Former Gadfly Cop Nears Coronation as Brooklyn Borough President

Print More
Adams trucked out a slew of high-power endorsements at his campaign kick-off last month, and has unveiled several more since.

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

Adams trucked out a slew of high-power endorsements at his campaign kick-off last month, and has unveiled several more since.

Boosters like to say that Brooklyn, if independent, would be the fourth-largest city in the United States. It’s unlikely, however, that any of the nation’s largest cities would experience an essentially uncontested race for mayor when an open seat emerged.

But a borough presidency—which offers a big bully pulpit but a moderate budget and limited official powers—is no mayoralty. Thus, as the 2013 campaign opens, some ambitious Brooklyn politicians have chosen to pursue less enigmatic offices than borough president. Others have been daunted by four-term state Senator Eric Adams‘s savvy preparations to win a Democratic primary. With a reputation for charisma and civil rights built before entering office, ex-cop Adams started the borough president’s race early, staving off rivals from black-dominated Central Brooklyn and cementing alliances with Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish enclaves, while seeing his earliest rival—Carlo Scissura, then chief of staff to incumbent BP Marty Markowitz—drop out when recruited to head the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.

While Adams, 52, does face a putative Democratic foe in 74-year-old John Gangemi, who served on City Council more than 30 years ago and announced an intention to run, the senator has amassed nearly $490,000 in campaign funds and gained support from a Who’s Who of local politics. No Republican contender has surfaced in this heavily Democratic borough.

Adams, slated to be Brooklyn’s first black BP, celebrated a remarkable campaign kickoff—more coronation than rally—outside Borough Hall on Sunday, March 3. Energized to the point of giddiness, hearing himself described as “already measuring the drapes” inside, Adams revealed endorsements by not only by the term-limited incumbent Markowitz but also the beep’s predecessor, Howard Golden. On hand in support were Democratic mayoral candidates Bill de Blasio and John Liu, unopposed Comptroller candidate Scott Stringer; and numerous Brooklyn officials, including the head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

Subsequent press releases piled on: endorsements from Democratic mayoral candidates Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson, the Hotel Trades Council and 32BJ SEIU, Public Advocate candidates Reshma Saujani and Council Member Letitia James, plus Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander; the latter two were once mentioned as potential BP candidates.

While Adams’s path to Borough Hall seems clear, his plans for governing seem more inchoate. His record as a public figure and state senator offers plenty of highlights, but also raises questions about his alliances, his attention-grabbing style and how he’d use the peculiar and limited powers of a “beep.”

Adams, who in his 22-year New York Police Department career gained notice as a gadfly, even militant leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, has as senator focused on constituent service and some high-profile issues, offering pugnacious criticism of illegal gun sales, Mayor Bloomberg’s 2008 term limits override, and the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies, including high-profile testimony April 1 in federal court that made the Daily News front-page as “Kelly frisk shocker” and prompted a fierce editorial saying Adams’s claims were “beneath credibility.”

Cautious about weighing in on controversial economic development projects, Adams has eagerly served as a civic elder, inspiring minority youth to keep striving and learning, and urging those who’ve embraced unwise sartorial choices to “stop the sag.”

52nd Assembly District Leader Chris Owens has watched Adams evolve from a brash challenger to his father, Rep. Major Owens, to a public figure on a broader stage. Owens, who two decades ago opposed Adams but in recent years backed him, observed, “There’s no question that Eric has been a work in progress. What’s impressed me is that he’s been a work in progress.”

A handing of the torch

If Markowitz campaigned in 2001 as an embodiment of Brooklyn’s spirit, with his record as promoter of popular concerts and his goal of bringing in a pro sports team, Adams is emphasizing a struggle for uplift and justice. It’s a parallel to his personal narrative, which carried Adams—as he’s said in his preacherly style—”from breaking the law [as a juvenile] to enforcing the law to now writing the law.”

“I know Brooklyn well,” Adams intoned from the Borough Hall podium on the day of his announcement. “I know it not because I sat down and read about Brooklyn in the newspapers, but because I put on a bulletproof vest and spent 22 years protecting children and families in this borough. And that desire to serve and protect stuck with me.”

