children and families. Those are my folks.”