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Adams to Dems: Drop Dead

The New York City mayor’s fearmongering on crime and immigration is hurting his party.

Illustration by Eddie Guy

New York mayor Eric Adams sure seems to think the city he runs is either actively being destroyed or already in absolute ruin.

“On day one, I took the subway system, I felt unsafe. I saw homeless everywhere. People were yelling on the trains. There was a feeling of disorder,” Adams said, shortly after taking office in January 2022.

Then, that May: “In my professional career, I have never witnessed crime at this level,” Adams said about crime rates in the city (which were, in fact, still near record lows).

And this September: “This issue will destroy New York City,” Adams told a group of Upper West Side constituents, speaking about the arrival of thousands of migrants in the city over the past year.

This rhetorical tick of Adams is a bit unsettling if you live in New York: Despite the mayoral prognosis, the city is very much still standing and, by many accounts, thriving.

But if you don’t live in the city, Adams’s perspective is given a good amount of airtime and credibility both on right-wing cable news and on local broadcast news, where the mayor of New York has always been given an outsize role as the face of whatever new crisis America’s biggest city is dealing with. From the ring of suburbs and beyond, through the prism of TV news, it would appear that New York has fallen, with its mayor just barely holding all the pieces together.

Adams, who’d never held a post with much (if any) power before narrowly emerging from a chaotic 2021 Democratic primary, likes to position himself this way. Much like Donald Trump with his “I alone can fix it” speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Adams portrays himself as a heroic figure perfectly shaped for the moment—one in which New York City, after eight years of liberal governance (that Adams at the time steadfastly supported), has to be put back together by a reactionary figure who has repeatedly claimed he’s been chosen by God to be mayor.

Why would he deviate from this playbook now?

“I worked on a lot of campaigns, and when you run the campaign and then you win, and you get into office, you want to keep your core message alive, and the fact that New York City is being destroyed, that was Adams’s core message,” Bill Neidhardt, a former press secretary for Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, and now a political consultant, told The New Republic. “He’s just being a disciplined politician by reminding everyone that the city is falling apart.”

For his mythos to have much currency, Adams, a former NYPD captain, had to embellish just how much difference one elected official can have on a city (crime statistics rarely correlate with policing strategies) and also the degree to which the previous Democratic administration failed New York. While former Mayor de Blasio silently supported Adams during the Democratic primary, Adams has spent his entire time in office bashing him, especially on criminal justice issues. Adams has blasted reforms de Blasio supported, both big and small: His attempts to close the abattoir of Rikers Island and install a modicum of police reforms have come under derision, as has his leadership of the city itself.

In the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, Adams was front-and-center in promoting the image of a crime wave in America’s cities, one that was amplified by local news. As New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, a Republican, and California Representative Kevin McCarthy, who was then House minority leader, bashed Democrats on crime, Adams joined in, helping the GOP make the case that Democratic leadership inevitably led to violence and chaos.

“We have to deal with the catch, release, repeat,” Adams said during the summer of 2022, labeling the bail reform policy that had become a potent talking point for Zeldin an “insane, broken system.” The message was clear: New York state Democrats not only were light on crime but were actively helping criminals.

By the time the dust cleared in the midterms, New York’s suburbs had cost the Democrats the House—counties within the New York metropolitan media market shifted more toward the Republicans. In an election in which, nearly everywhere, Democrats had bucked expectations of a “red wave,” in deep-blue New York they faltered. Governor Kathy Hochul barely held onto her office in a year in which the overturning of Roe v. Wade galvanized voters across the country.

Instead of reflecting on his possible role in sinking fellow Democrats, Adams doubled down.

“I think those who stated, ‘Don’t talk about crime,’ it was an insult to Black and brown communities where a lot of this crime was playing out,” he told The New York Times shortly after the midterms.

Even as crime numbers fell in the city, a story that Adams could have seized on as proof of his own efficacy, it was tough to hit the brakes on the chaos-and-disorder narrative. He soon began to blame the media itself for continuing to pump up a “crime wave” narrative that he had helped feed. He scolded reporters: “I don’t know if we realize the role of what blasts on our front pages every day.”

Soon after the midterms, Adams was handed another opportunity to bash fellow Democrats: the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants in New York City. The first groups were sent by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, as a cynical PR stunt. Soon they came in larger numbers, drawn by policies that guarantee a shelter bed in the city to everybody who needs one.

As migrants continued to arrive in New York into 2023, Adams turned his ire on President Joe Biden, saying he was ignoring the fact that the city was now shouldering the burden of what was essentially a federal issue: Because migrants cannot legally work in the United States for (at least) several months after they arrive, they cannot afford anywhere to live. New York was acting as a sanctuary of last resort, nearly doubling its homeless population during the course of a year, renting out hotels and abandoned office space for millions of dollars to help shelter migrants.

