JAM News
Monday, February 22, 2021

How Eric Adams Would Run New York

BLOOMBERG OPINION - Howard Wolfson

A series of interviews with the candidates who want the job of running America's biggest city, published as lightly edited transcripts.

HOWARD WOLFSON: Let me start with the personal, if I could, because we have readers who may know that you’re Brooklyn borough president, but they may not know as much about your background. You’re a former police officer. Talk a bit about your decision to join the force.

ERIC ADAMS: When you talk about the evolution of any human being, I have continuously evolved over life. I was arrested as a child and we were assaulted by police officers, my brother and I — and I was bitter. I believe I was experiencing PTSD probably from 15 to about 18.

When Arthur Miller [a local businessman] was killed by police through a chokehold, civil-rights leaders came to me and asked me and 12 other young men to go into the police department and fight from within and change from within, and I did just that, and [in 1995] we started … 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and continued to open up the problem. But what people are not aware of is that I came into the police department with computer skills. I knew how to program using COBOL and some other computer languages, and my fight for justice turned also into a fight for safety because I thought it was hypocritical to talk about just ending police abuse when we were seeing violence within those same communities. And so I was one of the small team of officers that [deputy police commissioner and creator of CompStat] Jack Maple put together to say that we are going to break the tradition of high crime in our city. Because remember at that time everyone had a “no radio” sign in their car — we had empty boxes where you pull your radio out of your car. We basically created an industry of not being safe.

I sat in the room with Jack when he told the chiefs and inspectors we were going to turn around crime, and they laughed at us. They said, What are you talking about? This city is always going to have 2,000 homicides. And what we did is started to see homicides and felonies turn around, and that was the pivotal moment and it set me on the course of saying, We’re better than what we are showing as a city.

HW: So at the same time that you are working with Jack Maple, you were also a pretty significant critic of the department and its practices. How did you balance your criticism with your service? How were you able to be critical of the commissioner at a Sunday press conference and then the next day go out and perform your duties as an officer?

EA: By that time I was in with the goal of reforming policing. We would meet regularly with some of the civil-rights leaders, some of the activists, and that set the foundation of being able to communicate with so many groups now. [As] I was doing the fight for reform, I saw that there was another fight that was parallel: During the afternoons, we were going to homes where children were shot and killed. There were places in this city where in order for [public housing] residents to get inside their buildings, they had to wait in line with crack dealers, deciding who can come inside the buildings or not. Our city was under siege and a lot of people don’t know that. It was basically in communities without voices.

And you know, fighting to end those horrific police civilian encounters I had, there was a duality going on. We were fighting crime and trying to get the police department to see the importance of justice. I remember crack was rampant. We had the Morgue Boys, we had the Dirty 30s. We also had all of those police who were not only being abusive during the day, but they were helping the crime epidemic and the crack epidemic. We were fighting against the same entity.

HW: So you know you talk about the bad old days, which anyone who grew up in New York during that time remembers. Murder has come down. Crime has come down over the last couple of decades, but in the last year murder was up 40% and the police commissioner has said that changes to the state’s bail laws are to blame for the increase. Do you agree with that assessment?

EA: I figure there’s a combination of things. In the first rollout of the bail laws, I was super-critical of them because they had crimes on the list where clearly there was not a full understanding that these were predatory and violent crimes.

They had burglaries, robberies, possession of a weapon on school grounds, and they went back and they cleaned up the list for the most part. But I believe in addition to that, we must give [bail] discretion to judges; you can’t have a person that committed burglary or robbery go in, no bail, come out, do it again and still no bail. That’s just an attack on public safety. I take a lot of hits from people sometimes, but the prerequisite to our prosperity is public safety. We must be safe as a city or we are not going to prosper as a city.

HW: What’s the Adams administration plan to bring down crime if you become mayor?

EA: Immediately I will reinstitute the anti-crime unit. Turn it into an anti-gun unit and have them focus on not only the street level guns, but long-term investigations to find out why guns are coming here in the first place. Who are our biggest deliverers? Where are they located? Let’s identify them, let’s stop the pipeline. I will also institute at all of our port authorities, including the bus terminals and other locations, where we would do random checks like we do in the subway system. We don’t have to do it for everyone but there is amazing machinery out now where you can put your bag through and check. We know people are using the Port Authority to bring guns into the city and we need to identify and slow them down.

