The Mayor Who Never Sleeps


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The Mayor Who Never Sleeps

July 8, 2022
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By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

On a breezy June night in the Bronx, I was on the balcony at the restaurant Zona De Cuba, sipping a mojito, vibing to a salsa band and peeking at a special menu for the plant-based mayor of New York, Eric Adams, who was soon to arrive.

Under the heading “Mayor Adams’ Corner” could be found “Eat My Veggies” cauliflower and broccoli and “Bite My Eggplant,” a dish spiced with roasted pepper sauce.

Not a fish in sight.

I pulled out a notebook, getting ready to interview Adams. But Maxwell Young, the mayor’s communications director, announced, “We have to go.” The mayor had pulled up outside in his black Suburban, but plans had changed. We ran out to the motorcade and headed to the Upper East Side.

Suddenly, we were staring down at a sidewalk full of blood. A young woman had been shot in the head an hour earlier as she pushed her 3-month-old daughter in a stroller on 95th Street.

Standing next to a school playground, John Miller, the storied deputy police commissioner, briefed the mayor sotto voce about the 40-caliber bullet casing, powder burns and a young man in a black hoodie shooting at point-blank range, execution-style. The woman was 20 and her name was Azsia Johnson. It was probably the baby’s father who was the shooter, he said. She had filed a domestic violence report against him.

In a couple of days, the police would say that this beautiful young woman, a doting mother of two, had been lured to the playground by her abusive ex, who told her he had some things for their baby daughter. He shot her and ran, leaving the baby on the street, and was arrested two days later.

I felt sick. I have covered gun violence and possible remedies for decades, and it seems we’re losing this battle. Coming out of Covid, it feels as though bad spirits have been unleashed all across the country.

It was Adams’s response to that sense of danger, his demand that the city support the police in the fight against crime, that won him election last year. Now the fight is his.

At a news conference on the night of the shooting with his police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, the mayor looked grim. “More guns in our city means more lives lost,” he said. “It means more babies crying as those who love them lie dead.”

Mayor Adams and Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell, right, after Azsia Johnson’s murder.Credit…Dakota Santiago for The New York Times

After a steady rise since the start of the pandemic, murders and shootings in the first sixth months of the year were down 10 percent and 12 percent in New York City compared with last year, according to police figures. The Police Department even announced on Thursday that it had made more gun arrests this past quarter than in any since 1995. But other crimes have risen — overall crime is up nearly 38 percent — and shocking crimes like the shooting of the young mom and attacks on the subway have left New Yorkers fearful.

Adams has worked to increase patrols on subways and has restarted a special anti-gun unit to combat gun crimes, specifically going after people who are most frequently the perpetrators of violence.

“It’s ‘High Noon’ in America,” Adams warned in testimony before Congress in favor of stronger gun laws. “The clock is ticking, every day, every minute towards another hour of death.”

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the quarterback for the compromise gun bill that just became law, told me that Mayor Adams had given “energy and new life” to a stalled anti-gun violence movement.

But it is tough going for Adams. He is pinioned from the left by the State Legislature, whose bail reform laws made it harder to keep criminals prone to violence in jail, and by district attorneys like Alvin Bragg of Manhattan, who deprioritized jail time even for certain low-level violent crimes, and by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who are demonizing the police, deepening morale problems. He is pinioned from the right by Clarence Thomas and the other radical justices who issued the opinion overturning a century-old New York statute that limited the number of guns on the streets and by a Republican Party hellbent on arming Americans to the teeth.

The mayor had started that Wednesday with Commissioner Sewell and New York’s attorney general, Letitia James. The commissioner noted that they had taken 3,300 guns off the street so far this year (now it’s 3,700), and the trio talked about lawsuits that Ms. James and the city had filed to crack down on ghost guns, untraceable weapons made from a kit that are being illegally sold in New York State.

That afternoon, the mayor and the commissioner had had a news conference with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about legislation recently passed that would allow the federal government to crack down on gun trafficking across state lines.

By 9:30 p.m., we came full circle: The esoteric discussion went on by day and the bloody reality reared its head at night. The shooting illustrated Adams’s Sisyphean battle.

That Thursday night, he went back to the Upper East Side to a candlelight vigil for Azsia Johnson and hugged her distraught mother, Lisa Desort, saying the death “hit so close to home” because he had worked with Desort when she was an emergency medical technician and he was a police officer.

