Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

Halfway through Eric Adams’s term as mayor of New York, many of the headlines he generates aren’t about the city; they’re about his personal problems. The F.B.I. raided the home of his chief campaign fund-raiser. Agents seized his cellphones and iPad. Government officials are looking into whether he received illegal campaign donations from foreigners.

These problems are his own making, the result of his well-documented penchant for transactionalism and insularity. But they are particularly damaging because he can’t balance them with evidence that he is improving life in New York.

Each one of Mr. Adams’s predecessors over the past four decades would have been able to fall back on his first-term accomplishments to compensate for a grave demerit, but Mr. Adams’s policy victories are scant. That’s a problem for him, but more important, it’s a problem for the nation’s biggest city. He hasn’t just disappointed his 750,000 voters; he has led the city into a costly stagnation.

There’s never a great time for New York to be in the hands of an unfocused, distracted mayor, but now is a particularly bad moment for the city to be leaderless. Among the country’s largest cities, New York is second only to San Francisco in pandemic population losses, including higher-income taxpayers who help fund our public and social services. According to data from the state comptroller, the state lost 6,502 tax filers who earned $500,000 or more in 2020 and an additional 3,883 in 2021, well above the 1,623 who left in 2019.

Indeed, New York City’s failure to thrive after Covid and its related upheavals has long-term implications for the nation. New York and San Francisco aren’t the only cities struggling to attract workers back to downtowns, to remake downtowns to increase the number of residents compared to commuters, and to control violent crime and lower-grade disorder. If New York gives up on its prospects of making progress, what are the chances for postindustrial cities without its deep and rich tax and population base, from Chicago to New Orleans?

In the nearly half century before Mr. Adams took office, each of New York’s mayors had flaws, but each also made progress, accomplishing a specific goal that left New Yorkers better off than before, and most before the end of his first term.

  • Ed Koch was slow to act on the AIDS crisis and failed to avert a third-term corruption scandal in his transportation department, but in his earliest years in office he got the city’s budget on a firm footing following its near bankruptcy in 1975 and began the rebuilding of the Bronx.

  • David Dinkins responded too slowly to the city’s fears of violent crime when the number of murders in a year surpassed 2,000 for the first time, in 1990. But he expanded the Police Department to begin to reverse a quarter-century of violent-crime rises.

  • Rudolph Giuliani alienated New Yorkers with his monomaniacal crusades, such as threatening the city-subsidized Brooklyn Museum over an artwork display he found offensive. But building on the earlier increase in the police force, he cut crime to levels most New Yorkers had considered unattainable. Murders fell by nearly 40 percent in Mr. Giuliani’s first two years, for example, the first sustained double-digit drop in decades.

  • Michael Bloomberg went too far with his Police Department’s tactics of stop, question and frisk, losing support for preventive policing that New York needed to maintain to keep crime down. But he wrested control of the city schools from a politically unaccountable board, rezoned much of the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront for new housing, and remade the streets, improving safety and livability with pedestrian plazas and bike lanes.

  • Even Bill de Blasio, who suffered from a lack of focus, executed his main campaign promise, prekindergarten for all children, within his first year in office. Through his Vision Zero program, another campaign pledge, he cut traffic deaths by double-digit percentages.

What, by contrast, are Mr. Adams’s accomplishments?

He won office in 2021 by emphasizing just one issue: crime. In that year’s ranked-choice Democratic primary, he edged out his chief rival, Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner who pitched herself as a competent technocrat.

Mr. Adams won the primary (tantamount to general-election victory) because he channeled the fears deepening in New York City. From 2019 to 2021, the number of murders rose 53 percent, the worst reversal in such a short time frame since the Police Department began keeping reliable statistics in 1963; the surge far exceeded the estimated national increase in homicides of 36 percent. Shootings more than doubled. Even as polls showed crime to be voters’ top concern, his rivals treated it as just one issue among many.

Not Mr. Adams; he put his biography as a police captain at the center of his campaign. “I’ve spent my life making New York families safe,” he said in one ad.

Two years in, though, he has failed to deliver on that singular promise of cutting crime. Yes, murders fell by over 20 percent in 2023, relative to 2021. But they remained 23 percent above 2019 levels (though they have declined further in the first two months of this year). Shootings fell 38 percent below 2021 levels, but remained 27 percent above 2019 levels.

Mr. Adams has made no progress on overall felonies; in 2023, the city’s numbers for seven major felonies were 33 percent above 2019 levels.

Worse for the public mood is a hardening sense of disorder, fraying an always fragile quality of life. Reported petty larceny was 24 percent higher than in 2019. In chain drugstores, the toothpaste remains locked up; drug users still shoot up in subway passageways; moped operators are driving every which way on the streets and sidewalks. Counterfeit vendors are ubiquitous.

And like every mayor, Mr. Adams encountered an unexpected calamity: in his case, the migrant and asylum-seeker crisis. City shelters are now housing roughly 68,000 migrants, leading to threats of sharp budget cuts in other areas.

It would never have been realistic for New York, with its chronic housing shortage, to house an open-ended number of migrants at city expense. But Mr. Adams’s mismanagement of the crisis made it clear he never had a workable strategy to deal with it.