I will also create a tri-state task force with New York City, New York state, New Jersey and the other neighboring states to crack down on the flow of guns into our communities. We’re not doing a good enough job. We have a new Congress and a new president: it’s time to get guns under control. This is what [Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP] tried to do. He understood what gun violence was doing.

Second, gang violence. We know that gangs are not only shooting themselves, but that innocent people are being caught in the crossfire. We need to go on the ground and identify the gangs, use crisis-management teams. I have been meeting with gang leaders for the last year and a half. We need to go after the leaders, bring long-term RICO criminal actions against them. Breaking up the crews and really zeroing in on these gangs — what we call precision policing.

Third, we need to be proactive. Many people think this is a feel-good notion but it’s not. Thirty percent of people in jail are dyslexic at Rikers Island; 80% of these 18- to 21-year-olds have reading and writing deficiencies. The real crime in this city is our department of education. If we don’t educate, we’re going to incarcerate. And we have to get our school system under control and stop producing criminals.

Every year, we know 6,700 people age out of foster care. We know they’re going to be victims of crime, participate in crime, homelessness, mental-health illness. We already know it. If we would just invest $50 million a year and allow them to age out at 26 instead of 21, 90% will graduate from high school instead of 12%, go to college and they would turn their lives around. It has been proven yet we refuse to make those long-term investments to be more proactive around crime. Finally, many of these crisis-management teams, they have been amazing at stopping retaliatory shootings. Start getting young people involved in campaigns, get young people involved to be more proactive and not reactive. But our police commissioner must buy into rebuilding trust.

We have too many dinosaurs in the police department that don’t believe in rebuilding trust. They simply believe that policing is supposed to be a heavy-handed approach. They have to really start purging them from the top of police department supervisory ranks.

HW: You mentioned education as one avenue to deal with crime. One of your signature proposals is a significant expansion of summer school, which I happen to think is a terrific idea, especially given the learning loss around Covid. My question is not so much whether it’s a good idea but whether or not you can afford it. Where does the money come from and how do you convince the union to go along and staff it?

EA: The real answer is: One, we can’t afford not to do it.

You know, Michael Bloomberg had it right by going after mayoral control in schools. The crisis we are experiencing in America, not only in New York but across America, every big city, is fed by education. Everything that we’re facing for the most part in our city stems from our failure to educate, and we can’t continue to say it’s too expensive. No. It’s too expensive if we don’t do it. I always talk about the quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He spent a lifetime pulling people out of the river — no one goes upstream and prevents them from falling in in the first place. We’re running our city downstream. We have to go upstream and change our thinking from a crisis-management system to a proactive one.

So just dealing with summer school — we could use remote learning. We should have the best remote-learning experience on the globe. We should reach out to Google, we should reach out to Facebook, we should reach out to our tech industry, and we should build out a state-of-the-art remote learning experience so that children don’t have to sit in the school building. We should require two to three hours a day where our young people during the summer months are receiving continuous instruction. And you could have a great teacher, math teacher, English teacher, from one of the specialized high schools, who can do this remotely, or one of the great teachers of schools, public, middle schools.

Covid has revealed to us we can do remote learning — we just have to do it right. We can’t go through the motions. Too many students — they’ll sign on, they just put a screen up. That is not remote learning. We need to master remote learning. You could have one teacher who could instruct remotely 200 to 300 students, and give them the instruction that they deserve. We can do this if we bridge technology with the learning experience, and it would be cost-effective.

HW: Are more charter schools part of the solution in your view?

