Regina de Heer: Do you think that New York is still a place that people can move to and access the American dream?
Bones: Well, if you work hard and you're lucky. Right now, it's a bit challenging. You got to go big and conform. If you're not of that persuasion, it might be a bit difficult, but you still got to try hard.
Regina: What do you think the number one issue is going into this mayoral race?
Bones: There is a lot of people that need help. The underclass, the homeless situation. It seems like it's a lot of work that needs to be done. I think it needs to be addressed by so-called leaders in society.
Regina: New York is in the process of potentially getting its second-ever Black mayor, does that mean anything to you?
Bones: Who knows? Whoever wins, hopefully, they'll do a good job of turning this city around and creating jobs for minorities and people that need help.
Kai Wright: This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright, and welcome to the show. New York City will choose its next mayor in a couple of weeks and it will almost certainly be an historic outcome. Unless there is some dramatic development between now and then, and hey, this is politics so you never know. Without a huge change in the shape of the race, Democratic nominee Eric Adams will surely defeat Republican nominee Curtis Sliwa to become mayor. If so, in the nation's largest city, a place where a comfortable majority of residents are people of color, Adams will be just the second person to hold that job who is not a white man.
Famously, David Dinkins was our first Black mayor back in the early 1990s. Eric Adams is poised to be the second. Yet Adams has thus far seemed like an awkward fit for the racial politics of this moment, seemed like. Even before the pandemic, New York had become fertile ground for the rising left in the Democratic Party and insurgency fueled by people of color. Last year, our city showcased some of the most visible and sustained protests against police violence. Adams is a former cop who ran unapologetically on controlling crime during the primary. While he identifies as a progressive, he was not the first choice for many voters who identify that way.
What gives? How do we understand him? He is deeply popular among Black voters in New York and that support goes way beyond the simple fact of his own Blackness, or at least it matters in a different way than I think the conversation about him thus far has appreciated. To understand that dynamic, and really to get what Adams represents in this national political moment, we reached out to one of the deans of New York political journalism. Errol Louis has been covering New York politics, particularly Black politics, for nearly 40 years. His own career actually has some similar roots to that of Eric Adams.
Errol is the host of Inside City Hall on NY1, and just recently concluded his longtime column at the New York Daily News. He went to join New York Magazine. I want to talk specifically about one of his daily news columns from this summer published right after the primary, with the headline, What Eric Adams represents. He sets the essay up by writing "Adams is part of one of the biggest untold stories of New York politics, the steady rise of Black power in every corner of this city." There's a ton of history packed into that sentence. I called up Errol to unpack it for us here for the full hour tonight.
Errol Louis: Hey, how are you?
Kai Wright: I'm very well, thank you so much for coming on.
Errol Louis: You're very welcome.
Kai Wright: First, if you can just recap what happened in this spring's Democratic primary? Who and what are you talking about when you identify this moment in political history as exceptional?
Errol Louis: Well, look, we're at a turning point in a lot of different ways. There are few times when you can't say that, but this really is a turning point. We're going to have a big turnover in city government, where most of the city council, we're going to have newly elected people, we're going to have a new mayor, we're going to have a new controller, we're going to have a bunch of new borough presidents. We're coming out of the pandemic, which is remarkable by any standard, with the city flat on its back economically, or certainly at grave risk, with an entirely new public health regimen that we're going to have to adopt.
We're going to have a bunch of new people coming into power to try and figure out how to do all this stuff, and they have to figure it all out at the same time. That, at a minimum, tells you that you've got a big shift that's going on and then you've got these underlying trends that are now breaking through as far as the changes brought about by immigration and other demographic changes that make this a younger, and in some ways, more interesting city. Just, we haven't seen anything like this. We've got a whole bunch of newcomers from a whole bunch of new places who are going to try and make sense of an unprecedented situation. It's got everything a reporter would want.
Kai Wright: Indeed. To the point of your column, it's also got a lot of Black people in positions of power.
Errol Louis: Well, yes, and this is something. Look, to the extent that I've ever had a beat, a political beat so to speak, this is something I've just been following since the 1980s. People forget that this used to be not that long ago, a mostly white city. An overwhelmingly white city, actually.
Kai Wright: Well, let's linger on that demographic fact for a minute, actually, because it's an important part of the backstory of Eric Adams. You gave some stats in the column. 85% of the city was white at the end of World War Two and mid-century. Then by 1990, that population had been cut in half. The population of what we now call people of color had grown by 4 million people. I guess it's interesting for me to think about because I always think of New York as having been an important Black city, going back to the Harlem Renaissance and all of that, you know what I mean? I guess, despite that generation's huge impact on the history of the world, they were actually fairly isolated in a small community.