The mayor with Lisa Desort, left, at a vigil for her daughter.Credit…Paul Martinka

At the police academy graduation at Madison Square Garden the day after that, on Friday, the mayor spoke of how shockingly high crime was when he started on the beat 38 years ago. “People no longer believed in the city,” he said.

But, the mayor continued, “every entity in the city was on our side,” as the police tried to take the city back. “That’s not the climate you’re policing in,” he told the white-gloved graduates. “You’re policing in a climate where everyone is against us. Every story seems to be negative about our actions and not see what we do every day. Laws are being passed that protect guilty people.”

Promising to be their general, telling them to ignore heckling, name-calling and Twitter insults, he said they are now dealing with a situation where almost anyone can carry a gun and where they can no longer count on criminals they arrest staying in jail. “No, they’re going to come out probably the next day,” he said, “because of a court system that just does not seem to understand the reality on the streets.”

Then Adams, who first drew public attention early in his career as a police officer who criticized police brutality, advised them: “You must be your brother’s keeper. You must ensure that he or she never reaches the point where they tarnish the shield, because one officer could destroy all the work that we are attempting to do.”

His younger brother, Bernard, a former police officer who is the director of mayoral security with a salary of $1 a year, told me that their mom drilled into them that “you have to be your brother’s keeper” and watch out for the little guy who wasn’t getting a fair shake.

Six months into the job, Eric Adams, 61, is at a crucial juncture. The honeymoon, filled with hope for a dynamic new mayor, is over. Adams’s poll numbers have dived, which the optimistic politician took with aplomb. “A C is not an A, but a C is not an F,” he told reporters, adding that he interpreted the numbers from tough New York graders to mean “We’re going to give Eric a shot.”

The New York Post, which endorsed his candidacy, has now given Adams the Homeric epithet “club-hopping.” The Times’s Emma G. Fitzsimmons wrote that his efforts in Albany, where he once served as a state senator from Brooklyn, fell short of achieving long-term mayoral control of public schools and other measures. David Freedlander of New York magazine, asserting that Adams can boast of few accomplishments, wrote recently, “It’s become hard to escape the impression that New York City is being led by a mayor who is, frankly, winging it.”

What Adams has brought to the job is a flair that’s refreshing after eight years of the dyspeptic Bill de Blasio. Over the July 4 weekend, he tweeted a video of himself taking a spin on a jet ski and “looking like a pro” in Mill Basin between Brooklyn events. But the questions echo: Is he all hat and no cattle? Is he skewing too much to swagger at the expense of substance?

“It’s like the second coming of ‘Beau James,’ Jimmy Walker,’’ one top Democratic politico said, referring to the vivacious Roaring Twenties mayor (who left office in a cloud of scandal). “But the most important thing is what you do between 9 and 5, not 5 and 9.”

A top Democratic strategist agreed: “On paper, Eric is kind of a Democratic superhero. But he needs real-world results, not just great swagger.”

In winning City Hall, Adams told a powerful, unique story about becoming a policeman after being beaten by the police as a teenager. He presented himself as someone who could soothe a jangly city and push back on defund-the-police and coddle-the-criminal rhetoric on the far left, restoring a little perspective and sanity as a moderate new face of the Democratic Party. He promised that he could address injustices to Black victims, build a police force that treated people with respect and deliver safe streets.

As the daughter of a police detective, I want to believe in that message. I want to believe we can hold bad police accountable and root out the Derek Chauvins, without straitjacketing officers to the point that forces suffer chronic blue flu and quit in droves.

I also want to believe that moderate Democrats are not becoming pariahs in their own party and heading toward extinction. I want to believe that you can work hard and achieve serious goals while showing flair. Politics is so tepid on the Democratic side and anti-democratic on the Republican side. The mayor’s magnetic smile is a promise. His noir expeditions — turns on red carpets, drop-by’s at clubs, and theater and fashion events — reflect his belief that New York is back and open for business, tourists, fun and, yes, swagger.

A ribbon cutting at the Brooklyn Chop House.Credit…Bennett Raglin/Getty Images
The mayor and Tracey Collins on the red carpet at the Met Gala.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
The mayor at the New York City Ballet spring gala.Credit…Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
Performing at the Inner Circle Show, a charity event hosted by New York City journalists.Credit…Todd Maisel/The Inner Circle Show, via Associated Press

I also want to believe that New York doesn’t have to be, as the former police commissioner Bill Bratton said, “the Wild West.” (Even as I was writing this story, there was a cascade of news bulletins: A member of the mayor’s advance staff was mugged in Brooklyn at knifepoint; a teenager on a scooter in the Bronx was fatally shot; a man sleeping on a bench in Hudson River Park was stabbed to death, and three people were shot, two fatally, by a man outside a Brooklyn deli.)

