David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

Mayor-elect Eric Adams comes to office as arguably the most powerful New York City chief executive in years, amid health, housing, jobs, and gun violence crises.

Adams, who swept into office in an unsurprising 7-to-1 general election landslide, must hit the ground running to launch his ambitious agenda and show New Yorkers what type of mayor he intends to be after cultivating a reputation as difficult to pin down politically.

Adams may perceive his most immediate challenge as addressing concerns about gun violence without running afoul of his base supporters and liberal progressives who are certain to recoil if the new mayor embraces anything approaching Rudolph Giuliani-era, aggressive police tactics. At the same time, he needs to tackle core issues that keep so many New Yorkers from being full participants in the life and economy of our great city, including unemployment, and – with it – the more than 2.5 million New Yorkers whose conviction histories push them to the sidelines long after they have served their sentence. 

The incoming mayor is certain to learn that the office tests its occupant’s understanding of a fundamental truism: life often forces us to choose between doing the right thing and doing the expedient thing for the right reasons. The demands of the office can co-opt to damaging effects, tempting leaders to prize partisan loyalty over principle.

During the campaign, Adams pledged to be a “blue-collar mayor” focused on combating gun violence, improving public safety, reforming “dysfunctional” city agencies and supporting business.  To achieve his goals, he would be wise to follow the models of Mayor David Dinkins and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, historic figures who were the first Black mayors in their respective cities.

Dinkins – whose legacy was hurt by the waning crack epidemic and racial unrest in the early 1990s – achieved great success in beginning the city’s two-decade trend of reduced crime and the renaissance of Times Square.  He does not receive adequate credit for this, or for correcting desperate fiscal shortfalls. Moreover, Dinkins had a sterling reputation for remaining unflappable in the face of enormous pressures.

Washington, elected Chicago mayor in 1983, was a charismatic figure who overcame bitter racial hostility. He was a classic, good-governance reformer and progressive  who believed the public was best served by strong community development groups, neighborhood organizations and local housing agencies – “our eyes and ears in the neighborhood,” as he put it.

The best thing that can happen is for Adams to create jobs for the legions of unemployed, support statewide Clean Slate legislation that will allow individuals with conviction histories to move beyond their records and into jobs and stable housing, fix the city budget, address the housing crisis, and give a voice to his political base across the boroughs. He will be rewarded for coming off as forthcoming, classy, and composed in the face of New York City’s pandemic rancor.

Those moves will set the tone for a new, more optimistic city, and turn the far-flung neighborhoods – too often ignored until election time – into a force for improving the city’s quality of life. 

The trajectory of Adams’ life, from New York City Police captain to state senator and now Brooklyn borough president, indicates he can pull it off. He has been steeled by the seeming paradoxes of being Black and a police officer, politician, and activist agitating from within a system weighted against him. 

There will be a tendency to define Adams by an unambiguous fact:  he is our city’s second Black mayor, a historic superlative that sends a particular message. This is a great thing, and yet I’m certain we will bear witness, and be reminded too often over the next four years, to the uncomfortable role race plays in New York City, even for our citizen exemplars.

It is fair to assume Adams will be judged initially on his plan to reestablish his version of controversial policing practices, such as stop-and-frisk and plainclothes anti-crime units, criticized for the unjustified mass arrests and detaining of African-American men in particular, and people of color in general. 

“My son was a victim of stop-and-frisk in the city,” Adams said, in defense of the practice during a recent televised debate. “I never call for aggressive police tactics, I call for appropriate police tactics.”

An interesting dynamic will be Adams’ interplay with Alvin Bragg, the incoming Manhattan District Attorney, who pledged to hold police accountable and address racial disparities in the administration of justice. As the first Black Manhattan D.A., Bragg also vowed to alter how the District Attorney’s office disproportionately prosecutes Black individuals and said he would show leniency to New Yorkers who commit low-level crimes.

The prospect of Adams and Bragg working together is fascinating. However, as in years past, I hope they will not allow public safety to become racialized for political expedience on their watch. 

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.

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