For 20 years (1994–2013), New York City, capital of Blue America, was governed by Republican or Republicanish mayors (Michael Bloomberg branded himself an independent for one election cycle). Crime plummeted, the subways gleamed, homelessness was dealt with intelligently, control of the school system was returned to the city from Albany (though admittedly not much good was done with it).
During this halcyon era, the anxious wondered what might happen when it ended. During Bill de Blasio’s two terms, we found out. De Blasio reflected the culture of the city’s Democratic politicians — he was ideological and unimaginative. To this he added personal flaws of his own: laziness — he was habitually late for appointments and appearances — and arrogance — he had the chutzpah to run for president (only fellow New Yorkers wished him well: America’s loss would be our gain if, miraculously, he won). To top it off, he engaged in endless squabbles with Governor Andrew Cuomo (in fairness, Cuomo was more aggressive than he was). De Blasio was cunning enough to know that he had to try to keep crime down, and his first police commissioner, Giuliani-era veteran Bill Bratton, managed it initially. But the mayor must also take a hand, so time and inattention took their toll; the summer of Floyd was the final straw. What next?
The city’s GOP has reverted to its default condition of impotence. Two men seek its nomination. Curtis Sliwa has been a self-appointed private crime fighter and radio personality for decades. Fernando Mateo has been a spokesman for taxi drivers and bodega owners. Neither has a prayer.
The Democratic primary is crowded, mostly with dwarfs. Scott Stringer is the compleat Upper West Side liberal. He started with a raft of endorsements, but accusations of decades-old sexual harassment (stoutly denied by him) took the wheels off his campaign. Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia worked for de Blasio (Wiley as counsel, Garcia as sanitation commissioner). Anyone who worked for him and parted on better terms than Brutus parted with Caesar ought thereby to be disqualified from further public office. Wiley, in addition, proposes to cut the budget of the police force. Three others — Shaun Donovan, Raymond McGuire, and Dianne Morales — limp in low single digits.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, fresh from a vanity run for president — he finished eighth in New Hampshire, behind Tulsi Gabbard — entered the mayoral race, and for a time led the field. He brought a fresh face and a fresh manner to the contest, and he has said some unorthodox things, defending tests as criteria for admission to the city’s elite public schools — an issue dear to Asian-Americans — and, most recently, urging that the mentally ill be removed from the streets where they harm themselves and others, and given proper care. There lingers over him the question that bedevils all outsiders: Does he know the way to the bathroom? i.e., does he even begin to know how to do the job? Bloomberg didn’t, but he could buy help and buy off troublemakers. Yang, who is merely a millionaire, lacks those options. His occasional instincts to unorthodoxy seem not to be accompanied by the spine to force them on the city’s encrusted forces of inertia.
That leaves the current front-runner, Eric Adams. Adams has been around a long time (he turns 61 on September 1). Years ago, when he was a cop leading 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, criticizing the NYPD from within, a journalist on a local TV talk show, Les Payne, called him “a bomb thrower.” This expressed equal parts admiration and irony. Les was a man of the left, with a skeptical eye for police, especially white ones. But he was also a savvy reporter, who recognized a showboat. Adams kept some odd company: In the 90s, he dallied first with Louis Farrakhan, then with the GOP. In the new millennium, he returned to the Democratic fold and was elected first to the state senate, then to Brooklyn’s borough presidency.
Campaigning now, he hammers crime. The day after the May shooting in Times Square that injured two women and a four-year-old, he held not one but two press conferences denouncing the state of things. “Thirty years later, we’re right back where we started from. And that’s unacceptable. The enemy is winning, and we are waving a big white flag of surrender.” He proposes to restore the plain-clothes Anti-Crime Unit, disbanded last year. He defends limited use of stop and frisk.
Adams’s economic program is, to put it charitably, unformed. He says the rich whose tax revenues the city needs will not stay in an unsafe city, which is true. But they also won’t stay in one that picks their pockets. Addressing the first problem without addressing the second is, in the old phrase of Gotham policy guru Fred Siegel, like trying to cross a chasm in two leaps.
Crime and disorder may be enough to win it for Adams. The latest hot spot is Greenwich Village’s Washington Square, which has become a late-night drug souk and unlicensed boxing venue (you read that right). Let us hope the bomb thrower has learned his lessons.