I had run into the mayor in February at the dinner after the opening of “The Music Man” on Broadway and asked him if I could follow him around for a story, the days and nights of Eric Adams.

“Zero Bond?” the enigmatic mayor murmured with a smile, referring to the private club in NoHo he frequently visits. (I never did get there.)

I began trailing him last month as he bounced around the city, wearing his navy blue “NYC MAYOR” jacket, meeting with religious leaders about retrofitting hotels for the homeless; climbing into a sanitation truck to help recruit workers; announcing plans for major renovations at a park in the Bronx; delivering a robot’s baby, complete with simulated blood, in a virtual reality program at Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx to help with the maternal morbidity crisis among Black mothers. He gave a Juneteenth speech in Central Park at the site of Seneca Village, where he compared gentrification to slavery. On Father’s Day, he went to a Mets game with his son, Jordan Coleman, 26, and threw out the first pitch. (He ran into the former Trump flak Anthony Scaramucci, calling out, “I love this guy!”) Then he stopped by a music festival in Jamaica, Queens, where he grew up, and presented a proclamation to the New York City Football Club at Yankee Stadium. At Gracie Mansion he gave a news conference about improving nutrition at schools, boosting “vegan Fridays.” A reporter told the mayor that she had talked to some kids who found the fare “squishy.”

The Central Park Conservancy held a Juneteenth event at Seneca Village.Credit…Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times
A ribbon-cutting ceremony at Independence Towers in Brooklyn.Credit…Janice Chung for The New York Times

“In his heart, he’s still a police officer — he’s always patrolling,” said Anne Williams-Isom, the deputy mayor for health and human services, noting that the mayor set up a weekly Zoom call on homelessness at 5 p.m. on Sundays. Several staffers told me that when they do 8:30 a.m. Zoom meetings with the mayor, he’s in his suit and tie on his stationary bike.

He was not always so fit. In his book, “Healthy at Last,” Adams writes that after Sept. 11, he relied on comfort food. If he had a hard day, he craved a Quarter Pounder or a bucket of KFC. He told me that when Tracey Collins, his longtime partner who has been a high-ranking official at the city’s department of education for over a decade, told him to eat a little better, he would pick up a handful of cookies and stuff them in his mouth as though to say, “Leave me alone.”

Then came the “horrific experience,” as he called it: One day in 2016, he woke up blind in his left eye and suffering nerve damage in his feet, which could have led to amputation. His diabetes was killing him. He switched to a plant-based diet, lost 35 pounds and reversed the damage from the disease. He also cooked for his mother, who died last year, to help her get healthier, and wrote a book on the experience.

Adams switched to a plant-based diet after a health scare in 2016.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Every morning, he does transcendental meditation and then has his green smoothie — blueberries, kale and spinach sprinkled with chia, cacao, acai, maca and moringa. His bling: a stone bracelet Collins gave him for energy, a crystal bracelet he was given by an elderly woman on the campaign trail and a stud in his left ear, which was the result of a humorous promise on the campaign trail. To relax, he said, he’s learning to play the guitar, at the moment, the song “Lean on Me.”

The mayor can stop a staffwide Zoom if he thinks people are tired or nervous to lead the group in deep breathing. But he doesn’t want to be a nanny, like Mike Bloomberg.

“People want to have their steak, their cigarettes,” he said. “It’s all right with me.”

Lorraine Grillo, the first deputy mayor who keeps a pack of Marlboros on her desk, said she warned Adams: “I said, ‘Eric, I’m probably going to have a cigarette once in a while, I’m going to eat a steak, I’m never, ever riding a bike.”

The mayor is a “low-drama person,” as one aide puts it. He stays pragmatic and Zen, listening more than he speaks. He organizes everything on eight Excel spreadsheets and challenges his staff if they are not prepared.

Being mayor has opened up a whole new exciting world to Mr. Adams. He told me that he had always wanted to go to the Met Gala and loved attending. “I guess after eight years of not having someone that was fun just really set the tone,’’ he said. “New York is supposed to be fun. We should laugh. We should go to these balls.”

