Their paths to the New York Police Department’s downtown Manhattan headquarters on Thursday could hardly have been more different, but President Joe Biden and New York City Mayor Eric Adams are now – by their choosing and at their own political risk – increasingly bound as the Democratic Party tries to plot a course ahead of this year’s midterm elections amid a pandemic-era spike in violent crime.
At One Police Plaza, Biden, flanked by Adams at the main dais, publicly rolled out a series of new policies, plumped for proposals designed to crack down on gun violence, like breaking the “Iron Pipeline” that delivers illegal guns to the city from more permissive states down Interstate 95, and called for more money to be routed to local law enforcement around the country.
“We need, as I stated, a 9/11-type response to address the domestic terror that is pervasive in this city and country,” Adams said in remarks praising Biden. “For far too long, we called for backup and it was not here.”
But now, he said, the cavalry had arrived.
This pairing of big-city mayor and American president is as unlikely as it might be consequential. Adams is a Black former police captain with a reformer’s streak who ran a law-and-order campaign and converted his first paycheck to crypto. Biden, who likes to pay in cash, spent decades in the halls of Washington power, turning “tough on crime” politics into policy, but has since called the era’s signature legislation a “mistake.” On Thursday, though, in a pair of events in different boroughs, the two halves of what is shaping up as one of the Democratic Party’s foremost bromances enjoyed their signature day.
Biden’s visit, which included a visit to a public school in Queens for a talk with community leaders, also amounted to a signal moment in the Democratic national leadership’s forceful rejection of the more radical criminal justice revision ideas that gained prominence after the police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd in the spring of 2020.
“Mayor Adams, you and I agree. The answer is not to abandon our streets. The answer is to come together, police and communities,” Biden said at NYPD headquarters. “The answer is not to ‘defund the police.’ It’s to give you the tools, the training, the funding to be partners, to be protectors.”
Sitting nearby was NYPD Officer Sumit Sulan, the third officer to respond to a domestic call nearly two weeks ago that saw two of his colleagues, Officers Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, shot and killed by a man with a gun that had been reported stolen in Baltimore back in 2017. Biden turned, early in the event, and rose to honor Sulan, who was given a standing ovation in the hall.
New York has been rattled since the turn of the year by a series of sensational instances of gun violence, with multiple officers wounded in addition to the two slain in Harlem and other shocking incidents, including a baby who narrowly survived being struck in the face by a stray bullet and the killing of a teenage cashier at a Burger King. Last week, Adams rolled out his “blueprint” for combating the scourge, which included the revival of a controversial NYPD plainclothes unit and requests for help from the state and federal government.
Biden ticked off the variety of efforts now being made at his direction to answer Adams’ call.
“Mayor Adams, you say that gun violence is a sea fed by many rivers,” Biden said, echoing an expression Adams had used earlier in the morning. “Well, I put forward a plan to dam up some of those streams. You can count on me to be a partner in that effort.”
The not-so-odd couple
Their connection goes back months, to when the President invited Adams to the White House for a gathering to discuss violent crime. The visit came shortly after Adams had won the Democratic mayoral primary last summer and did not include then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, who still had nearly six months to go in his second term leading the city. Afterward, as he has so frequently in recent days, Adams described himself as “the Biden of Brooklyn.”
But with Biden’s popularity in steady decline and Democrats nationally facing the prospect of a midterm shellacking, Adams has emerged as one of the White House’s most treasured allies – a perception the new mayor relishes and, in a recent news conference, wholeheartedly endorsed.
“I am the Biden of Brooklyn, and I love the fact that the President is coming here,” Adams said at the end of January. “I’m sure if you were to ask him who is his favorite mayor, he’d clearly tell you, ‘It’s Eric.’ “
Biden’s decision to roll out his plan in New York, with Adams by his side, along with Gov. Kathy Hochul, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and members of Congress including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the party’s fourth-ranking House official, did little to dispel the claim.
Adams has delighted in the warmth of the President’s affection – and the suggestion, often his own, that he is both the embodiment of Biden’s political brand and a “blue-collar” champion whom other Democrats around the country should look to during a bleak spell for the party in Washington.
The political substance behind the Biden-Adams relationship was on clear display during the President’s trip to the city. Both succeeded, electorally, in appealing to a broad, multiracial coalition of working-class voters while keeping a foot in the camp of the party’s more liberal base. Biden, after finishing up at police headquarters, went to Queens to speak with the civilian leaders of the Community Capacity Development, a city-run violence intervention program.
“He wants to end the gun violence in our cities and our country. And (create) a future built on equality and opportunity, because the lack of the two feeds the gun violence that we are seeing,” Adams had said of Biden earlier in the day, before – as he had done so often during his campaign – chiding doubters for not crediting his progressive bona fides.
“Far too often, when we advocate for this, Mr. President,” Adams added, “people miss the part that we state that we want to end inequality.”
Adams’ opportunity – and risk
Adams’ early popularity, along with the traumatic nature of the recent rash of crimes, has largely kept progressive criticism to a minimum. But his more hardline positions, including support for “punitive segregation” in jails – which advocates say is no different, in effect, from solitary confinement – and an ongoing push to cast blame on bail revisions passed by the state for the uptick in crime, without any clear data to back it, have prompted some pushback from local lawmakers.
In an interview on CNN shortly before Biden arrived in New York, Adams said the “pursuit we had for criminal justice reform (in previous years), it was needed, but we did not have those who were focusing on public safety in the room when we made those reforms.” He then made specific reference to a law passed in 2017 that prevents prosecutors from charging minors as adults in connection with nonviolent crimes and a rule – that predates recent legislation – preventing judges from considering “dangerousness” when making decisions about bail.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris, the Democratic deputy majority leader from Queens, said in an interview before Biden’s arrival that the plan Adams had rolled out last week included some worthy ideas, like bulked-up pretrial and mental health services, but he also criticized the mayor for engaging in “cheap political arguments to satisfy the kinda right-wing, red-meat crowd” on issues like bail revisions.
Gianaris acknowledged that the mayor has been difficult to check, at least in the headlines and editorial pages, given his bully pulpit and a rush to combat the recent spate of attacks. Instead, the pushback will come where it counts, he said – in the legislature.
“There’s rhetoric and there’s policy-making. And the mayor has no role in policy-making at state level,” Gianaris told CNN. “So he can make his case and we will show him the respect he deserves to be heard. But those are state decisions, ultimately.”
For now, though, as Adams gets the chance to shine under a presidential spotlight in a city and state flush with cash thanks in large part to federal assistance passed by Biden and congressional Democrats, the new mayor – whom Hochul, the newly ascended governor bidding for a first full term this year, is eager to keep close – is in a remarkably powerful position.
The question going forward, as Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, put it, is whether Adams can parlay his moment into lasting success.
“I cannot think of another mayor taking office in the last 50 years or longer who had this kind of constellation of good political luck,” Sherrill said. “But he can’t take this political capital and put it in the bank. He’s got to invest it in an aggressive way in the coming months. And if he does that intelligently, that could make him the most popular mayor the city has had in a very, very long time.”