NEW YORK – On his eighth day as New York City's mayor, Eric Adams stood before reporters to announce federal money for a pandemic-beleaguered hospital system — and take questions about some provocative hires in his nascent administration.
Within hours, he was before the news cameras again, grappling with his first major calamity.
A fire had ripped through a Bronx apartment building, killing 17 people, including eight children. Adams called it a “horrific, horrific painful moment,” stood shoulder to shoulder with other politicians, and pledged to help victims with every available resource.
In a frenetic juxtaposition that Sunday, the new mayor stepped into the roles of cheerleader and crisis manager of the most unwieldy of cities, all the while facing questions about early controversies of his own making.
The Adams era of New York City is shaping up much like the man: fast-paced, at times contradictory, and hard to pin down.
“It’s only been two weeks, but it also feels like it’s been a whirlwind two weeks,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.
Adams himself has long defied easy categorization and cut a complex reputation.
He is a Democrat who won a crowded primary contest last year as one of the most moderate candidates in the field, but he pushes back on the idea that he’s not a progressive.
He is a Black man who was brutally beaten by police officers as a teenager who went on to join the police force and become one of its few internal critics. He climbed to the rank of captain while clashing with the department's leaders. He still has deep ties to the department. He wore an NYPD hat to the scene of the Bronx fire.
He’s a vegan who preaches the benefits of a morning green smoothie and meditation. He has defended, in some cases, the use of the stop-and-frisk police tactic and solitary confinement in jails.
He makes no secret of his love of New York’s nightlife and members-only nightclubs, telling late-show host Stephen Colbert that as mayor, “I must test the product.”
He takes the subway, like some of his predecessors, and insists it's not a show. He speaks regularly about having grown up in poverty with a single mother who cleaned houses. He is known for wearing designer loafers. He drives a Prius. He parked that Prius illegally and drove it on the sidewalk. He wants to be paid in cryptocurrency.
As mayor, Adams has made a point of being omnipresent and projecting command. He got out in front of the city’s first major snowstorm of the winter, holding news conferences and releasing videos on Twitter showing him moving about the city in the snow and salting a stoop.
He presented a united city response to the fire, visiting the scene, meeting with the schoolteachers of the children who died and attending a prayer service at a mosque where many of the victims were congregants.
Adams struck the right tone, coming across as a strong manager who showed empathy, said Basil Smikle, a lecturer and director of the public policy program at Hunter College and a former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party.
Adams also ruffled feathers when he said New York, which has lost more than 36,500 people to COVID-19, needed an attitude adjustment.
“When a mayor has swagger, the city has swagger," he said. “We’ve allowed people to beat us down so much that all we did was wallow in COVID.”
He drew more backlash when, while making a point that COVID-19 shutdowns are especially hurtful to people who can’t work from home, he said “low skill” service industry workers ”’don’t have the academic skills to sit in the corner office.”
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former bartender, attacked his word choice, saying the idea of “low skill” jobs is "a myth perpetuated by wealthy interests to justify inhumane working conditions.”
Adams has been celebrated for making diverse appointments, bringing on five women, four of whom are women of color, as deputy mayors, and hiring the city’s first ever female police commissioner.
But he also raised eyebrows by hiring his brother to run his security detail, a $210,000 job. Adams said his brother, a former police sergeant, was the most qualified person to protect him from “anarchists” and “white supremacy."
Adams was also criticized by some over his pick for deputy mayor for public safety, Philip Banks, a former top NYPD commander who had been the subject of a federal corruption investigation when he retired from the department in 2014. Adams said Banks, who was never charged, was the best person for the job.
Greer said Adams shares some qualities like two other politicians that, like him, hail from Queens: Former President Donald Trump and former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
All three men have had a swirl of nepotism, charisma, arrogance, braggadocious behavior, and an innate understanding of people and how to connect with them, she said.
The complicated impression trailing his early weeks may foreshadow the next four years.
Smikle said Adams is cushioned, at least for now, by a lot of political capital, with officials such as Gov. Kathy Hochul seeking his alliance as she runs for reelection. He also has a diverse coalition of voters that carried him into office.
“Even if voters don’t know him, they feel that he does represent their slice of life,” he said.
Greer said Adams' appeal to voters might differ from day to day. "I mean, you just can’t call it with him.”