Adams proposed “that government can be proactive and not reactive.” He added that “there’s more to improving safety and the quality of life than being simply a deterrence to violence and disorder. There’s a better way. When government is not a punisher but an organizer. Not an enforcer of its goals but an advocate for the will of its constituents.”

While Adams saluted Brooklyn, in a Markowitzian echo, as “the greatest place on earth because of the strength and love that people are willing to pour into it,” he added a somber shading, acknowledging joblessness, failing schools, and gun violence.

If “Brooklyn is now, maybe more than ever, a place of opportunity” thanks to Markowitz and others, Adams allowed, much remains unfinished, “If we can build a home for the Nets, then we can build affordable housing for families,” Adams declared to cheers. “We’ve built our brand; now we have to continue to enrich lives.”

For their part, Adams’s backers see a handing of the torch. “The only man with a personality big enough, and a vision big enough, and a heart big enough to succeed Marty Markowitz is Eric Adams, declared Public Advocate de Blasio, emphasizing Adams’s record on police reform.

At the podium, Markowitz suggested a certain synchronicity, noting that Adams (who lives in Crown Heights) comes from “almost exactly the same [Central Brooklyn] Senatorial district” as he did, one that requires its legislator to straddle various constituencies, including Caribbean-Americans and Orthodox Jews.

Indeed, Adams, according to Central Brooklyn Assemblyman Karim Camara in an interview just before the event, recognizes that as diverse a place as Brooklyn “needs a leader that can be there for everybody.”

Keeping options open

Adams’s campaign website, for now, lacks policy proposals, focusing instead on his biography and campaign efforts. In public statements and interviews, Adams suggests a progressive bent, expressed through relatively small-bore proposals. His “passion project,” he’s said, is revamping the Brooklyn Terminal Market, in non-trendy Canarsie, with restaurants featuring foods from on-site farms.

In questions emailed to his campaign (an aide said Adams was too busy for an interview), Adams was asked to prioritize. He cited financial literacy (helping people fix credit scores), small business support (including hiring a business recruiter for the borough), bolstering tourism (which already grew significantly under Markowitz), and bringing health care professionals to “empowerment zones” to boost community health. The latter may be the only one with a potentially large price tag.

Adams has also mentioned educational advocacy (getting high school students credit for tutoring), making Brooklyn more senior-friendly, and ensuring that his education panel appointments have experience in the system. As for Stringer’s example of depoliticizing community board selection and providing urban planners to help the boards, Adams says he admires the Manhattan BP’s record and is “carefully considering” such ideas.

The city’s borough presidents once wielded far more power through their seats on the Board of Estimate, which controlled the city budget and land-use decisions. A 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Board’s structure violated the “one person, one vote” principle, since Staten Island had as much sway as far more populous Brooklyn. The city revised its charter to eliminate the Board, leaving beeps to play an important but advisory role in the land-use review process and make appointments to some official bodies.

About those charter-derived responsibilities, Adams has so far said little. Indeed, when queried directly by NY1’s Errol Louis on March 5 about the borough president’s role, which includes making an appointment to the City Planning Commission, Adams pivoted, declaring, “Really, my focus is quality of life…. We can’t merely focus on building tall buildings and stadiums without building the people.”

Some—including de Blasio, when he mulled running for BP in 2009—have suggested Borough Hall should push back against developers. Louis pressed Adams on how he’d choose, noting that bike lanes and the Atlantic Yards arena had fostered fierce divisions. “Well, you go with your gut and you’re consistent in doing what you believe is right for the borough,” Adams replied. “You have to be willing to listen.”

The borough president must also make choices with a modest operating budget (over $5 million in FY 2012) and a capital budget in the tens of millions of dollars.

“Marty utilized the limited resources given to him to do a great job,” responded Adams when asked how he might operate Borough Hall differently. “Once in office, I look forward to learning from him and his people to continue that good work.” Adams’s capital priorities, he said, will emerge as he reviews proposals.

Adams is on a listening tour around the borough, a parallel—though a vastly more extensive one—to his work as a beat cop, and one he said yesterday has taught him that many Brooklynites know little about the borough presidency, and that he’d aim to offer regional representatives to reach more people. To Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey, who praises Adams’s leadership on campaign finance reform and redistricting, the Senator, unlike many elected officials (including Markowitz) who argue or tune out, tries to listen. “He respects people even though he disagrees with them,” Dadey says.

