Mayor Eric Adams took the oath of office this week at a time when the city faces extraordinary challenges in crime, education, housing, jobs and the still-lingering coronavirus pandemic. All these crises must be addressed simultaneously.
Adams is off to a great start of his first 100 days with the appointment of an impressive core leadership team that reflects the scope and complexity of the job ahead, as well as the politically delicate task of engaging the full range of stakeholders and addressing a nine percent unemployment rate.
But Adams cannot expect a honeymoon. Naysayers will quickly test the style, substance and temperament of the city’s second Black mayor, the first being David N. Dinkins, elected in 1989.
An immediate challenge for Adams is navigating the current COVID-19 surge and keeping students in classrooms for in-person learning in the new year, which is essential for many parents to go to work. Just before the Christmas break, rising COVID cases caused chaos and disrupted work, tourism and Broadway performances.
Restoring school attendance is also critical because so many students, primarily low-income children of color, were “lost” during pandemic remote learning. Separately, Adams must address school desegregation – in particular, revising the single-test admissions policy for specialized high schools. Harvard and other top academic institutions in the country don’t use a single test criteria. The city’s test-based specialized high schools are the starkest example of the segregation which permeates the city’s school system.
So far, Schools Chancellor David Banks has said all the right things, especially his promise to pare back administrative waste and focus on classroom learning. His background of helping to launch a group of six public schools that serves mostly boys of color is a perfect fit for the challenge.
Gun violence is arguably the city’s most pressing issue, and it was a centerpiece of the Adams campaign. His appointment of Keechant Sewell, the first female New York City Police Commissioner, is the new mayor’s most attention-grabbing move to date. The former Nassau County Chief of Detectives is an NYPD outsider who represents a dramatic departure from the archetypal NYPD commissioner.
A former police captain himself, Adams has a clear vision for policing and promised months ago to appoint a woman. Sewell must balance the conflicting goals of a change-management agenda: aggressive crime fighting vs. building trust with communities of color; reining in police abuses vs. working with vocal police unions; and, weeding out bad apples vs. boosting rank-and-file police morale.
The appointments of Banks and Sewell sent a loud and clear message that Adams brings a new agenda to City Hall. He went even further in declaring a new day by surrounding himself with senior leaders comprised of an unconventional mix of women, people of color, city government veterans, former Mayor Bill de Blasio administration holdovers and non-profit executives.
The self-proclaimed “pro-business” mayor has also named 60 corporate chieftains from media, life sciences, tourism, real estate and entertainment to a council to advise his administration. You can anticipate Adams giving a voice to his political base of Black and Latinx blue-collar voters in the boroughs, most likely in the form of community development groups and local housing agencies helping address the housing affordability crisis.
Adams’ five deputy mayors are women – four of them women of color – led by First Deputy Mayor Lorraine Grillo, a City Hall veteran who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of city government and will likely serve as acting mayor when Adams is not in New York City.
Grillo served under Mayor de Blasio and knows how government works. She has experience working with the New York City School Construction Authority, was involved in citywide development policy, and served most recently as de Blasio’s “recovery czar.”
Her background will be useful in tackling the challenges at the New York City Housing Authority, which could receive a windfall for repairs in the Build Back Better social spending bill pending in the U.S. Senate. Adams has publicly called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to earmark some of the federal infrastructure money for NYCHA, which is an essential source of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families.
Prominent voices from outside City Hall now on the mayor’s team include Sheena Wright, Deputy Mayor for Strategic Initiatives, who is the former CEO and president of the United Way of New York City, and Maria Torres-Springer, Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development, a former Ford Foundation vice president.
Adams has pledged to be “a blue-collar mayor” focused on improving public safety, reforming “dysfunctional” city agencies and supporting business to create jobs for the legions of unemployed New Yorkers. Collectively, his team offers both expertise and fresh perspectives to govern in a manner that could exponentially increase the mayor’s influence.
The new mayor’s senior appointments matter as he transitions from “Brooklyn Borough Hall problem solver” to citywide agenda setter, diplomat and de facto national spokesperson for urban America.
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.