There is no battle for Brooklyn Borough Hall.
State Sen. Eric Adams is in a rarefied place for a candidate seeking a wide open seat: He does not really need to campaign. With only a sole long-shot opponent and virtually the entire Brooklyn Democratic Party behind him, Adams is poised to replace the wisecracking Borough President Marty Markowitz, who has reigned over the borough as its No. 1 booster for close to a dozen years.
Adams’ campaign kickoff in March, fittingly on the steps of Borough Hall, was a show of strength typically reserved for a longtime incumbent. Mayoral candidates like City Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio swooped in to give Adams ringing endorsements. Leaders from Brooklyn’s wide-ranging ethnic and religious communities flocked to the event, extolling the character, strength and intelligence of the retired police captain.
“First, President Obama got a mandate from the American people,” Liu told the cheering crowd. “Now Senator Eric Adams is going to get a mandate from the people of Brooklyn!”
Adams, who was elected to the state Senate in 2006, is currently a darling of the Democratic Party, a future power broker on track to make history as Brooklyn’s first African-American borough president. Yet his probable path to Brooklyn’s highest office is surprisingly winding, including stints as a registered Republican, antiestablishment gadfly and upstart challenger to a popular congressman. In May he was named as one of the elected officials who was wiretapped by then state Sen. Shirley Huntley, who was sentenced to a year in a prison for embezzling nearly $90,000 from a sham nonprofit. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, eight of the nine people whom Huntley secretly recorded are the subjects of an ongoing investigation, including Adams.
Following the bombshell revelation about the Huntley wiretap, Adams stated that he had not been contacted by any prosecutors. “I believe deeply in transparency and the pursuit of justice—and that is why I committed 20 years of my life to law enforcement,” he said in a statement. “I am more than willing to help with any investigation.”
Brooklyn is sandwiched between two highly competitive borough president races in Queens and Manhattan. Even candidates with far larger war chests than Adams, like Julie Menin in Manhattan and Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. in Queens, have not scared away challengers.
Adams’ lone challenger is the relatively unknown John Gangemi, who has raised a measley $12,265 as of the latest filing. Gangemi, a former councilman-at-large, last held elected office more than 30 years ago.
Before he decided to run for Congress, the term-limited City Councilman Domenic Recchia was believed to be Adams’ chief competition. According to multiple sources familiar with the Kings County Democratic Party, Recchia was persuaded by the party, now based in southern Brooklyn after Canarsie resident Frank Seddio was named its chair last year, not to challenge Adams.
Seddio, who is white, did not want a clash between a southern Brooklyn white elected official and a northern Brooklyn black elected official, according to Democratic sources. After years of infighting under Assemblyman Vito Lopez, Seddio has sought to unify a once-fractured party.
Some Democratic insiders believe he did not want a scenario where a white county leader and white borough president would preside over a borough that U.S. census figures show is now only half white. According to Seddio, however, the party did not dissuade Recchia from running for borough president. A Recchia spokeswoman confirmed Seddio’s statement.
“We’re trying to bring a much more cohesive Brooklyn. The days of fractured politics are gone, in my mind,” Seddio said. “We worked very hard with the different candidates that wanted to run, thought about running. It’s kind of like going into a good clothing store, trying to find a suit that fits … I think we managed to get everyone into a suit that they’re going to be able to wear, and wear with pride.”
Adams declared his intention to run early last year, giving him a head start in lining up support from the borough’s various ethnic blocs and putting some distance between himself and his potential opponents. He has now raised almost a half million dollars, a substantial figure that could serve as a deterrent to any future challengers. Recchia’s decision not to seek the seat, coupled with both Councilwoman Letitia James and State Sen. Daniel Squadron opting to run for public advocate, created a clear path for Adams. Carlo Scissura, Markowitz’s former chief of staff, once also a candidate, ultimately left the race to lead the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
Since news of the Huntley wiretap surfaced, there has been speculation that James will switch gears and instead challenge Adams, but she issued a statement earlier this month saying the rumors were “unfounded.” She officially declared for public advocate on May 19.
“On the Brink of Inciting Controversy”
At his kickoff in early March, Adams portrayed himself as a fiscal progressive able to unite a diverse and rapidly changing borough. Known as a strident opponent of stop-and-frisk, Adams recently testified against the controversial anticrime policing tactic in a class-action suit challenging its constitutionality. Adams, who agreed to be interviewed by City & State only by email, said he would use the power of the borough presidency to introduce legislation, something Markowitz did not do, while focusing on job-training programs and “financial literacy” initiatives.