A reporter’s canvass of Adams supporters at the kickoff showed them to be enthusiastic about the candidate’s passion and, echoing Camara, his willingness to be “always there.” Others affirm that record. “He comes to board meetings more than other elected officials,” later observed Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, longtime chair of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights South.

And while Lander acknowledges that police policy is typically outside the ambit of the borough president, he said Adams might be able to help to “thread the needle, to care about public safety but also civil rights.”

Adams testified April 1 in the ongoing federal trial regarding stop-and-frisk, recounting how Commissioner Ray Kelly indicated at a 2010 meeting that he intended the policy to “instill fear”in black and Hispanic youth that they could be searched, a statement that left the senator “shocked.” Kelly denied such language, and a city lawyer, on cross-examination, got Adams to acknowledge he took no notes at the time. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who was an assemblyman when he joined Adams at the 2010 meeting in convincing Gov. David Paterson to sign a bill shutting down the city’s database of those stopped-and-frisked, offered only partial backup.

In a brief interview after his testimony, Adams said as BP he’d not only work with local elected officials to introduce legislation but also would talk with top cops—under the charter mandate to ensure proper service delivery—about how to reduce crime and build community relationships.

From suspect to officer

Adams was born in Brownsville and raised in a one-family house in South Jamaica, where he was the fourth of six children. When he speaks about how youth can rise above their situation, and urges kids not to give up, he knows it in his bones.

Though Adams set his sights on elective office after visiting the nation’s capital as part of an elementary school trip—his classmates scoffed at his ambition—one turning point in his career goals, as Adams explains frequently, came when he was arrested at age 15, along with his 16-year-old brother.

“My mother walked into the precinct, the same precinct [unarmed driver] Sean Bell was killed in [in November 2006],” he recalled. The white cops, who’d asked casually “Do you feel like a beating?”, told him he’d never amount to anything. Adams and his brother were beaten until a black cop stopped the assault.

Adams vowed to prove his tormentors wrong, and to bring pride to his Southern-born mother, who worked double shifts as a housecleaner and gained only a third-grade education. And while his brother afterward ‘hated the thought of the police,” Adams told the New York Times in 1999, “I wanted to be part of it,” using the badge for good, not ill.

“I wasn’t a good student,” he declared dramatically at a Medgar Evers College graduation ceremony last year. “I was a solid D+ student…. I’m not going to beat you academically, I’m going to beat you with endurance. Never stop.”

As it happened, Adams ultimately combined both academic chops and persistence. He started college while he was working as a clerk at the Brooklyn DA’s office, then had the second-highest average at the Police Academy.

In the NYPD, Adams worked stints in several neighborhoods, from Coney Island to Bed-Stuy to Greenpoint. After chairing the Guardians, the longstanding organization for black officers, Adams co-founded 100 Blacks in 1995, to counter Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s aggressive approach to minority neighborhoods. Adams criticized the administration’s street crime policies and slammed the decision to move the trial of the officers who shot unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo, but called the accused officers “scapegoats” for higher-up policymakers.

And, in weary recognition of the travails faced by their teenage counterparts, 100 Blacks offered tips for young black men on how to keep a stop-and-frisk encounter from escalating. It created workshops on domestic violence, predatory lending, child abuse, and conflict resolution.

In a time of high crime and public tension, Adams, confident in his speaking and his convictions, was daringly out front, a “master at dealing with press conferences,” recalled his friend Norman Siegel, longtime head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Adams testified in a federal trial about how the NYPD would cover up “friendly fire” shootings of black undercover officers. At a May 1999 hearing of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to investigate police practices in New York City, Adams testified that barely one in 30 stop-and-frisk episodes generated a purportedly required written report. Allies in the department warned him that Internal Affairs was digging for dirt.

But by August 2000, New York magazine would report that Adams and 100 Blacks had made peace with both police brass and the police union, and Commissioner Howard Safir admitted having investigated Adams on trumped-up charges. Siegel suggested at the time that Adams had become “more nuanced” on the “dynamics of police-community relations” and “he’s learning to work in multiracial coalitions.”