Last May, for example, the mayor opened a flagship welcome center for migrants in the old Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Since then, he has allowed the building, two blocks from Grand Central Terminal, to deteriorate in plain sight. Some ground-floor windows are blacked out, and mattresses hang from a huge metal trash receptacle in the street. Mopeds block one sidewalk, and graffiti defaces the side of the building near Grand Central.

The city lags far behind the nation in recovering from the pandemic, in large part because office workers have not fully returned to Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Through December, the city had surpassed its pre-Covid private-sector job total by less than 1 percent, compared to the nation’s 4 percent growth. It’s the first time in three decades that New York has not led a national recovery.

One might conclude that the migrant crisis has distracted the mayor from other goals. But what are his goals?

Does Mr. Adams have an education goal? If so, it’s not clear what it is. Does Mr. Adams have a major infrastructure project, or a dozen minor infrastructure projects, that he wants to complete? He is inconsistent in his support for the big project he inherited, building four jails in four boroughs and thereby closing Rikers Island and, the argument goes, ending a culture of jail brutality. Does he have an alternate plan?

Mr. Adams has long promised more hospital beds for incarcerated people in lieu of jail cells. But that project is more than a year late.

He does have good ideas to reduce the cost of housing construction, including ending a requirement that developers build off-street parking spaces for some types of buildings. But nothing in his approach to governing provides confidence that he can persuade the City Council to approve these changes.

Part of the problem is that the mayor, in focusing police resources on gang-related shootings, has fewer resources to prevent everyday disorder. The police head count, at 35,051 uniformed officers, is 1,396 below 2019 levels. Though Mr. Adams has reversed his late 2023 plans to cancel police academy classes needed to replace retiring officers, he hasn’t made room for more officers, even as the City Council, via new reporting requirements, prepares to saddle them with more paperwork.

Though the mayor claims that higher-than-expected tax revenues have saved New York from immediate deep budget cuts, multibillion-dollar spending to house migrants as well as new contracts with city workers still threaten basic services. Last fall, the mayor’s answer to budget problems was across-the-board cuts, indicating a lack of prioritization.

When it comes to the police, Mr. Adams prefers a different type of management: micromanagement. His first police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, won praise from both her work force and the public for taking a fresh approach to the department, including moving to discipline top officers who had abused their positions.

But Ms. Sewell resigned in June, reportedly unable to do her job in the presence of meddling from City Hall. Mr. Adams himself disrupted the chain of command by trying to thwart Commissioner Sewell’s efforts to impose discipline. Phil Banks, deputy mayor for public safety, also reportedly interfered with her decision-making and undermined her authority.

Similarly, a longtime Adams confidante, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, his chief adviser, has interfered in public safety in another way, altering or stopping projects to make streets safer for walkers and cyclists, circumventing the planning process, as the Streetsblog advocacy site has reported.

In many ways, Mr. Adams governs as if he were still Brooklyn borough president, a largely ceremonial post that allowed him to cheerlead for constituent causes and promote a series of ideas, achievable or otherwise. One day, he wants to eliminate rats. Another day, he’s launching a war on the sidewalk sheds that frustrate pedestrians. The next month, he wants electric helicopters. He attends flag-raisings and tiny parades. But even after a news conference to showcase a substantial idea, there is no consistent follow-through, or evidence of sustainable results. One proposal is forgotten to make room for the next.

A mayor needs to go deeper than a sunny story line, executing a strategy by making things happen behind the scenes, and the Adams administration seems to come up empty every time.

He remains too close to corruption and too fond of irregular practices, governing under the shadow of a potential indictment. Unless he turns his long-term reality around, as opposed to pushing his daily narrative, New York will be in a strange place in two years: For the first time since the Abe Beame administration in the 1970s, the city will have undergone a full mayoral term with no concrete progress forward. But even Mayor Beame, of course, had an important achievement: working with state and federal officials to fend off a city bankruptcy.

It’s not too late for Mr. Adams, but he should ask himself what he really wants to accomplish. Decades from now, like Mayors Bloomberg, Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch, what does he want to be remembered for?

In addition to acting far more decisively to restore quality of life and preserve our tax base, the mayor should pick three big-picture legacy goals and make at least one of them happen.

He could push forward with a full physical quality-of-life makeover for Midtown streets, including the marquee boulevard of Fifth Avenue. The mayor could work with Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Ritchie Torres to finalize a plan to cap a portion of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, reducing air and noise pollution for hundreds of thousands of residents.

He could propose to rebuild Rikers as a modern, safe jails complex, with plenty of open space for outdoor therapy. On education, the mayor needs a plan to get students back in classrooms: The percentage of students achieving 90 percent attendance was just 64 percent, as of last June, down from 74 percent before the pandemic.

He should then allow qualified deputy mayors and commissioners the day-to-day autonomy they need to accomplish the broad goals he sets. Mr. Adams should not be so wary of bringing in outsiders to execute his broad strategy, and then backing commissioners in their executive actions. Relying instead on his longtime clique, and tolerating their regular interference in agency management, is not serving him well.

Yes, the mayor also faces resistance in the left-of-center City Council, as shown by the council’s override, in late January, of two of his public-safety vetoes. But during his first two years in office, his erratic and inconsistent course was his biggest obstacle, not the Council, and now that body is emboldened because members perceive his own weakness.

New Yorkers will overlook many flaws in their mayor. But they will not overlook a lack of progress.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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