Errol Louis: Well, that's right. Look, Harlem, that's a fascinating tale unto itself. Harlem is four square miles. Out of that, you get Malcolm X, W.E.B Du Bois, and Paul Robeson, jazz and, all kinds of stuff out of four square miles. It's a remarkable story. You're exactly right, Harlem as Black, New York has had an outsized presence in popular culture but if you were looking for raw numbers, the place you would go would be south side of Chicago. If you're looking for one big agglomeration of African Americans, that's where everybody was. If you were looking for a percentage of the city and real dominance, literal dominance, you'd go to Detroit or Washington, DC.
New York was always different and always felt like it was a Black city, but in a lot of ways it really wasn't. It was certainly very segregated. We're not that far from the days in the 1980s and into the '90s when it was considered surprising, but not shocking, if a Black person wandered into certain neighborhoods, and people just came out of their houses and begin to chase and curse and even beat them. It sounds strange now, I hope, to your younger listeners but this actually happened. It happened to people that you knew, it happened to people that you read about. It happened to people that we had to report on, because in some cases that led to tragedy, people being chased to their deaths, or being beaten to death.
The transformation was happening and you didn't quite know what to make of it or know where it was going to end up. Now you look back in hindsight, as we are about, are on the verge of possibly electing our second Black mayor in 300 plus years. You look back over the relatively recent past, maybe 20 or 30 years, you say, "Wow, we came a long way in a pretty short time.'
Kai Wright: Well, as that changed, as that population shift happened, you point out in the column that it changed the workforce. Explain that and what that has to do with politics.
Errol Louis: Some of this is lived experience. I'll give you an example. In the 1950s, when my father was looking for work, he and a lot of his buddies went into the civil service. Why? Because it was something you could get without a face-to-face interview. If you took the test and you passed the test, you'd become a bus driver or a cop or whatever it may be. You didn't have the different kinds of humiliating encounters and discriminatory outcomes that you might have to chance in the private sector. The pay was also pretty good, and there were decent benefits and the union that could look out for your interests as well.
He and a lot of his friends went into the civil service. My dad became a cop in 1956. He spent 30 relatively uneventful years there. Other people were doing the same. A lot of them did what my father did, we moved out of public housing and we bought a house. We went from him going to school part-time with five kids while he was a full-time police officer, meaning it took him 11 years to get his bachelor's degree. We go from that to him sending kids off to Harvard in my case, Bryn Mawr in my sister's case, Rensselaer Polytechnic in the case of my other sister, and of course my eldest sister, who went into the police department as well.
It's basically a very short step and reliable step into the middle-class. Now, multiply that by hundreds of thousands of people who are working their way into and up the ladder of various agencies, buying homes. We happened to go to the suburbs, but a lot of people went to Southeast Queens in particular and bought homes. I used to call that the promised land. Cambria Heights at some of these places and lovely homes. You'd thought you were in the suburbs.
Kai Wright: South east Queens was today's Atlanta.
Errol Louis: Basically. People went out there and they built homes and they built communities and they understood as civil servants that who the Mayor was really mattered, who the state Senator was really, really mattered, because that could change policy. Look, my father was in the police department. It had stalled out as far as promotions and so forth at around the Lieutenant level. After captain, it's all discretionary. It's department politics. What happens in the mid '80s, for a complicated set of reasons not worth going into, New York gets its first Black police commissioner, Benjamin Ward.
At that point, my father had all of his buddies in the police department jumped up like two and three ranks, all of a sudden. Believe me, believe me, it was noticed back at home. All of a sudden he's got a car and a driver, all of a sudden he's got a lot more responsibility. All of a sudden they put them in charge of a precinct and then life is good. Life is good financially. As far as exposure to leadership, my father ended up as an inspector in the police department, which makes you a boss. It's not a super chief, but some of his buddies became chiefs, chief of department, chief of patrol. These guys, and girls in a few cases, they stretch their leadership muscles.
Some of them start to run for office. All of them, or many of them if they're smart, they get involved in local fraternal organizations and social groupings like the Lynx or Jack and Jill, 100 Black Men. You start getting involved with some of these groups so that you get to know some of the politicians. It all leads to a leadership class that is well distributed throughout the bureaucracies and a few outliers who happen to have political skill, the elusive set of qualities that it takes to become a good elected official. They start rising up in the ranks too.
That, to me, is the big story that Eric Adams represents. He personally physically represents that. This is a guy who went into the police department, rose through the ranks, made that elusive leap into politics and is on the verge of possibly becoming the next Mayor.