A winding political path

Adams’s shifting strategy as an advocate paralleled his similarly mercurial evolution as a politician. He attempted a foray into politics even before 100 Blacks, in early 1994 launching a challenge to longtime Rep. Owens, who’d slammed Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Adams said at the time, “I believe no matter what was said [by the NOI about Jews], it’s time for us to realize the importance of what Farrakhan is trying to do around the issue of crime in this city.” New York in April 1994 described Adams as “known for his strident, unaccommodating comments.” Adams said then, “I’m not a mainstream leader. The children in my community are dying and need help.” But he failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.

(Though Adams now says his defense of the Nation of Islam was always based solely on crime, and notes he never endorsed anti-Semitic comments, he says, “I could have been much clearer in my repudiation of them.”)

After the abortive 1994 race, Adams flirted with a Republican political identity. In 1995, as the political blogger Gatemouth (a.k.a. Howard Graubard) observed in a recent post reciting curious episodes from Adams’ past, a Daily News report noted Adams’s growing association with Republicans. By 1999, Adams was calling himself a conservative Republican.

Adams told the Daily News in 1995 that Republican values were closer to some black voters’ hearts, and that blacks’ instinctive support of Democrats had cost them respect. In 2013, however, Adams says he never voted for a Republican and dallied with the Republicans only because he was “concerned that city Democrats were too soft on crime.” Siegel believes Adams’s Republican foray was just an attempt to map his political ambitions; surely Adams eventually recognized that a political career in Brooklyn would have to be conducted as a Democrat.

In 2006, with state Sen. Carl Andrews pursuing an unsuccessful bid for Congress, NYPD retiree Adams, after a vigorous campaign that included endorsements from SEIU Local 1199 and Assemblyman Dov Hikind—a power broker in the Orthodox Jewish community—crushed two other candidates and became the senator from the 20th district.

The Albany record

Queried before his first Senate race by the Brooklyn Paper about the three most important issues facing his district, Adams cited the fair share of educational funding, the provision of affordable housing and plans for new preventative health clinics.

When asked how he’s followed up, Adams says has fought funding cuts for housing, sponsored health fairs and mammography screenings, and has been vocal about the need for the state to respect the Campaign for Fiscal Equity legal judgment, aimed to ensure adequate state funding for city schools.

According to an analysis from VoteSmart, Adams was more pro-business in his most recent term than his previous one (57 percent rating vs. 29 percent from the Business Council of New York State), lagging in the most recent year on environmental advocacy (a 46 percent rating, down from 73 percent a year earlier from EPL/Environmental Advocates), weak on library support but reliably in opposition to the Conservative Party and gun rights.

When it comes to particular issues, Adams’s record is a mixture of tough stands and tip-toe dances.

On Atlantic Yards, for years the borough’s most contentious issue, Adams was cautious. While he appeared at anti-project rallies in 2005, by the time of his 2006 campaign more artfully declared himself opposed to Atlantic Yards “as currently proposed” but he stayed out of the fray. In early 2012, however, Adams called a press conference to decry the lack of progress on jobs and housing, but didn’t invite longtime project opponents like Council Member James.

He’s been similarly careful on big-box stores. When Wal-Mart donated to his 2010 campaign, Adams told the Daily News he’d give the contribution to charity, but—like his ally Sen. John Sampson—didn’t have a position on the store entering New York. Only last month, after Adams was endorsed by a food workers union opposing Wal-Mart and after the retailer acknowledged it had dialed back its New York efforts, Adams announced he wanted to ensure Wal-Mart “does not come in and destroy small business and abuse our workers.”

Often, however, Adams has been anything but shy. He was ahead of some constituents in his full-throated support for gay marriage—on the Senate floor in December 2009, he declared “when I walk through these doors, my Bible stays out.”

Sharing a posture with Markowitz, Adams opposed congestion pricing, even though, advocates pointed out, fewer than 2 percent of his constituents would be affected by new tolls to Manhattan. (“I am still against the congestion pricing plan that was presented to the legislature,” Adams, a self-described bike-rider and user of mass transit who also drives a BMW, commented recently, “but there is no doubt we need a long-term plan to fix mass transit funding, traffic, and related issues.”)