“This is not a city crisis, this is a national crisis,” Adams said this summer, pointing the finger at Biden for not helping New York’s migrants get work authorization.

This fall, a year before a general election where Democrats will look to erase a razor-thin Republican advantage in the House, Adams is still bashing his fellow Democrats in Washington, decrying the Biden administration for having “abandoned” him. Adams, once at the center of Biden’s reelection campaign as a national surrogate, says he hasn’t spoken to the president in months.

As in 2022, Adams has once again found Republicans echoing his talking points—this time on immigration, an issue they’re focusing on to help recapture the White House in 2024.

“Anyone who watched the 2016 election knows that Republicans can count on immigration, stoking immigration fears, and xenophobia that generates base excitement,” said Neidhardt. “Republicans were campaigning hard on crime in 2022, but they’re going to be trying to focus as much as they possibly can on immigration. And again, you have the exact same set-up where the person who controls or has massive influence over what the New York City media market does is once again sharing, echoing, driving the exact same message as Kevin McCarthy.”

At a congressional hearing on Homeland Security chaired by House Republicans this September, Adams’s words were immediately used against Democrats.

“Let me start with a blunt quote: ‘The migrant crisis will destroy New York City.’ Those aren’t my words; they aren’t the words of extreme MAGA members or right-wing hyperbole; those are the words spoken by Democratic New York City Mayor Eric Adams at a town hall in Manhattan two weeks ago,” said Joe Borelli, a City Council member from Staten Island, who was called in by Republicans to testify.

Clearly, Republicans are tuned in to Adams’s messaging, and gleefully running with whatever rhetorical gifts he’s putting out there.

They’re not the only ones attentive to his every word—staffers and advisers for Democratic congressional campaigns that are trying to retake the House are paying close attention and are deeply worried that Adams is setting them up for a 2022 redux, where Dems perform well nationally, except in the markets on which Adams has the biggest impact.

“Eric Adams really likes to hit progressives, but he’s making it hard for normal Democrats running up and down the state to come to a more nuanced position,” said Alyssa Cass, a Democratic consultant who worked for U.S. Representative Pat Ryan’s successful campaign in upstate New York and is currently advising on several New York congressional campaigns. Cass sees a huge spillover effect from Adams to local opinions. “Something that really jumped out at me: One of the [recent] polls was ‘Do you support housing migrants on college campuses,’ and in the suburbs in Westchester, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley, among Democratic women, that proposal was underwater by double digits. Even Democrats were split.”

For New York Democrats, what to do about Eric Adams has become a persistent topic: How does a campaign address the fact that one of the area’s most prominent Democrats is taking constant potshots at the president, the national leader of the party, ahead of what will be a razor-thin election?

For Adams, the calculus of his own stance is clear. He’s never been well-liked by fellow Democrats. (He’s a former Republican who, even as a Democrat, surrounds himself with Republican operators.) And as with every modern New York mayor before him, the job itself is a political dead-end—there simply isn’t a political future for Adams beyond reelection to another term as mayor. Adams congenitally dislikes liberals, who surround him in citywide elected office, and resents the fact that very few prominent Democratic politicians supported him during his mayoral race. Hakeem Jeffries, the would-be first Black speaker of the House, finds himself with another Black New Yorker standing in his way. (Jeffries supported civil rights attorney Maya Wiley during the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary.) Adams is lashing out because it helps get him on television, and gets people talking about the most important person of all to Eric Adams—Eric Adams.

The prospect of another national election cycle with Eric Adams swinging several crucial House seats to Republicans now looms over Democrats. What is to be done?

Democrats could look to Denver, which has also seen thousands of migrants arrive in the city. Instead of splintering into factions and finger-pointing, Democrats there stayed unified about the need to shelter migrants and to receive further federal support, without resorting to bashing the president. They were able to beat back Republican messaging surrounding migrants during the 2022 midterms.

Democratic consultants are worried that, with Adams making the reactionary call from inside the party, they won’t be so fortunate in New York. They fret that if powerful Democrats like Jeffries don’t take steps to either mollify Adams or somehow give him something he wants, the party is going to lose seats because of a major public figure who runs on their party line. The mayor isn’t going to just change course himself, because for Eric Adams, this is all working just fine: The New York Post is happy to put his words on the front page.

At the same congressional hearing on Homeland Security where Staten Island’s Borelli spoke, Mississippi GOP Representative Michael Guest began his remarks by playing a video of Adams lashing out at migrants and Democrats. Throughout the hearing, Republicans took turns complimenting the mayor’s position on migrants.

One Democratic consultant texted during the hearing about the advantage Adams has been handing Republicans: “Coming soon to a mailer near you!”