Kai Wright: All of which is to say that population shift and that move into the middle-class wasn't just about you get fancy,, you get to send your kid to Harvard. It was about you get a steak and you start getting access to those traditional routes to political power.
Errol Louis: Exactly right. Look, it's not confined to Black folk. I remember reading an article about, apparently there's a thing in the traffic division. The people who give out the tickets, we used to call them Brownies. Now I think they're called traffic enforcement agents, TEAs. Some ridiculous percentage of them are Bangladeshi. Why? Because a handful of them hacked the system, figured out how to take the test, told their cousin about it, told her brother-in-law about it. Then they told their nephew about it, and then they told their neighbor about it. Now there's a bunch of Bangladeshis who were concentrated as traffic enforcement agents.
Same thing happened in a number of different bureaucracies, the Ethnic Division of Labor, with Black folks in a number of city agencies.
Kai Wright: Within all of this shift, Eric Adams, a young man, takes a similar path. but a distinct path to power that we'll talk about when we come back.
Kousha: Hi, this is Kousha, I'm a producer. We're still collecting your responses to the question do you think racism is permanent in America? Bonus points if you ask someone else and record your conversation. Here's an interesting trend, so far we've only received voicemails from folks who identify as men. If you've got a thought, please send us a recording or email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Here's the recent message we received. Thanks.
Dan: Hi, United States anxiety. From my COVID isolation, I wonder what racism will mean in the US when we're all different races. Especially as it becomes even harder for more Americans to self identify as any one race. By the way, I do agree with Dell and that racism isn't an anomaly that can be fixed but perhaps there's an assumption of static demographics in his contention. Of course they have no doubt that non whites can be racist too. This is Dan, a 58 year old suburban white Jewish guy, currently a COVID refugee hiding out in 70 rural Northwest New Jersey.
Regina de Heer: New York historically has been considered a place where you can come and access the American dream. You can do anything from here, there's social mobility. Do you think that's still true?
Anonymous 1: It's becoming harder and harder, but I think New Yorkers will always find a way.
Evelyn: After 9/11 the dream fully popped. You just try to survive. Just trying to survive for me, especially the dream walk away.
Leslie: Yes, I think so. It's a wonderful place to live. If you stick to your Ps and your Qs and be aware at all times and do what you have to do, work hard, you'll make it. As of now, the crime is a problem, especially in the subway. It is very scary.
Regina: Do you think that crime is something that is increased during the pandemic or recently in New York?
Leslie: Yes, indeed. It increased very much during the pandemic. I don't know why, but I thought that pandemic would have changed people's minds in terms of their behavior, but apparently not. Nobody knows.
Regina: Nobody knows, but we are going into a mayoral election. Was that an issue that you were considering going into the election?
Leslie: Yes, I think so. This crime pandemic. [laughs]
Regina: This crime pandemic. Eric Adams specifically, what does he represent to you?
Richard David: Eric represents somebody that's from neighborhoods of New York City that have just not gotten attention. There are people who live here and call it home and have for decades, and these little issues add up. From flooding, to speed bumps, to quality of education, these little, little issues that people don't think is the next big thing for New York city. I think Eric does think about it as the next big thing. That's why I'm excited that he's going to be the next mayor.
Nadine: Yes, absolutely. I did support Eric Adams. I attended a lot of fundraising campaigns, and I also voted for him.
Regina: What does he represent to you?
Nadine: He represents the people.
Leslie: I like him. I'm going to vote for him.
Leslie: Because of his past experiences as a police officer in New York. I like him. I like his style. I like his determination. I think he'll be a good mayor for the New York City.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. That was a few of the people we met on the streets of Southeast Queens this past week. I've been talking with long-time political journalist, Errol Louis about Eric Adams' road to becoming the Democratic nominee for New York City's next mayor and the overwhelming favorite to win the election in a couple of weeks. As Errol noted before the break, south east Queens has long been a promised land for striving Black New Yorkers. A place where Black people who worked their way into the middle class in the '70s and '80ss, often through public sector jobs, went to find security. That new middle class, they began to shape the City's politics.
You're telling us about all of these traditional ways that people came into power, the Black people and other people of color came into power, as the city's demographics shift. Eric Adam's story is a little different. He comes in through the explicitly pro Black activist scene in Brooklyn and specifically the house of Lord Pentecostal church in Atlantic Avenue. Before we get to Adams himself, let's set the scene there generally. Black Brooklyn, early'70s, I guess What's the vibe politically?