Adams is so ubiquitous that he has earned the title “The Nightlife Mayor,” which is derisive or complimentary, depending on who’s saying it.

“He has a lot of energy and is so determined to make New York a vital cultural center,” Anna Wintour told me. “He seems to need no sleep.”

The son of the mayor, Jordan Coleman, 26, a filmmaker who works at Roc Nation, thinks that criticism of Adams’s nocturnal wanderings is unfair.

“People need to cut him some slack,” Coleman said, because “he’s devoted his whole life to fixing this city” and “he gives 110 percent every time he wakes up.”

After an hour and a half at the crime scene that Wednesday night, I assumed the mayor would want to postpone the interview scheduled at Zona De Cuba (which is owned by the former Republican mayoral candidate Fernando Mateo). But we ended up going at 11 p.m. to Osteria La Baia, the site of “fishgate,” the report that he ate fish at the restaurant.

We sat down. The waitress asked, “Would you like your branzino?” The mayor quickly shook his head no. He munched on a Caesar salad, carefully picking out the croutons and anchovies, while he waited for his staff to deliver hummus, eggplant and mushrooms from another restaurant.

We talked about recent stories in the press about the left eating itself alive with infighting and cancel culture. “They are trying to out-perfect themselves,” Adams said. “All the things we fought for, we’re losing because we were fighting each other. We allowed Donald to stack the Supreme Court because Hillary wasn’t pure enough for folks.”

And now Clarence Thomas is on a tear, he said, adding: “He’s still holding on to what happened to him during his whole confirmation process, and he’s been harboring that for a long time. This is the type of guy that sits in the basement every day and plots.”

I wonder if he had watched the testimony of the Jan. 6 hearing suggesting that his predecessor, America’s Mayor, Mr. Law and Order, Rudy Giuliani, cooked up a coup while he was drunk.

“Talk about imploding,” Adams said. (A week later, Adams went to bat for the supermarket worker charged with assaulting Giuliani, asking the Staten Island D.A. to go easy on him.)

I asked about his night rambles.

“Remember, what is our title, the City That Never Sleeps,” he said, ordering a Tito’s vodka and soda. “When I was a cop, I did the midnight shift for 11, 12 years. There’s another city that comes alive during the nights. I want them to know, ‘Listen, I’m the mayor of you, too.’

“My mother used to tell me she would go to work, clean office spaces. She said no one would even talk to her. It’s like she doesn’t even exist. They would just ignore her being there. I said, ‘I’m not going to do that to people.’”

Adams took the oath of office in Times Square holding a photograph of his mother. His son, Jordan Coleman, held the family Bible.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

I noted that he doesn’t talk much about his father, a butcher. His mother, who raised the six kids with money from cleaning work, is sometimes referred to as a single mother. Their financial situation was so precarious that Adams had to bring a bag of clothes to school in case they were evicted by the time he got out. His pet was a rat named Mickey.

“Dad was in and out, in and out, in and out,” he said. “He’d come. He would stay for three months, disappear for nine, come back. That was her love. I remember her sharing with me one day, ‘You know, I hope I didn’t love your father too much that I was just blind.’”

I told the mayor that people I’ve talked to are still hopeful about him but seem to be getting impatient. One of my colleagues had told me the day before that she was taking the 2 train and saw a man punch his girlfriend in the face during an argument.

“If you place the accent on the wrong letter, you’re going to mispronounce the word,” Adams said. “If you place the accent on the wrong moment in your life, you’re going to mispronounce your life. Place it on how many times you got on the train and nothing happened to you. Nothing eventful. That’s where the accent should go, not ‘Hey, this is my 900th ride and you know what, I saw a homeless person today. Oh my God, things are out of control.’ They’re not.”

I noted that he has received scrutiny for hanging out with some shady customers. Some friends, like Al Sharpton, warned him before he took office that appearances matter. Others were afraid he might be used by opportunists.

His night crawls, which make some City Hall staffers uneasy, include Zero Bond and Osteria La Baia; the restaurant is owned by his close pal Zhan Petrosyants, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to an illegal check-cashing scheme designed to evade anti-money-laundering rules.

