He bluntly challenged leftist leaders in his party on police and public safety issues. He advertised in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, and often ignored Manhattan’s neighborhoods next to Harlem and Washington Heights. And he described himself as a blue-collar candidate with a keen personal understanding of the challenges and worries faced by working-class New Yorkers of color.
With his sizable early lead in Tuesday night’s Democratic mayoral election when the votes were counted, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams demonstrated the enduring power of a candidate who can and can connect with black and Latin American working class and middle class voters at the same time appeals to some white voters with moderate views.
Mr. Adams is not yet sure of victory. But if he prevails, it would be a triumph for a campaign more focused on these constituencies than any other victorious New York mayoral candidate in recent history.
As the national Democratic Party debates identity and ideology, the mayoral election in the largest city in the United States raises critical questions about who base the party on and who speaks best for them in the Biden era.
Barely a year has passed since President Biden won the Democratic nomination, defeating several more progressive rivals across the board for the support of black voters and older moderate voters, and running for the working class himself. But the Democrats are now struggling to hold together a coalition that includes liberal and centrist college graduates, young left activists, and colored working class voters.
“America says we want justice and security and end inequalities,” said Adams at a press conference on Thursday and offered his opinion on the direction of the party. “And we don’t want fancy candidates.”
Mr Adams’ allies and advisers say he based his campaign strategy from the start on connecting with colored voters of the working and middle classes.
“For the past few cycles, mayor’s race winners have generally started on a whiter, more affluent base and then expanded,” said Evan Thies, a spokesman and advisor for Adams. Mr Adams’ campaign, he said, began “with black, Latino and immigrant low-income, middle-income communities and then reached middle-income communities.”
Mr. Adams would be the second black mayor of New York after David N. Dinkins. Mr. Dinkins, who described the city as “a beautiful mosaic,” was more focused than Mr. Adams on winning over liberal white voters.
Mr Adams was the first choice of about 32 percent of the New York Democrats who voted in person on Tuesday or during the early parliamentary term. Maya Wiley, a former lawyer for Mayor Bill de Blasio and a progressive favorite, received about 22 percent of that vote. Kathryn Garcia, a former hygiene officer who touted her leadership experience, received 19.5 percent.
According to the city’s new ranking electoral system, in which voters can nominate up to five candidates, the candidate of the Democrats is now determined by a process of elimination. Ms. Garcia or Ms. Wiley could ultimately outperform Mr. Adams, although this seems like an uphill battle and a final winner may not be determined for weeks.
If Mr. Adams wins, it will be in part because he had great institutional advantages.
He was well financed and spent a lot on advertising. He received the support of several of the city’s most influential unions, representing many black and Latin American New Yorkers. His name was known even after years in city politics, including as a senator.
And although some of the most prominent members of the New York Congress delegation supported Ms. Wiley as their first choice, Mr. Adams received other important endorsements, including that of the District Presidents of Queens and Bronx and of Rep. Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican-American member of Congress and a powerful one Figure in Washington Heights.
Equally important was that Mr. Adams was perceived as credible in the eyes of his followers on what turned out to be the most momentous and divisive issue in the race: public safety.
Mr. Adams, who experienced economic hardship as a child and said he was once beaten by the police, grew up to join the police and was promoted to captain. Critics within the ministry saw him as something of a riot, while many progressive voters now think that his answers to complex problems too often include an emphasis on law enforcement.
But he has long since cemented his reputation with some voters as someone who questions wrongdoing within the system and gives him the power to speak out about the fight against crime.
“He’s been with the police, he knows what they represent,” said Gloria Dees, 63, a Brooklyn resident who voted for Mr. Adams, describing how deeply she was about both rising crime and police violence against black people is concerned. “You have to understand something to make it work better.”
Polls this spring showed that in the face of random underground attacks, a flurry of prejudice and an increase in shootouts, public safety is becoming an increasingly important issue for Democratic voters. On the Sunday before the primary, campaign workers announced that a volunteer had been stabbed to death in the Bronx.
