Eric Adams Says He Has Swagger. What Else Does He Have?

Outside of a Bronx elementary school on Monday morning, in one of his first public appearances as Mayor of New York, Eric Adams delivered a line to remember. “When a mayor has swagger, the city has swagger,” he said. All politicians swagger into office, but Adams suggested that his swagger has a special municipal purpose.…

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Outside of a Bronx elementary school on Monday morning, in one of his first public appearances as Mayor of New York, Eric Adams delivered a line to remember. “When a mayor has swagger, the city has swagger,” he said. All politicians swagger into office, but Adams suggested that his swagger has a special municipal purpose. “Leadership should have that swagger,” he said. “That’s what has been missing in the city.” The city, of course, has also been missing jobs, child care, adequate health care, a sense of normalcy—the list of the missing is long. Can swagger cure New York’s COVID blues? Adams is not the first politician to try to fight a crisis with pep. “Today, more than ever, government is a form of applied psychology,” Janet Flanner wrote, in a report from Paris for The New Yorker in 1948, when postwar Parisians were still buying their coffee on the black market and dreaming of white bread. “Hope has to be advertised to the people.”

No politician in history, though, has managed to swagger through an entire term in office. People tire of it. Adams seems to know this. Two months ago, during an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” he defended his decision to stay out late partying with the rich and famous on Election Day. “If you’re going to hang out with the boys at night,” he said, “you got to get up with the men in the morning.” The question for Adams is: What comes after swagger? What, when he gets up with the men in the morning, is he going to do?

One of the knocks on Bill de Blasio, the outgoing mayor, was that he let his attention drift after an early spate of accomplishments. At one point, he drifted all the way to Iowa, to run for President. But he did take advantage of his initial honeymoon period. Universal pre-kindergarten, a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, the end of stop-and-frisk—much of what’s good in de Blasio’s legacy got done in his swaggering days. No program or policy of that magnitude is yet on the table for Adams. “We have lived through two years of continuous crises,” he said in his first speech as Mayor, which he delivered digitally on New Year’s Day, after plans for an in-person inauguration were scrapped. “This will be our New Year’s resolution: we will not be controlled by crises. Instead, we will make this city better every day, through actions big and small.” This week, in addition to unveiling picks for key administration posts and making more than a dozen TV appearances, Adams signed an executive order to reduce city fines on small businesses; joined with the Governor, Kathy Hochul, in launching a plan to have cops and “mental-health professionals” sweep the city’s subway system for crime and homeless people; and announced the availability of emergency funds for city hospitals to combat the Omicron wave.

Local hospitals have been struggling both with higher caseloads and widespread staff shortages as Omicron cuts through town. Somewhere between seventy-five and eighty per cent of hospital beds in the city are currently occupied, a number that officials expect to increase before Omicron subsides. On Wednesday, at a press conference at Elmhurst Hospital, in Queens, Anne Williams-Isom, the deputy mayor in charge of Health and Human Services, framed the new funding as a major initiative for the new administration. “He came to us and he said he wanted a plan,” she told reporters, as Adams perched on a stool behind her. “He wanted a plan that was going to be big and bold, and he wanted to show all New Yorkers that we were here with them.” The money hadn’t come from the city budget. Twenty-seven million dollars came from Goldman Sachs, which agreed to offer the amount in loans to the city’s so-called safety-net hospitals, which serve the poorest New Yorkers. Another hundred and eleven million was money that Adams had authorized other city hospitals to spend, and then to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Adams, when he spoke, thanked Goldman Sachs for chipping in. “This is a good community-corporate partnership,” he said. “We’re calling on other financial institutions to do the same.”

Adams is walking a thin line on COVID. He wants to show action and responsiveness in a city where case numbers are skyrocketing, lines for testing stretch around blocks, and schools, restaurants, and other workplaces are struggling to stay open. He also, clearly, wants to turn the page on the pandemic. “We have the tools now to live with this virus and stay healthy,” he said in his inaugural speech. “Enjoying a Broadway show, sending your kids to school, going back to the office—these are declarations of confidence that our city is our own.” His insistence on keeping schools open has drawn criticism from exhausted teachers and parents. School attendance across the city was dramatically down this week. Adams is betting that the worst pain of Omicron will pass relatively quickly, and that better days are perhaps just weeks away. Health officials, analyzing data from South Africa and England, where Omicron waves hit earlier than in New York, are offering cautious support for this stance. Hopefully, they’re right.

One area where Adams has been more assertive is policing. During the primary campaign, he was eager to fight with criminal-justice-reform activists, and as an ex-cop he is quick to dismiss the opinions of those who have never worn a uniform. Those instincts have stayed with him going into his administration. He has defended the use of solitary confinement in the city jail system, and his choice for the new head of the Department of Correction was cheered by the department rank and file, whose mass absences from the Rikers Island jail complex this past summer contributed to the horrific deterioration of conditions there. Arguing that effective police work requires both “predictable” and “unpredictable” elements, Adams has also continued to support bringing back the city’s plainclothes “anti-crime” units, the officers of which were involved in a disproportionate number of fatal shootings before the units were disbanded, in 2020. Yet, even on these issues, a new terseness has set in. “On the campaign trail, I had to answer all these questions,” he said, during a gun-violence roundtable, when asked about the plainclothes units. “Now I have a police commissioner.”

One veteran of city politics told me this week that a clue for how Adams might handle his new job came this past summer, when he attended a Mets game. Instead of throwing out the first pitch himself—the kind of little-upside, big-downside risk that politicians often confront—he had his son, Jordan Coleman, throw the ball. Adams played catcher. “He totally de-risked it,” Stu Loeser, a Democratic strategist and former press secretary for Michael Bloomberg, said. “That’s being mayor of New York.”

There have been moments of early trouble, to be sure. Adams’s preferred candidate for City Council speaker lost, and he’s been forced to distance himself from the publicist Ronn Torossian, who’d been one of his conduits to the rich and famous. Earlier this week, a reference that Adams made to “low-skilled workers” not having “the academic skills to sit in a corner office” drew jeers from the left. On Friday morning, Philip Banks III, a former N.Y.P.D. official who resigned during a federal corruption investigation in 2014, announced that Adams had appointed him as deputy mayor for public safety—a move sure to draw more scrutiny in the coming days.

But, for the most part, Adams spent his first week like a person who has finally landed his dream job. On New Year’s Day, while taking the subway to work with reporters in tow, Adams saw two young men in a fistfight and called 911 from the platform. “I have an assault in progress,” he said, before identifying himself at the end of the call: “Adams, Mayor Adams.”

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