In 2007, he went on the Senate floor to argue for a long-overdue legislative pay raise, uttering “Show-me-the-money” in an echo of the film Jerry Maguire.

In the Senate, Adams proved an adept fundraiser. For his third campaign, in 2010, Adams reaped 54 contributions greater than $2500, worth $291,100. Among them were PACs representing Yonkers Raceway, Time Warner Cable, trial lawyers, charter schools and unions like SEIU and AFSCME. A significant sum came from developers, including Douglaston Development, Tishman Speyer and companies connected to Leonard Litwin’s Glenwood Management.

Dadey, a campaign finance watchdog, credits Adams with working to move an “important comprehensive bill that includes public financing” for campaigns.

Still, Adams plays by the current rules; he’s used campaign funds to reward his long-term Chief of Staff Ingrid Martin, who’s earned $100,000 a year for the past three years and has helped steer his BP run, with $81,000 in consulting fees since September 2010. “The campaign funds were simply part of Ms. Martin’s total compensation package, a common practice at the state level,” a spokesman said, adding that Martin has consulted on Adams’s campaigns in off-hours.

Good headlines, bad headlines

When Tea Party-supported Republican Sen. Greg Ball called an April 2011 hearing on Islamic threats, Adams showed up brandishing a Koran and claiming an invited anti-Islamic speaker “was bringing hate and poison” to the hearing. That prompted Ball to retort : “I’m glad that nobody is between those TV cameras and you, because that’s the most dangerous place in New York City right now.”

Indeed, the public role is one Adams mostly embraces, especially when remonstrating with youth. “If you cannot navigate a belt loop on your pants, then you can’t navigate corporate America,” Adams declared at one “From Cradle to College” parent empowerment seminar he’s organized, inspired by his career as a cop watching wayward youth who lacked sufficient guidance.

Adams considers the “Cradle to College” events, attended by more than 800 people a year, among his top accomplishments, along with helping achieve marriage equality and co-sponsoring that stop-and-frisk database shutdown.

When he invokes young people, whether to scold the sag or invoke parental fears about stop-and-frisk, Adams often mentions one in particular: his son Jordan Coleman, a teenage filmmaker in New Jersey. (Jordan lives with his mother, a former girlfriend of Adams, and his stepdad, but father and son remain close .)

But not all publicity has been good publicity for the senator. He was criticized for backing his Senate colleague Hiram Monserrate—a fellow former police officer who in 1999 joined Adams to slam NYPD practices before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission— after the latter was accused of domestic violence toward his girlfriend.

Adams asserts his posture was about principle: “Unfortunately – even when legislators are accused with credible evidence of illegal behavior – the only way to protect the rights of voters is to allow the judicial branch to do its job and serve due process.” He adds that “stopping domestic violence and protecting survivors has been a priority during my time in the Senate” and cited several laws passed. Still, after Monserrate was convicted of misdemeanor assault, Adams was one of only eight Senators to oppose expulsion, which passed with 53 votes.

In October 2010, Adams was criticized in the state Inspector General’s report on the ill-fated attempt by Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG) to land a racetrack casino. The IG assailed Adams’s “incredible testimony” regarding “a pivotal dinner” with Paterson and Sampson, and pronounced the “appearance of impropriety” evinced by the attendance of Adams and other legislators at a victory party held by an AEG lobbyist. As the IG reported, Adams received $14,500 in campaign contributions from AEG shareholders and affiliates.

Adams soon said that the IG mixed up two dinners he had with Paterson, but generally limited public comments, citing legal advice. Asked recently about the victory party, Adams responded that he didn’t attend, saying the “IG made what I’m sure was an innocent oversight.”

Owens was among District Leaders Adams soon called after the report emerged. “He laid out an explanation why he thought the report was wrong,” Owens said. “We were all comfortable with his explanation.”

Still, the report’s initial taint was such that presumptive Attorney General Eric Schneiderman returned campaign contributions from several figures, including Adams. Also, the IG assailed Adams’s lack of due diligence—the senator relied on charts rather than memoranda he deemed “too wordy”—saying “it seems reasonable to expect the Chairman of the Racing and Wagering Committee in the Senate to actually review all proffered information.”

On April 2, Queens Sen. Malcolm Smith, an