When a member of the New York State Senate was convicted of misdemeanor assault for roughing up his girlfriend, Adams was one of the few who voted against expelling him from office. He named Philip Banks deputy mayor of public safety even though he was an unindicted co-conspirator in a corruption scandal involving the Police Department and de Blasio donors in 2018. And he appointed Frank Carone as his chief of staff despite scrutiny of his past business dealings, raising “money for access” questions.

“The worst day of your life should not define your life,” the mayor insisted. “I just believe that because I’ve had some worst days.”

He continued: “Phil is one of the best law enforcement officers in this country. Imagine me saying, ‘I need to deal with crime. You did some dumb things, now I’m going to leave you on the bench when my team is losing.’ No, I’m not doing that.”

I wanted to know about his sparring with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The New York Post summed it up with a witty headline: “Is this AOC’s or Adams’ Apple?” The mayor, who spent a few years as a Republican, has critiqued the congresswoman’s socialist agenda and the “Tax the Rich” gown she wore to the Met Gala. He chided it as the wrong message, arguing that the wealthiest New Yorkers paid most of the city’s income taxes (although the top 1 percent make as much as the bottom 90 percent). When he found himself on Anna Wintour’s A list for the next gala, he trolled A.O.C. by sporting his own message on the back of his jacket: “End Gun Violence.”

Adams said he had read a book on “the importance of our children disagreeing with us. That is so natural. I’m almost twice her age. Our experiences are different. She may find it hard to believe that there’s going to come a time that, to her children’s generation, they’re going to say she’s out of touch.”

“I believe that it’s all right to disagree,” he said. “It’s not all right to be disagreeable.”

He can get testy, though, when confronted. At a news conference in February, after the media had questioned his failures at legislative changes in Albany, he threatened to stop answering questions and suggested that the City Hall press corps needed more diversity.

“Listen, it hits a sore spot, but we have to be honest,” he told me. He is only the second Black mayor “and I sit in a room sometimes and I look around the room and I say, ‘Where are the black reporters?’” He added: “My white counterparts, they do one-two-three, one-two-three, that’s their dance. I do the Boogaloo.”

Being a Black man in New York was challenging from the time he was young. I asked about the night when he was 15 and was brutally beaten by the police after he and his oldest brother got arrested for trying to cash a stolen money order.

Eric Adams, far right, in a 1974 family photo.Credit…via Office of the New York City Mayor

“The craziest thing about it was that the cops were not angry at us,” he said. “It’s one thing if you chase someone or they fought you back, tempers rage.” But things were calm. “They were doing the paperwork. And the guy said, ‘You just feel like a beatdown?’ The other guy said, ‘Yes.’ We didn’t know what the hell they were talking about and they took us downstairs to the basement of the 103rd Precinct and just started kicking us in our groin. They weren’t angry. It was just some form of sadistic recreation.”

This assault inspired him to be a police officer, to fix the force from the inside. It provided no such inspiration for his brother. “I don’t think my brother has ever been right since that incident,” he said, sadly.

Despite his club-hopping, he said, he would stay home in his pajamas, watching “The Twilight Zone,” if he had a day to himself. “I am socially awkward. I’m extremely shy. I can spend the whole day binging on documentaries. When I was a child, I would sit down and I would get excited about going home and watching ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.’ Animal behavior is the unfiltered human behavior. We cover up what we feel. At our heart, we are all vulnerable.”

He continued that when he’s in a room with billionaires and celebrities, he can see the “scared children” in them. “I look across the table from you, I see exactly who you are. You have your own insecurities, you have your own concerns. ‘Does my wife still love me?’ ‘Am I still appealing?’ I may be mayor but I’m still this child that just wants to do right.”

So which animal in the jungle are you?

He laughed. “Clearly, I am a lion. I am meant to rule the jungle.”

Underneath the swagger, beyond the swank parties, the serious parts of the job are never far from his mind.

Before a speech in April, when the mayor released his Fiscal Year 2023 Executive Budget and spoke about his first 100 days in office.Credit…Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

“Listen, I got to live up to the job,” he said. “I got to turn around the economy. I have to make the city safe. I have to educate children and there’s no excuses. It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, you are a Black man. We’re going to give you a pass.’ No, I don’t want a pass. I’m responsible for that woman being shot today. My job is to make sure she could walk down a block pushing a carriage without being assassinated. I’m going to live up to my responsibility, but don’t stack the deck. Highlight where we are successful. We got some real W’s.” The press and critics, he complained, laughing, “only talk about, ‘Hey, did you eat a piece of fish?’”

“Did you?”


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