For Mayor Adams, the Race Card is a Losing Strategy

Photo from Wikimedia Commons


New York City used to be the place America loved to hate. A constant cacophony of light and noise, it was filled with oddballs with crazy ideas. It was a place of too many people from too many different places speaking too many languages with too many accents. The city has changed in many ways, but it also is the same chaotic city we all love to hate.


Over the years, each Mayor of New York has, in their own way, tried to tame this chaos. Whether it is education or crime, every mayor tackles a problem that has plagued this city. Some have been successful, others not.


Rudy Giuliani, the mob prosecutor turned mayor, guided the city through 9/11 and became “America’s Mayor.” Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s city rose from literal ashes to be fiscally alive, financially prudent, with a growing economy. He mobilized the police, clamped down on crime, and brought the crime rate to record lows.


The Bill DeBlasio years followed, and they are not as kind. His time as mayor ended with rising crime, violence in schools, and out-of-whack budgets. After clamping down on religious groups during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been erased from memory by all religious people who swear not to curse another human. Everybody else from Staten Island to the Bronx isn’t as bashful.


And then comes Eric Adams, who won the all-important Democratic Party primary by less than a hair. He’s a retired NYPD captain, one-time state senator, president of the borough of Brooklyn. He came from a working-class, African American background and rose through politics with an Obama-esque swagger.


On the campaign trail, the press corps immediately latched onto Adam’s story as a centrist, blue-collar, ex-cop. In their eyes, Adams was the one to win over the average, moderate Joes and Janes who don’t like the Democrats and blame them for the sense that things are just plain out-of-control. Above all else, Adams positioned himself in the mold of mayors who were tough on crime and ready to clean up the streets, except Adam’s had a liberal twist that made him palpable for progressives.


Adams deftly positioned himself as the reasoned moderate who appealed (or was tolerated) by all flavors of NYC Democrat. He was going to be tough on crime, but also understood the sensitive nature of education and race. He won by being able to walk this tightrope, so what’s the problem now?


In the first month of the Adams mayoralty, New York City saw a nearly 40 percent increase in crime compared to the same time last year. Murder was down, but other serious offenses like rape, robbery, felony assault, and grand larceny were all up by double digits. Suddenly, the man elected to stop crime didn’t look so good.


If you look at the local news, the state of NYC looks bleak – announcing more and more crimes daily. On the subway, car after car are dormitories for the homeless. Innocents are stabbed in subway stations and thrown from platforms onto electrified tracks.


Earlier this year, two young cops – both in their 20s – were gunned down in Harlem while answering a domestic disturbance call. Thousands of officers lined the streets as their caskets were ushered through the city, and Mayor Adams had to balance his relationship with the NYPD with the grievances of poor communities. “This was an attack on the city of New York,” he declared, and announced a “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” that balanced progressive “violence-interrupter” programs and beefed-up law enforcement – emblematic of the fragile political dance he needs to maintain.


But when Adams went to the state legislature in Albany asking for help, lawmakers poured cold water on him. He asked to reform   New York bail policy, and legislative leaders said no and goodbye. The mayor got nothing.


When he got back to Manhattan the sassy City Hall scribes asked: How’d did it go up north, Mayor Adams. Not so good, huh?


It is here that Adams made a profound blunder. Rather than ignoring the press’ barbs, he went on the attack. He made comments about the racial makeup of news organization and attacked the press for whatever it is he thinks they did. “How many blacks are on editorial boards? How many blacks determine how these stories are being written?” he fumed.


Mayor Adams’ predecessor, Bill DeBlasio, was notoriously thin-skinned and lashed out at the press, and many politicos concluded that his criticism ultimately didn’t help him. Someone in his position will be constantly dinged by the media, and the true test of leadership is to keep calm and carry on, not play the race card.


If Adams carries on this way, his media stardom can quickly slide. He needs to stick to his platform, and national Democrats need to burnish his reputation. He is the symbol of sanity they need if they are to survive outside the nation’s cities. Nationally, crime’s up, and it is the top issue for many swing voters. He needs to succeed to dispel the sense that Democratic policy begets chaos.


The nation will be watching those subways, those streets, those homeless. They will note carefully how Adams does. Will he pave the way for Democratic candidacies moving forward, or will he just be another thin-skinned politician picking losing battles?


Hank Sheinkopf

Hank Sheinkopf—consultant to campaigns domestic and international—calls New York City home. He was worked on 700 campaigns in 44 states, 16 non-continental US locales, on 4 continents.


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