Eric Adams arrives for lunch alone, no entourage or media handler. He shows me his new earring — "the first thing," he says, that Joe Biden "asked to see" when the two met recently to discuss gun violence. He orders a tomato salad with oil on the side, the abstemious diet of the all-but-crowned king of New York.
For some progressives, the prospect of Adams as mayor (he still has to defeat Republican opponent Curtis Sliwa in November) is a nightmare. He's been a thorn in the side of every institution he's ever been part of.
He's a former cop who crusaded against police brutality, a leading Democrat who was once a registered Republican, a machine politician who casts himself as a foe of city bureaucracy, a self-described progressive who's friendly to charter schools and real estate developers and, most recently, a champion of law-and-order who refutes the idea that a Black leader must also be on the left.
For the rest of big-city America, not to mention the Democratic Party that usually runs it, he's a godsend.
That's because Democrats are again becoming the party of urban misrule, just as they were in the 1970s. In Portland and Seattle, progressive mayors have ceded the public square to anarchists and rioters. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, to homeless encampments and addicts. In Chicago and Baltimore, to street gangs and gun violence.
And, in New York, the city that in the 1990s and 2000s led the way in the historic and nationwide reductions in crime, 981 people were shot this year as of Sunday. That includes two women and a 4-year-old girl hit by stray bullets in May in Times Square, in broad daylight.
"This stuff can unravel so quickly," Adams says, referring to social order. His mission is not to let New York go the way of Portland or San Francisco.
The key is the police. In 2019, multiple videos went viral of police officers offering no response after being doused by hecklers with buckets of water. "When I saw that I said we're going to lose the city," he recalls. "When you attack that officer, you didn't attack that individual. You attacked the symbol of safety."
Adams graduated from the police academy in 1984, another era of diminished faith in law enforcement, not least among cops themselves. The prevailing attitude, he says, was, "You hold on for 20 years, you get promoted, get your pension, nothing you're going to do about crime." He rejected that attitude and made his name in the 1990s as a dissident officer fighting police brutality and racial profiling.
But he also believes that effective policing is the basis for justice, not an enemy of it. Well-intentioned liberals, he says, "have piggybacked off of the appealing, attractive conversation. You know, 'Black Lives Matter.' Well, if they matter, damn it, then we should be talking about a 13-year-old kid being assassinated in the Bronx."
He argues for reversing the state bail reforms that treated some robberies as nonviolent offenses, for bringing back the plainclothes police squad disbanded last year by Bill de Blasio and for using stop-and-frisk (or, as he reminds me, "stop-QUESTION-frisk") as an essential policing tool, so long as it isn't being unconstitutionally abused to fill a weekly police quota or harass civilians.
As for abolishing the police: "When I get out of that subway station, I want to see that cop at the top of the stairs."
After rebuking certain progressives for their views on New York's finest, he turns to their views on New York's richest. "Sixty-five thousand families pay 51% of our income taxes," he says. "Those income taxes are going to the police, the teachers, Department of Sanitation. We have people who say, 'Who cares whether the rich leave?' You'd better connect the dots. I care!"
Adams doesn't fear the rich leaving town because of sky-high taxes (though he should). But he knows that they'll flee to safety if they have to fear that their children "can't walk the streets."
He also recognizes the harm the city does itself with its results-unfriendly bureaucracy.
"How do you have a Small Business Services that's trying to get restaurants open, but you have the Department of Buildings that takes a year and half to give someone their C-of-O to get inside?" he asks, referring to a certificate of occupancy. "Try opening a hotel: If you can get their sprinkler system inspected in two years, you're a miracle-maker."
He plans to do for city agencies what the CompStat program did in the 1990s when it took police units out of their respective silos to make them see the larger picture. It helped bring crime down from historic highs to historic lows, until liberal guilt got the better of pragmatic good sense. At one point he quotes the Chinese aphorism that it doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, "you still have to catch the mouse." It happened to have been a favorite of Deng Xiaoping.
Listening to Adams hold forth like this for an hour is an enjoyable, even delightful experience, because it's so refreshingly free of ideological cant. If Adams can govern as he campaigned, he'll be remembered as the mayor who saved New York from walking itself off a ledge. It probably won't be the last, much less the highest, office he'll hold.