New Brooklyn Beep Adams Offers Continuity and Change

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The borough president, seen here at his campaign announcement last year, brings experience as a cop, activist and legislator to an office that has more profile than power.

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

The borough president, seen here at his campaign announcement last year, brings experience as a cop, activist and legislator to an office that has more profile than power.

After a smooth ascension to lead New York’s most populous borough, cop-turned-state-Senator Eric Adams took the torch from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz at Prospect Park Tuesday night and has begun to put his stamp on the office, namely a focus on partnerships to help the borough’s most vulnerable, given that some 25 percent of Brooklynites live in poverty.

In pursuing the goal he calls One Brooklyn, Adams recognizes he must build on Markowitz’s deft use over 12 years of the office’s soapbox. He’s solidifying his transformation from firebrand to statesman, a process well under way as he cruised to victory, with long-shot primary challenger John Gangemi knocked off the Democratic ballot and token opposition in the general election.

Adams this week named term-limited Council Member Diana Reyna, who represented Williamsburg and Bushwick, as his Deputy BP. He first met Reyna through her husband, a highly professional police officer who worked under him, Adams said in a City Limits interview Tuesday, then noticed the councilmember’s “passion around housing, which is an important issue for me.”

Beyond that, Adams said, he sees Reyna—a one-time protégé of Vito Lopez, who later broke with the then-Democratic Brooklyn party head—as an emissary who can help him navigate northern Brooklyn. She also chaired the Council’s Small Business Committee.

Unmentioned, but likely part of Adams’s calculation, was demographic balance: His two previous predecessors, white men, named black women as deputies, while Adams, who’s Brooklyn’s first black BP, chose the first Latina in borough-wide office. (As for Reyna’s support for overturning term limits, a Council vote Senator Adams vigorously opposed, he said they have more than enough “common denominators.”)

New plans for the office

Adams aims to divide the tasks of the office into three levels, one led by Reyna, who’ll focus on zoning, planning and related policy areas. That includes the capital budget, a limited but hardly insignificant pool (in the tens of millions of dollars), which Markowitz used for marquee projects, while BPs from Queens and the Bronx have focused more on housing or libraries.

Another level, involving constituent service, will be led by Markowitz’s most recent deputy borough president, Sandra Chapman, apparently returning to her job heading the Borough President’s Community Service Center.

Other tasks will be under Adams’s Chief of Staff, who has not been named, though Ingrid Martin, who not only ran Adams’s Senate office but also steered his campaign, seems a likely choice. (The borough president’s projected 2014 operating budget is $5.9 million, which would represent a bump from the 2013 budget of $5.2 million.)

On the campaign trail, Adams said, he learned that many ethnic groups felt disengaged from government. Drawing on the Police Department’s example of honorary chaplains, he’d like to create a pool of volunteer, honorary deputy borough presidents to interface with various communities.

“The goal is for the welcome mat of Brooklyn to be interpreted in those various languages,” he said, suggesting the program will start out with a “skeleton” but expand as necessary. He also plans to meet with clergy and faith-based institutions to discuss how they can better partner with Borough Hall.

Expanding assistance

The main lesson from his campaign, Adams said, is that Brooklyn’s buzz and popularity have “not trickled down to everyday people.” Of Borough Hall, he said, with slight exaggeration, “We are broke,” so Adams must follow Markowitz in making the office “impactful.”

So he’ll aim to organize partnerships to provide such things as advice on raising their credit scores (and other financial literacy issues), preventive health care and after-school tutoring. “The term for 2014 is ‘collaboration,’ not ‘duplication,'” he said.

Adams has floated the notion of seeding artists in hardscrabble neighborhoods like Brownsville, a way to seed art in underserved communities while also offering affordable space to artists. “I want to go to the experts,” he said, and learn if it’s feasible.

Still, many efforts remain to be determined. Adams’s transition committee is working on a white paper that analyzes challenges facing Brooklyn and identifies how to improve services. The areas under study are: education, food, health, mental health, public safety, employment, financial literacy, nonprofit stability, transportation, technology, youth, tourism, seniors, cultural, volunteers, business, housing, small business, public library and disability issues.

The team is co-chaired by Valerie Oliver-Durrah, president and CEO of the Neighborhood Technical Assistance Clinic, and Peter Aschkenasy, former owner of Gage and Tollner and a former deputy commissioner of the Parks Department. Other key committee members are Amy Bender, a former Council staffer who serves on the boards of the Prospect Park Alliance and the Berkeley Carroll School (and whose husband, Bruce Bender, is a political consultant); Duncan Levin, the chief of Asset Forfeiture at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn; Lori H. Luis, CEO of LoriLu Consulting, a Brooklyn-based strategy, planning and marketing firm; and Adams aide Martin. (The committee welcomes resumes and ideas at OneBklyn2014@gmail.com.)