“Being an ex-cop while having security and justice was a message that resonated with the people of the Bronx,” said MP Karines Reyes, a Democrat who represents parts of the county and who did not support anyone in the race. Mr. Adams won the Bronx by an overwhelming majority in the first vote count. “You’re looking for someone to tackle the crime.”
The city’s violent crime rate is well below the level it was decades ago, but there have been shootings in some neighborhoods and older voters in particular are deeply afraid of going back to the “bad old days”.
Donovan Richards, Queens County President and a supporter of Mr. Adams, cited the recent fatal shooting of a 10-year-old boy in the Rockaways as something that struck many people in the area.
“We’re still a long way from where we were in the 80s or 70s,” he said. But, he added, “When you see a shootout ahead, nobody cares about statistics.”
Thursday’s interviews with voters on both sides of Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn vividly demonstrated the attractiveness and limitations of Mr. Adams. In parts of Crown Heights, initial results show that the parkway was a physical dividing line between voters who voted for Ms. Wiley and those who preferred Mr. Adams.
Among the older colored working class voters south of the Parkway, Mr. Adams held a leading position.
“He’s going to support the poor people and the blacks and browns,” said one, Janice Brathwaite, 66, who is disabled, and said she voted for Mr. Adams.
Ms. Brathwaite expelled Ms. Wiley after hearing about her plans to overhaul the police department, including reallocating $ 1 billion from the police budget to social services and anti-violence measures.
“She is someone who is against the cop, who protects me and makes sure no one shoots me,” said Ms. Brathwaite.
Ms. Wiley has said there are times when armed officers are needed, but she has also argued that in some cases, mental health experts can be more effective in stopping crime.
This approach appealed to Allison Behringer, 31, an audio journalist and podcast producer who lives north of the Parkway, where Mr. Adams’ challenges could be seen among some of the young professionals who live in the area.
“She was the best progressive candidate,” said Ms. Behringer of Ms. Wiley, who she rated as her first choice. “She talked about rethinking what public safety is, that really appealed to me.”
Ms. Behringer alluded to ethical concerns raised about Mr. Adams. He’s been scrutinizing his taxes, real estate holdings, fundraising practices, and residence.
A new round of voting results to be released on Tuesday will provide further clarity about the race. You can show whether these problems harm Mr. Adams among some very dedicated voters in Manhattan and elsewhere. The new results could also suggest whether Ms. Wiley or Ms. Garcia had a broad enough pull to take his lead.
As in Brooklyn, there was a clear geographic divide between voters in Manhattan: East 96th Street, with those who preferred Ms. Garcia first being mostly in the south, and those who preferred Mr. Adams or Ms. Wiley higher up .
Ms. Garcia, a relatively moderate technocrat who was supported, among other things, by the editorial staff of the New York Times, won Manhattan easily. Like Ms. Wiley, she hopes to beat Mr. Adams by being the second choice of many voters and getting unmatched absentee votes.
One afternoon that month in Harlem, Carmen Flores had just cast her early vote for Mr. Adams when she came across one of his rallies. She said she found his trajectory inspiring.
“He comes from below,” she said, adding, “He was in every facet of life.”
Regardless of the final vote, Democratic strategists warn against drawing far-reaching political conclusions from the local elections following the June pandemic. If Mr. Adams becomes mayor, as the Democratic candidate almost certainly will, progressive leaders can still point to signs of strength in other city races and elsewhere in the state.
When asked about the mayor’s race, Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the leftist organization Justice Democrats, said “scare tactics work when crime rises” and noted that several leftist candidates were leading their races in the city.
He also argued that some people who supported Mr. Adams might have done so for non-ideological reasons.
“There may be some voters who voted for Eric Adams because of his political platform,” said Shahid. “But there are probably many more voters who voted for Eric Adams based on their feelings for him. It is often whether they identify with a candidate. “
Nate Schweber contributed to the coverage.