EA: Think about this for a moment. Everyone looks at the 65% of black students who don’t meet proficiency in public schools, which is almost criminal. But in charter schools, 40% don’t meet proficiency. Our school system must get it right. I don’t want to look at charter schools and say that it’s OK that 40% of our children are going to slip through the cracks. What we’re doing in education that’s wrong is we reduce the scale of success. We refuse to go to those models that are successful and say let’s fail up those who are successful. Bedford Academy, for example. What they’re doing at Bedford defies all the education rules of what we couldn’t do, yet we only have one Bedford Academy. Why don’t we have more Bedford Academies? And we have so many other schools in our system that are great district schools, great charter schools. We need to be duplicating their success and scaling those successes up, and we’re not doing that. We do just the opposite in the Department of Education. We protect pre-existing contracts and those who have been doing business, which haven’t been successful for a long time, instead of scaling up success.

HW: We’ve talked a little bit about the budget. The next mayor is obviously going to be inheriting significant challenges around balancing the budget due to Covid and other factors. The current deficit is about $5 billion, as you know. What does a Mayor Adams do to close that gap?

EA: I want to answer that but I want to go back for a moment because really, what makes me the odd man out in this mayor’s race is that our city is dysfunctional. You’ve been in government. It’s dysfunctional. We create our crises. Agencies create crises with each other within silos. When I have conversations with these forums and debates, everyone is talking about, Oh, we need access to a hospital. Now what’s the good of having a fancy hospital if it’s not preventing you from going blind or you’re losing a limb?

And here I am saying, Wait a minute, we can reverse chronic diseases. That’s the same with education. Think about this for a moment: This is science, this is straight science, this is not Eric Adams. We have been speaking for the last 2 1/2 years with experts in this subject area. We have talked with 250 people in education, health care, development, economics, etc. Everyone is saying to you because it’s a sound bite that education is K through 12. It is not. If a mother is not giving her baby the right nutrition while she’s carrying that baby, the baby will be born with irreversible issues around mental health.

By the time we get to pre-K, it’s too late. So when I’m saying every mother should receive for her first child a doula, that can show her what she should be giving that child to be part of the 80% brain growth in the first 1,000 days. To others it sounds like, What is Eric talking about? I’m saying let’s go to the core of the problem. We can’t continue to run cities just basically moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. We have to be bold enough to stop the dysfunctionality of our city, and that goes back to what you were asking about economics. You know even with the money that we’re going to get from the federal government, the $50-plus billion, we still need to move in the mind-set that we have to change the ways of funding in the city.

I believe that we need to do a 3 to 5% cut in every agency in this city. I believe we also must make sure that we have to grow the city. We need to do what Florida and New Jersey, what they’re doing, attracting new businesses there, we need to do the same here in New York and attract new businesses to be here. I think we need to become the center of the life sciences, the center of cybersecurity, the center of self-driving cars, the center of all of these new technologies that we need to grow here.

We need to grow them here in this city. We’re getting ready to roll out a report looking at the potentiality of an agrarian economy. We have a lot of roof spaces where we could do soil-less farming, identify food deserts and build from there. Part of our plan is to have a major capital green improvement plan. You know, borrowing now, interest rates are low, this is a great time to do some of the real infrastructure repairing that we need to do in this city.

I think we need to spend more on affordable housing through the capital program — not less, like [Mayor Bill de Blasio] is doing — and then we need to get our up-zoning right. We have been up-zoning in poorer communities. I believe we need to start up-zoning in transit-rich, great school districts and give access in some of our more affluent communities like from 42nd Street down to 14th Street, from Ninth Avenue over to Park Avenue. Even SoHo — I believe there are great opportunities to address our housing problem as well as our employment problem.

HW: Let me ask a couple of follow-ups there. You talked about attracting new businesses, new centers of business. You know the tax code certainly has an impact on business location and relocation. You’ve been, I believe, in favor of raising taxes on the wealthy. Has your thinking on that issue changed at all given how easy it is to work remotely at this point?

EA: That was one of the hardest decisions that I looked at as a candidate because I really don’t want to push affluent New Yorkers out of this city. This is a moment of saying to those affluent New Yorkers — what I hear the most from them is not that they can operate remotely.