Adams also been looking at other borough presidencies to identify best practices, including the reforms by Manhattan BP Scott Stringer, now City Comptroller, in selecting Community Board members, and Bronx BP Ruben Diaz Jr.’s efforts to secure outside resources. (Interviewed earlier this year about their priorities for the next Brooklyn beep, several Brooklyn experts proposed a focus on equity, improved community board appointments, greater civic involvement, and increased transparency.)

The Markowitz template

“Marty did a great job with entertainment,” Adams said, noting how the Martin Luther King, Jr. Concert Series in Wingate Field was a crucial summer offering in Central Brooklyn for people with little means.

Markowitz’s private fundraising—which supported not only concerts but promoted tourism and sent poor kids to camp—was seen both as a worthy effort and a system of self-promotion that allowed companies doing business in Brooklyn to maintain ties with Borough Hall.

Adams seems unworried. “We have to be bold but we have to be legal and ethical,” Adams said, adding, “I think it’s almost a luxury to question where money’s coming from that’s legally given to you…when you don’t have the resources to provide to your constituents.”

While he may approach developers as “community corporate sponsors,” Adams said, he promises a fair assessment when they come to his office as business entities.

Land-use issues

The borough president weighs in with important advisory votes on land use issues, as well as appointing half the members of the community boards, who have advisory roles on land-use issues.

One sign, perhaps, of the desire to maintain a good relationship with Borough Hall, a Nov. 4 fund-raiser, held well after Adams’s ascension was assured, brought more than $25,000 to his campaign account, mainly from those with real estate interests. Adams has some $114,000 left of $668,000 raised.

Adams has tempered his style. For example, in November, 13 elected officials from Central Brooklyn requested restrictions on Forest City Ratner’s planned sale of 70 percent of the Atlantic Yards project to the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, arguing for new oversight and a shorter schedule to build affordable housing.

Senator Adams, the borough president-in-waiting, didn’t join in. “It was a methodology decision,” Adams said. “Everybody knows I can be a flamethrower; now I have to be a coalition grower.”

Some tactics he used as a senator or leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement no longer apply, Adams said, since “I have to evolve to the statesman who can run this borough.” Instead, he’s more conciliatory, saying it’s his “responsibility to sit down with [Atlantic Yards developer] Bruce [Ratner] and figure out, how do we accomplish the task.”

(In a Nov. 15 “Road to City Hall” interview, Adams enthused about Ratner’s “cutting-edge” use of modular construction and suggested it might be used to further affordable housing in the borough.)

Adams’s campaign spent $23,000 to hire The Black Institute, led by Bertha Lewis, the ex-ACORN head who’s Forest City’s partner on affordable housing, for polling. It was the only payment by any campaign to the organization.

Adams will not, it turns out, soon put his stamp on the City Planning Commission, since Markowitz in August 2012 appointed a longtime ally, Willoughby’s CEO Joseph Douek, to a five-year term that expires June 30, 2017. (Curiously, Markowitz did not issue a press release regarding the announcement.)

Political progress

Adams seems in sync with the Brooklyn Democratic party, this week issuing a statement echoing the Brooklyn Council delegation’s support for Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito’s bid for Speaker.

The new borough president enters office amid lingering questions about the news, which emerged last May, that then-Sen. Shirley Huntley taped him and other pols in 2012 as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, aiming to reduce her sentence for embezzlement.

“I said from the first day, there’s nothing on those tapes that would incriminate me in any wrongdoing,” Adams confidently told CUNY-TV interviewer Ken Fisher in November.

Adams wants Brooklyn to be safer, and he’s optimistic about the return of New York Police Department Chief Bill Bratton. Adams worked under Bratton when the latter headed the Transit Police and then NYPD at large. “There are going to be good days and bad days” in terms of the perception of NYPD performance, Adams said. “That’s a reality of policing in the big city, but for the most part you’re going to have a responsive individual.”

Bratton has been invited to Adams’s inauguration January 19, to be held at the Brooklyn Museum. Invitations to supporters and contacts have been sent out by email, and will be available by mail and Facebook, he said.

Boosting Brooklyn

Adams has some ideas that might be termed Markowitzian: public gestures aimed to generate fun, pride, and attention. One is to institute a New Year’s Eve ball drop. Initial publicity generated a good response, Adams said, so, with the help of sponsors and partners, 2015 should be ushered in by an event either at Borough Hall or Prospect Park.

More inchoate is the idea of a Hall of Fame for Brooklynites, an effort more expansive than the Celebrity Path in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Given the wide variety of achievers who came from Brooklyn, Adams said, “I believe we need to put these people on display.”

Adams praises Markowitz enthusiastically, but is still evaluating his predecessor’s endeavors. For now, the borough president’s web site has been stripped of what were dubbed “Marty’s Initiatives,” including Camp Brooklyn, Take Your Man to the Doctor, Graffiti-Free Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Book Festival.

The Brooklyn Book Festival, Adams said, is “a great idea” and will continue, but it’s not clear if it will be steered by the borough president’s office or by Markowitz-led non-profit initiatives like Brooklyn Tourism. Still, if Markowitz wants to continue to lead it, Adams said, he’ll gladly offer use of Borough Hall.