Errol Louis: Here's the vibe. There are a number of things that are going alive. The first to know is that while the Harlem renaissance is well in the rear view mirror at that point, there is a Black nationalist cultural revolution or renaissance going on in Brooklyn. It really is centered in Brooklyn, an Afrocentric cultural movement that was one of the after effects of the 1960s. It wasn't just about voting rights. It was also about human rights and about people trying to redefine who they and we are in this society. It's institutions like the East. There were a number of activists who are wearing dashikis.
They're giving themselves African names. They're making pilgrimages back to Africa. They're going to Ghana, they're going into Nigeria. They're trying to figure out who they are in all of this stuff. All of that is going on and, at the same time, there's this really distressing spate of police killings that are going on. Really just crazy stuff, where a 14-year-old shot at point-blank range by a police officer, who said that he had a psychotic episode, the first and only psychotic episode of his entire life when a group of kids ran up to him. You have Arthur Miller, who was swarmed by police and killed, who's a businessman.
These things are going on and so between one thing and another you have the rise of an extraordinary minister. He's still alive. I think he's about 90 now, the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, who is a fiery critic of the police department, and like other Black ministers, he can afford to be a fiery critic of the police department because he relies on the Black community exclusively for his livelihood, and for his sustenance. You can't fire him because he doesn't have a job that you can fire him from. You can't shut him up because the church is a protected space by the Constitution as well.
He's doing his thing. He's building leadership. He's supported by a number of these Black nationalists. His chief of staff, for example, is Charles Barron who, some of your listeners may know, has been a longtime fiery presence on the political scene. Well, before that, he was the chief of staff to Herbert Daughtry. There were others who were attracted to this church. I was one of them. I used to come down from Boston. I used to come down with other people and you would listen to the sermons. I guess in a different context, you would call him a radical cleric who was leading people. You had Cornel West.
Kai Wright: What was Cornel West doing there? It's a really a collection of boldface names that were there. What was Cornel West--
Errol Louis: It's crazy. It's six degrees of separation. All roads lead back to The House of the Lord Church. If you're talking about Black politics or cultural developments of the last, I don't know, 40 years. You have Cornel West. He graduates from Harvard. He decides to do some of his postdoctoral work, I believe it was postdoctoral at that point, but he was working on the book Prophesy Deliverance. It was his first book, and he's in residence. He's giving speeches and semi sermons. He wasn't ordained, but he's giving sermon-like speeches and lectures at The House of the Lord Church.
It was the kind of place that would be open to that sort of thing. They had a political arm of it, the National Black United Front, where they tried to create a national alliance of different groups. Anyway, the youth leader of this political arm, of this National Black United Front, was a young kid named Eric Adams. He was their youth leader.
Kai Wright: That takes us into the '80s, but before we get on to Adam's own story, I'm struck by something in this history because what you're describing, I think to many people, will sound familiar to now. This reaction to these spates of police violence, and the back and forth on them, and, "What do we do?" It all feels very modern and contemporary. I imagine to particularly young listeners, it would be surprising to hear that in the 1970s, it was the exact same political moment.
Errol Louis: Look, nothing has changed. I was writing about this stuff when I was in college in the early 1980s. Nothing has changed. Not even the cities involved. Nothing has changed except the names. The same kind of issues of when is it acceptable to use deadly force on an unarmed person? Why does it keep happening in black communities? What in that community are you supposed to do about it? How do you end up being over-policed and under policed at the same time, where innocent people are constantly hassled by the police and at the same time crime is running rampant?
These questions are deep. They are long-standing. People have been grappling with these for decades, and the way it was grappled within New York City, much of it had to do with the protests that came out of The House of the Lord Church literally came out of The House of the Lord Church. There'd be a minister preaching, and then there'd be somebody from the community talking about what had happened. If the injustice was grave enough, and the mood was hot enough, people would stream out of the church and there'd be a protest, then and there, or a march.
Kai Wright: Just marched through the streets of Brooklyn?
Errol Louis: Right there on Atlantic Avenue, tie up the traffic, why not? That's how pivotal I think that institution was.
Kai Wright: Daughtry was building, he became a political player as well, right? Almost a political power broker beyond the movement itself.
Errol Louis: He's the power broker. My favorite story or fact in that area is the fact that it's his daughter, Leah Daughtry, who eventually ends up in Washington. Works her way up through the DNC structure and was the president or the convening officer, the person who put together, the person who did all the work for not one, but two Democratic national conventions, including one of the ones where Obama was the nominee. This is a place where you can see the different strands and strategies that are out there. There's protests, there's litigation, there's national politics, there's local politics and there's intellectual politics of the Cornell West variety.