They’re saying: Eric, the city is becoming unsafe, unclean, unkempt, there’s no reason to stay here anymore. That is what I hear the most, and so I’m saying to them, Give us two to three years of doing an income tax increase for those making $5 million or more annually, not those who are below that $5 million. I’m going after the $5 million or more annually, not permanently, just to get us over this hump. Now we’re getting $50 billion from the Feds, and there’s an opportunity to look at that. We may have enough to stabilize our economy. But when you look at the combination of things we have to do around efficiency of government, around using capital dollars, you look at all of those things, we still come up short.

Hopefully the money we get from Washington will allow us to say, Hey, we don’t have to go after those high-income earners. Let’s have them re-invest in the city and stay in the city, because you and I both know there’s a small number of people who are actually paying into our tax base. We can’t lose those 65,000 people that are paying 51% of our taxes although they’re only 2% of the income tax filers. I don’t want them to leave. I don’t subscribe to that theory that if they leave, let them leave, we don’t want them anyway. No. We need them here. I’m asking them to stay. I will make this city clean, safe and a place where we can raise our healthy children and families.

HW: One of the other issues around business development is whether or not the city provides incentives for businesses to come here or stay here.

There was a lot of controversy around the Amazon decision. If a major employer came to you and said, We’d like to stay but we can only stay if we’re able to get a cut of our taxes, or if there’s another company like Amazon that says we can only come if there is some benefit that we get from coming, how do you approach that philosophically?

EA: We lost Amazon because we lost the narrative. We allowed, in my belief, a numerical minority to hijack the entire narrative of that entire community.

You had people in Queensbridge Houses, you had people in other parts of that area who were not communicated with — in fact, they were almost ignored and it’s really troubling. I believe the mayor and the governor failed to go on the ground and really mobilize those communities that wanted to have Amazon there. And I would do that, and that goes back to those long existing relationships that I have. I would ensure that we’re not giving away the house, but at the same time we would look at the overall goal of having the companies here and see the benefit of that.

I also think we should change our procurement rules. I have a lighting company in East New York. They have been there for 40 years. They’re getting ready to close their doors because China is sending the product here cheaper. We need to stop looking at lowest cost and go to best value. If I have to pay 50 cents more for a fluorescent light that that person is producing here in New York City, and they’re hiring locally, that’s value — so a combination of good packages and using our procurement dollars to stabilize our small businesses and attract some of the new businesses that we want to come here.

HW: You mentioned the mayor’s failures around Amazon. I’m wondering: What grade would you give Mayor de Blasio’s overall performance?

EA: I believe there’s some areas where he did a good job of identifying those brick walls that were in place to prevent people from moving into some form of normality in their lives.

Giving free legal services in civil courts for eviction. The pre-K — I would have gone further but it was a start. The municipal ID program was extremely significant. A lot of people were not having access because they had no way of identifying themselves to open a checking account. There are some areas where he could clearly point to and show that he made some improvements in the quality of life of New Yorkers. I will probably give his overall performance as a mayor somewhere in the area of a C, a C+. You know I’m a hard grader so I’m not the best person to do so, but I think that his heart was there, a desire to improve the lives of people who had traditionally been left out.

But there was a failure to understand how we were creating our crises and really wrapping his head around that. He should have improved on 311. There should have been a 2.0 he should have improved on building out the pipeline of Cornell Tech, and [it’s] a perfect example of his failure to identify the automation and technology of the city. … Why were they still using forms to indicate who got a vaccine when they could have used hand-held devices that would have uploaded immediately to a centralized database? You can’t give out 900,000 vaccines and then say, Oops, we forgot Black and brown people. I mean, you could have examined exactly how you were doing it and made the right course correction during the process. And they just refused to comprehend and understand how to use technology to run this city more efficiently.

HW: In a lot of ways, the critique you’re offering is one of management. Talk a little bit about your own management style. What kind of manager is an Eric Adams? Are you hands-on, are you a delegator, how do you source the best ideas, the best people? Give me a sense of how you approach the topic of management.

EA: I believe I have the Bloomberg style with an asterisk — put the right people in place and then use his favorite quote: Don’t f+++ it up.

But I also believe, and I live by this, you have to inspect what you expect or it’s all suspect. When I see a pilot in the cockpit of a plane, he has in front of him a bunch of instruments and dials to let him know about wind speed, takeoff, view, everything. If he flies that plane without those instruments, I don’t care how competent he is, he is liable to crash.

