What Eric Adams Is Learning From Ed Koch
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Mayor-elect Eric Adams is often compared to David Dinkins, the only other Black man elected as mayor of New York City. But Adams’s style may be more reminiscent of the man Dinkins defeated 32 years ago: Ed Koch.
In 1977, New York was facing daunting challenges, and in his campaign Koch proclaimed himself a “liberal with sanity.” Adams’s willingness to get into a public fight with a majority of City Council members over solitary confinement is an indication that he sees himself in a similar way. Barely a year after nationwide protests demanding police reform, and mere days before Adams is officially sworn in, the former police captain is doubling down on the public-safety message that helped get him elected to City Hall.
The headline from this exchange was Adams’s seemingly dismissive tone in suggesting that the council had no right to judge someone with his law enforcement background: “I wore a bulletproof vest for 22 years and protected the people of this city,” he said. “When you do that, then you have the right to question me.”
In truth, Adams’s message was more nuanced. He rejected claims that he supports solitary confinement, which has fallen out of favor in recent years. He characterized his policy as “punitive segregation”: isolating inmates proved to be dangerous both to corrections staff and other prisoners. “You can’t have a jail system where someone assaults a staffer, slashes an inmate, and then say, ‘It’s all right, I’m going to give you an iPad and just hug you and say, “Don’t do it again,”’ he declared.
Adams then turned his attention to the 29 incumbent and incoming council members who signed a letter upbraiding his position. “If anyone wants to talk to me,” he said, “don’t write a letter. Call me and speak with me. That is how we are going to resolve this.” Adams rightly sees the practice of politicians communicating with each other through “open letters” as a tiresome tactic meant mostly to get media attention.
Not only is this a fight Adams wants, it’s also one that he needs. Council members can call solitary confinement “torture,” but I suspect more New Yorkers will be sympathetic to Adams’s view. These are the same working-class folks he frequently cites as the key to his victory — the ones that Koch would constantly check in on, asking, “How’m I doing?”
Koch was elected in 1977, just two years after the city’s near-bankruptcy produced the infamous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline and the year of summer blackouts and “Son of Sam.” Koch won by presenting himself as the law-and-order candidate. Frequently combative with the left of his day, Koch was also charismatic enough to become a national figure — an aspiration that Adams, judging from his frequent comments about the need for Democrats to forge a more moderate path, seems to share.
This is not 1977. At the same time, it’s hard to overestimate the social, economic and psychic toll that Covid has taken on New York City and state. The Census Bureau estimates that New York State suffered a net population loss of 352,185 between July 2020 and July 2021 — the largest decline in the nation.
Of course, public safety is not the only issue causing such flight, which isn’t only from the city. But a more concentrated focus on public safety will be necessary to accomplish a turnaround. Adams is smart to make the issue the subject of his first spat with the City Council.
It was also savvy for him to appear with his immediate predecessor this week to show his commitment to having all public schools open for in-person classes on Jan. 3. Nowadays a “law and order” politician can’t focus only on controlling crime. That’s just the first half of the phrase. A law-and-order politician also has to ensure that parents can depend on the order that comes from their children regularly attending school.
Does this all amount to a “liberal with sanity”? It’s too soon to say. Surely the progressive left will test the new mayor. But Adams needs to remember that his constituency is broader than that. Like Koch, Adams will succeed as long as he remembers to include the whole city when he asks, “How’m I doing?”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.
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