We got to know each other, and we got to respect each other, and we got to get a taste or try out what somebody else might be trying to do. There's the sense that we're all in the same movement. I might not like what you're saying, or what you're doing and I'm not going to join you at your protest, but I understand what you're doing. In my case, I ended up on the journalism side where I'm chronicling a lot of this stuff. I'm not a participant anymore but I understood what they were doing.
Kai Wright: At the time you were a young activist though. That's why you were there.
Errol Louis: Look, when I was in college, like everybody else in college, I was just looking for something to do. I knew I wanted certain things to happen in my life and in my community and this looked like a place where there were other people who were on that same journey trying to figure out. If you personally just can't live with the levels of injustice that you see going on, you've got to make a decision. Either you do something about it, or you do nothing about it. In my case, I wanted to come and be around other people who were trying to figure out which way they wanted to go.
What fit best for me was when a now-defunct newspaper called The City Sun started publication in 1984. I ended up writing their first cover story. I knew the publisher of it, a man named Andy Cooper, who himself had been on his own journey. He had worked in the corporate sphere, but he had also run for state legislature. He was one of the people who filed a lawsuit called Cooper versus Power. That was the litigation that changed the District line so that Shirley Chisholm could get elected as the first Black woman to ever sit in Congress.
There were a lot of these people, they were around. You could talk to them. You could relate to them. They would give you a job in my case.
It became clear to me pretty early on, somebody needs to keep track of this. Somebody needs to write this up. Somebody who understands it needs to write it up because the folks, God bless them, at the New York Times and even the Daily News, they get a lot of the stuff wrong. They'd be writing about the politics of the moment, and failing to see the broad movement that, to me, was always the bigger story.
Kai Wright: One of the important moments of police brutality that you name in the column is the 1973 killing of Clifford Glover, who was a 10-year-old boy in Brooklyn. Can you describe what happened to Clifford?
Errol Louis: Oh, man. Look, it's the worst thing that ever happened. When you think about it, in human terms, it really is hard to describe. You have a kid who's doing what kids do. They go out, they play, they run the streets, and you have him basically coming home in a box. He ends up dead. There's a lot of confusion. There's questions about why did this happen? Who did this? It turns out there's an officer who was undercover, who made a tragic mistake at a minimum. Basically, they see this child with, I believe it was his stepfather, and they're stopped by some undercover officers who were investigating a robbery.
The boy and his stepfather are afraid of what's happening because these are undercover officers and there's some dispute as to whether or not they identify themselves as such. They thought they're about to get robbed. They run and the 10-year-old child gets shot twice in the back and killed. Like I said, it's just the worst thing you can imagine. If you have a kid, try and imagine that happening. You're out on the street with a trusted person, with your stepfather. Two unidentified people stop you. You don't know what's about to happen. This is the 1970s after all. You run and then they shoot you in the back. They shoot the child in the back.
Anyway, it results in rioting. It was not the only incident of its kind, but it was the one that set people off. There's a distinction I have learned over the years between the making of social dynamite and the detonation of it. The cases you hear about, the Eric Garner cases, the Clifford Glover cases, the Eleanor Bumpur's cases, that's the detonation, but there have been a lot of social dynamite created and it lead up to it . There's rooting, the officer of course is acquitted. Then there's more rioting. It solidifies for a number of people that you're not going to get justice in the courthouse. We're going to have to try something else.
Kai Wright: Well, Eric Adams told you that Clifford Glover's death in particular stamped his life as a kid himself. He said, "He benchmarked my life by those shootings," talking about a lot of the shootings in the '70s but particular Clifford Glover.
Errol Louis: This happened on what people would now call Guy Brewer Boulevard. Adams told me his mother said, "You cannot cross that street." Well, he said there were entire groups of people he never got to know because he was forbidden from crossing the street. This is the thing that people always fail to realize, the after-effects are so deep, it's so traumatizing. Nobody talks about it. Nobody writes about it. It's not considered part of the political discussion. In this case, entire families, Eric Adams being one of them, were just told, "Stay away from that area. Anything can happen to you at the hands of law enforcement."
Kai Wright: Is that part of what drove him into politics, do you know? He becomes the youth leader at the National Black United Front under Reverend Daughtry. Do you know what drove him into that?
Errol Louis: Yes, apparently the story is Reverend Daughtry-- This is the level of activity at that church. Daughtry and some of the guys, they take Eric Adams and 12 other people into the basement and they tell them, "We want you to join the police department. Why? Because we want you to get inside the department, build a career but more importantly keep an eye on things and start changing things from within." Again, the desperation, the urgency of that moment in the 1970s where you have case after case, you have Clifford Glover, you have Randy Evans, you have Arthur Miller. These are cases where it's a clear and obvious injustice. It's clearly intolerable.