If I am the mayor, once I get the right commissioners, I need an instrument panel, my dashboard. I should start my day like the Boston mayor does: looking at my dashboard. [Boston’s CityScore tracks real-time indicators to create a single score of the city’s overall daily performance.] We have taken off, we are in flight, how are we doing? Right now, we have no way of doing that. We use annual reports, monthly reports; this is a real-time country and globe we’re in right now. You need to be able to know how you’re trending as a city, and with Boston CityScore, if all of a sudden a school district’s grades go down, they get an indicator to tell you exactly what school district it is. They deploy resources right there. If enough 311 calls come in that the streets are dirty, they identify which streets they’re talking about, they deploy the resources right there. That is how we must run cities. We can’t wrap our hands around our city because we’re basically flying blindly without any real instrument panels. This is a real new way of thinking, of running cities in real time, and none of my opponents are talking about this. They’re talking about creating new programs and they’re talking about the same old responses. I want to take our city where we took the police department during the ’90s.

HW: You began our conversation by using the phrase “the evolution of the human being.” I want to ask about your political philosophy. At one point in your political career, you described yourself as a conservative Republican. I assume that you would no longer describe yourself that way, and I’m wondering if you would talk about the evolution of your political thinking from then to now.

EA: First let me go back to the conservative Republican. People took two articles. One article said that I’m conservative around policing and the other article said that I was a Republican at one time, and a very creative writer said, Let me take the conservative and put it with the Republican and then I’ll describe you. So, in actuality, those are two different conversations with two different outlets. I’m conservative around crime in that I believe we must be safe, and I was a Republican. It was during the time where I was extremely angry about what I was hearing in the Democratic Party. We saw the crime bill, we saw a failure to deal with crime in the city.

Remember, I was on the ground. This was a different city at the time and no matter how many times I spoke with our federal and state and city Democratic lawmakers, no one was dealing with the crime, and I think when you look at that moment of just how dramatic it was as a police officer watching families being destroyed from crime and the poor response. And so that was my protest moment of saying, I’m not in this party, I’ve had enough of this party. Remember, that was not the Republican Party of Donald Trump. It was a different Republican Party, and I think the Democratic Party of today is not the Democratic Party of then.

HW: So you know if I’m a busy person, I’m an undecided voter, I don’t have a lot of time to focus on politics, give me one minute on Eric Adams: Who is he, where is he situated ideologically, and why should I support him?

EA: I consider myself to be a pragmatic moderate that understands that in order for our city to prosper, we must be safe and we must finally stop the inefficiencies in this city in our agencies that are continually leading to the inequities and injustices. Taxpayers’ dollars are going to systems that are creating our crises. Our taxpayers are doing their job, now it’s time for government to do its job.

HW: Well, that’s a good elevator pitch. I realize there’s one thing I didn’t ask you: What would you be doing now as mayor and what do you imagine that the next mayor is going to have to do as regards the coronavirus crisis?

EA: Our recovery is tied to three big things. One, public safety. We can’t continue to have gun violence. We are going to lose tourism. We are going to lose in people believing the city is safe. People are going to leave. We have to become safe. Second, getting Covid under control. We must get people back in their office buildings and believing that they can safely go back to work. We can do that by creating some clear standards of what is a safe environment, how to have safety protocols so that we don’t have frivolous lawsuits every time someone gets Covid. But we have to get people back into our central business district and open our city again in a safe way because it feeds the entire ecosystem. You are not going to that cafe to get that cup of coffee if you’re not in the American Express building. You’re not getting your shoes shined, you’re not going to the theater, you’re not engaged in what really is the fuel of our city. And so I think the next mayor under Covid must have a clear vaccine plan and a real-time system so we can make sure we get to herd immunity. We have to get our offices and our restaurants back up and operating in a safe way where we can do that and our schools must be open. Lastly, we need to deal with the child-care issue. It’s very important that every person who needs child care and can’t afford it to have an opportunity to do so.

For more interviews in this series, click here.

 
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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