The courts don't deliver the justice, the writing doesn't deliver the justice, the op-eds, the letters to your congressman, and your gerrymandered district don't deliver the justice. This was just one more strategy. Think about how desperate people must've been both to consider this seriously on the one hand, and to actually go ahead and do it. This is what Eric Adams did.
Kai Wright: Well, exactly. He's a young man. He's in his early 20s and he makes a whole life choice off of what Reverend Daughtry tells them. It is a remarkable detail.
Errol Lewis: Well, that's how impressive those guys were to some of us. I would get on a Trailways bus. I didn't have any money at the time, undergraduate. I was riding down from Harvard to make my way to a not entirely safe or hardly safe area of Brooklyn to go listen to Reverend Daughtry. Like I said, if you were looking for any kind of a political response to an intolerable situation, you did not have a lot of options at that point. Unless you were going to go, I don't know, intern for your local assemblyman and wait 15 years, and then maybe run for the seat yourself, there weren't a lot of options. House of the Lord church was one of those options.
Kai Wright: Eric Adams, who I don't think most of us, certainly I, would think of in the terms of radical Black politics grows up out of this church.
Errol Louis: Kai, it's not radical. At that point, all we're saying is we don't want a 10-year-olds shot in the back by cops. That was considered a radical position at the time. Ultimately, even if you dial the clock forward past the Obama years, it's never been a comfortable, we can use the word radical even. It's always been an uncomfortable or radical position to say that Black folk need to be treated as fully human members of the society who are entitled to all of the dignity and respect, every last drop of the dignity and respect as everybody else. Not everybody believes that. I hate to say it but that's just the case.
Kai Wright: It remains controversial to assert Black lives matter.
Errol Louis: It is. It's controversial. Black lives actually matter. People are like, "What are you some kind of radical? Let's call out the police."
Kai Wright: Then I guess where I'm driving with that is that he makes this-- It is a fairly radical political choice to say-
Errol Louis: That's a radical choice about what you do with your life.
Kai Wright: -"I'm going to join the police force as a response to police brutality." I don't know, I'm fishing for what should we take about him from that.
Errol Louis: It's still pretty good benefits. I got to tell you. I grew up in a cop household. It's pretty good benefits. It's not as dangerous as people think.
Kai Wright: Right.
Errol Louis: They train you, you've got a gun. There are a lot of mitigating factors. It's not a crazy career choice.
Kai Wright: Right, if he's looking for a path. Well, this becomes his path into politics. What is his path from the NYPD into a more electoral political role?
Errol Louis: He stays for a couple of decades. He reaches that level that I have referred to before, where above the rank of captain it's all discretionary within the department. At this point, he has made such a thorough nuisance of himself to be at NYPD. He's held press conferences. He's held hearings. He started a group called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement who Care. They had openly criticized and accused the department of being discriminatory, not only in their interactions with the community but in their internal promotion and hiring policies. He really made such a nuisance of himself that the police commissioner personally disliked it. This is Ray Kelly at the time.
It was clear he was not going to rise any higher in the department. At that point, he shifts into politics. He begins to try his hand in politics. There is one attempt that he makes, an abortive attempt while he was still in the department. He tried to run for Congress, that went nowhere. He tried to run as a Republican. He leaves the department though, after 20 odd years, and there's an open Senate seat and he makes enough friends and shakes enough hands, and figures out how to do that. He becomes the state senator from Central Brooklyn.
Kai Wright: Do you know as he went through that how much he held these early days with Reverend Daughtry close? How much of that continued to inform his choices?
Errol Louis: Yes, sure. If you look at 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement who Care. It's a long unwieldy name, but they come straight out of the House of the Lord Church. If you understood what they were doing at that church, you would understand why he formed the group and why the group did what it did, because what the group did was they would hold press conferences. I remember at one point doing a story, a gang had taken over a housing project in Central Brooklyn. They had taken it over so thoroughly that they had spray-painted on the ground basically murder threats. They had an area that they called death row. It was basically their ambush spot.
Anyway, I know a group of ministers who were going to go there and paint over it, just as a statement of human rights and to fight the violence. I mentioned it to Eric Adams and Eric Adams shows up. He shows up in part because he's an ex-cop and he's entitled to carry a gun. He brings one or two of his former cop buddies with him. Now we have a little bit of security, but he also had a podium, and this is Eric Adams. This is vintage Eric Adams. He has a podium in the trunk of his car. I realized he's traveling everywhere as a state senator with this podium in the trunk of his car.
Kai Wright: [chuckles] Why?
Errol Louis: So that he can at any point pull it out and be camera ready for a still shot or a video press conference. He's got a gun and he's got a podium and he's got a little pin saying that he's a member of the state legislature. That's how he was doing politics at the time. [chuckles] That's who he is.
Kai Wright: Why did you say that's right out of the House of the Lord, that approach? Why do you say that?
Errol Louis: Those guys, they were free thinkers in the sense that, "Here's what we need and so this is what we're going to do. We need to know what's going on in the police department and we need to change the way they operate. Hey, let's send 13 people to take the police exam." Basically, it was a short step between conception and strategy, problem and solution. That, to me, was the way Adams did his police politics with this organization that he created, the way he did his Senate politics when he was in the State Senate, and frankly the way he ran his campaign.
Kai Wright: Also I have to say Errol, there's a certain macho swagger to that that I think some-- Well, I'll speak for myself, that I see and gives me pause. I guess I just want you to comment on that. Does that sound ridiculous?
Errol Louis: No. You give a man a gun and the power to use it lawfully. There's going to be a certain amount of swagger right there in that, right?
Kai Wright: Yes.
Errol Louis: Now I understand where you're going with the question. For some people, macho and swagger are bad in and of themselves. I don't see it that way. They're bad if they lead to homophobia or sexism or recklessness. They're all kinds of bad things that can come out of that.
Kai Wright: You have studied closely many mayors of this city and know better than anybody the power of that office. We have a uniquely powerful mayorship in New York. Many people, myself included think, "Wow, the leadership traits of somebody in that office are important." Too much, "I'm in charge here," can be a bad thing. I guess I say that to say think about Eric Adams in that critique.
Errol Louis: [chuckles] I'll write about this, I'm sure, over the next few years. He will be bedevilled and beset by many different problems. That's what he's signing up for, he's doing what eyes wide open. Every mayor has huge problems. Having said that, I don't think he's going to have a problem with wanting to bully and bluster and badger and dominate everything in his sight. That doesn't strike me as his leadership style. My sense is that what helped push him to victory in the Democratic primary was that we have surge in crime. People look at him, size up his resume and what he said about public safety.
They've said, "That makes sense to me, go get the bad guys. Go get the scary bad guys. Don't hassle everybody, go get the scary bad guys." That's always been what communities of color in particular have won and what the city in general has a right to respect. If there are people out there who are getting pushed onto the subway tracks, if there were people out there who were getting robbed at gunpoint, if there were kids out there acting crazy, having gunfights in the middle of the street and risking or actually harming people with straight gunfire, somebody who won't just stand it, he's got to put some hands on people. There's no other way to put it.
You're going to have to remove some of the most dangerous people. You can still rehabilitate them, you can still treat them with care and concern. You don't just go and shoot them down or anything like that. They're entitled not only to due process, but to our care. It's got to get done.
Kai Wright: Even that idea, in this political moment after a summer of protests last year around NYPD putting hands on people too much. Here's a guy who's got into the work specifically about NYPD does too much putting hands on people. I think it's hard for people to wrap their heads around this huge Black community support for the idea of a guy who's like, "I'm going to come in and be tough on crime and I'm going to crack skulls if I have to."
Errol Louis: Until you've seen crack dealers at the end of your block. Until you've seen somebody knocked down and there's an old lady knocked down in the street and robbed in front of a bunch of people who were too petrified to do anything about it, you might not quite understand where that sentiment is coming from. There are a lot of people out here. We have kids, we have spouses, we have concerns and we have seen what happens when you let some of the sociopaths take over the corners. You just can't have it, it's just intolerable. It's as intolerable in its own way as some of those killings I was telling you about in the 1970s by police.
There's always been a need to walk this line, Eric Adams both in his resume and again, in his policies, he's saying, "I can walk that line."
Kai Wright: We'll take a break and come back with more from veteran New York city political journalists Errol Louis. If Eric Adams wins, he'll be the city's second Black Mayor ever. That wouldn't be the only unusual thing about it. Coming up, the other part of Eric Adams' biography that is quite rare in New York's history. Stay with us.
Speaker: Eric Adams, get out of my room. What are you doing in my room? Get out of my room.
Kai Wright: Welcome back on, I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with Errol Louis who has spent decades chronicling New York city politics and Black politics in particular. This summer, right after the Democratic primary, Errol wrote a column in the daily news with the headline, What Eric Adams Represents. The answer for Errol is that an Adams administration would be the culmination of decades worth of slow, steady work inside New York City's Black community to build real political power in this town and particularly the Black middle class. There's an additional piece of that story. In recent weeks, Adams has taken a lot of hits for his fundraising.
He's been seen running around places like the Hamptons, rubbing shoulders with Mike Bloomberg and other elites. It's notable because the image is very much in contrast with the way he has defined himself for voters. In your column in the Daily News this summer, that laid out all of this history, you pointed out you started with Eric Adams saying at his victory party the little guy won, which I think is hard to wrap your head around what he meant. He was a front runner for most of the race. Help us understand where his mind was, when he thought the little guy won. Does it connect to this history in any way?
Errol Louis: Yes, the little guy won in the sense that, we don't have a history of electing candidates of color to citywide office. This is only the second time it's happened in history for Mayor. We don't have a history of electing people who, like Eric Adams, graduated from one of the city's public high schools. He graduated from Bayside High School class of 1978. I went and looked at this and I was surprised to discover you have to go back to Abe Beame to find the previous Mayor who graduated from a New York City public high school. Think about it.
Ed Koch grew up in New Jersey. David Dinkins grew up in Trenton, Rudy Giuliani went to Bishop Laughlin. He grew up in the suburbs, but commuted into Brooklyn to a Catholic private high school, a Parochial school. Mike Bloomberg grew up in Massachusetts and so did De Blasio. Then by the way, when you go before Abe Beame, you have to go all the way back to Jimmy Walker to find somebody who went to a public New York city high school.
Kai Wright: I don't even know when Jimmy Walker was.
Errol Louis: It was talking about it in the '30s, actually. The '30s, because the Guardia grew up outside of the city. Wagner actually went to a private school, I think he went to Buckley's. Lindsey went to Buckley and then to Yale. Anyway, it's just a side note.
Kai Wright: well, it's not a side note because it's really important. I think this is an important detail about him. That is interesting to think about. He grew up in Queens and that makes him a fundamentally different political figure than we've had.
Errol Louis: His mother cleaned people's houses for a living. You know what I mean? His father was a butcher, but the father wasn't around. This is a guy who comes from, he is what we always talk about. We talk about anybody in New York can make it and you can come from immigrant stock, you can come from humble origins. You come here. If you work hard, you follow the rules, you can make it. We say that, we don't necessarily believe it. Witness all of these private school people that we've elected as mayor or people who are non New Yorkers. We don't have a system that's necessarily conducive to creating this ultimate New Yorker that we make as our Mayor.
For the first time in a generation we are poised to do so, that is unusual. When Eric Adams is the little guy, one, I think he's saying like, "Look I was just a civil servant. My mom cleaned houses and I became a cop. Here I am, in the space of one generation, poised to become the Mayor. That is a minor miracle." Actually, it's not so minor, it's a miracle. If this is what New York is supposed to be about, he's calling the question of, do we really mean it? Do we mean what we say about this city being a place of opportunity, not just for the people who come from the outside, but for the people who were born and raised here? That was his base and then was always his base.
That's why he made some of these offhand comments about, "Go back to Iowa, go back to Ohio. I'm here for the New Yorkers, the ones who were born here, raised here, worked here and guarded this city, protected the city, stayed in the city even during the worst of times, like the financial crisis in the '70s and after 9/11. I'm going to make this city the kind of place where there could be more Eric Adams." If he can make it happen, he will be a very successful Mayor.
Kai Wright: Why was all this history important to you to lay out this summer? What are we to take from all of this backstory for Eric Adams as he becomes our presumptive next Mayor?
Errol Louis: I wanted people, I want and probably most journalists want, you want people to understand what it is they're talking about. It just bothered me a lot when I saw not only political candidates, but journalists saying, "Well, Eric Adams was a cop and so he's a law and order guy." I kept coming back to the House of the Lord Church, and I'm like, "You clearly don't understand that part of his biography or you don't know about it." That certainly adds some nuance to it. I wanted people to understand, this was written after the primary obviously, but I wanted people to understand this is why he won.
Famously the polls before an election tell you what's happening. Then the exit poll after people have voted tells you why it happened. I wanted to supply some of the why.
Kai Wright: Errol Louis is now a columnist for New York Magazine and host of Inside City Hall on New York One, he's been covering city politics for nearly 40 years. Errol, thanks for this conversation.
Errol Louis: Thank you, Kai. I really enjoyed it.
Kai Wright: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band, mixing by Jared Paul. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter, @kai_wright, or send me a voice memo at email@example.com. Of course, I hope you'll join us for the live show next Sunday at 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
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