“Yes, we have drawn great interest and investment in recent years—but there are still many who live here who haven’t benefitted from that,” Adams said via email. “The office must offer access to government resources to those who need them, but also be proactive in its approach by growing the Brooklyn economy and working with businesses that will look out for working families.”
For a candidate running virtually unopposed, Adams has remained strikingly guarded. It is rare for elected officials running for higher office to consent only to emailed questions and no in-person interviews. Adams’ public appearances since his raucous kickoff have been limited as well. On May 9, a day after a federal judge revealed that Huntley had recorded his conversations with her, Adams canceled a scheduled appearance at the Bay Ridge Democratic Club. According to a source close to the Brooklyn Democratic Party, a meeting to officially endorse Adams was postponed.
Adams did appear at a Brooklyn Young Democrats meeting a week later, where he insisted that Huntley’s wiretap would turn up nothing incriminating.
“There’s nothing on those tapes that’s detrimental to me,” Adams said. “I don’t have to wonder what was said, what wasn’t said; I don’t have to do that. … If you come to talk to me about breaking the law, you’re going to find my handcuffs. I’m not here to break the law. I’m here to serve the people of the state and I’m consistent about that.”
Adams, a retired NYPD captain who had a hardscrabble upbringing in Queens, entered the political world long before being elected to the state Senate in 2006. In the 1990s he became known as the combative leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a law enforcement advocacy group focused on crime and race-related issues. In 1994 he launched a challenge against then Central Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens, a well-established political figure in the borough.
Though Adams was knocked off the ballot in that race, he would make headlines for criticizing Owens and former Rep. Herman Badillo. According to a 1994 story in New York magazine, Adams, then 33, did not appear to be someone who two decades later would have practically the entire political establishment at his back.
“Adams seems always on the brink of inciting controversy,” journalist Craig Horowitz wrote in New York. According to multiple published reports, Adams took aim at Badillo, a former comptroller and mayoral candidate, for having a Jewish wife. “It’s insulting to the Hispanic community that he can go to the Hispanic community for support, but he can’t go to the Hispanic community when he’s picking a wife,” Adams said at the time.
Adams now insists that the comment was a “theory” on the state of Hispanic voters at the time and not a personal opinion or criticism of Badillo and his wife.
Adams also supported the anticrime tactics of the Nation of Islam and their controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan, according to several published reports. Adams’ praise of Farrakhan upset members of the Jewish community who viewed Farrakhan as an anti-Semite. In 1993 Adams blasted then Mayor David Dinkins for keeping his distance from Farrakhan.
“Eric Adams, president of the Grand Council of Guardians, an organization of 15,000 black police and correction officers, charged that Dinkins ‘shies away’ from black Muslims because he does not want to be associated with Louis Farrakhan, the black Muslim leader who has been accused of anti-Semitism,” reporter Michael Cottman wrote in Newsday.
When Owens virulently denounced Farrakhan during the race, Adams responded, “Those who feel people shouldn’t gravitate toward Farrakhan should realize there wouldn’t be a need if Owens and so many of our other leaders in Washington and Albany were actually bringing home the victories to the communities they represent.”
Adams now says he expressed admiration only for Farrakhan’s anticrime initiatives and nothing else, otherwise repudiating the Nation of Islam leader, who has said in the past that Jewish people “control” Hollywood, the media and the banking industry.
Calling his party switch a “symbolic action,” Adams said he briefly made the eyebrow-raising registration change because Democrats, in his estimation, were not tough enough on crime. He said he never voted for a Republican.
“It was for that reason and that reason only that I decided to motivate my Democrat brothers and sisters for a short time by taking symbolic action, in order to make real change on what I thought was New York’s most pressing issue during those years,” he said.
Brooklyn district leader Jo Anne Simon, a member of the party’s “reform” wing, did not see Adams’ party switch as an indictment of his character. “I’ve heard he was a registered Republican, but the mayor was a Democrat, and I don’t see him doing too many Democratic things,” she said. “I’m not sure what that says. It’s not a particular concern that someone has seen the light.”
In 2003 Adams appeared in brochures financed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that promoted the idea of nonpartisan elections, an idea denounced by the Democratic establishment. Three years later Adams would be elected to the state Senate as a Democrat.
“In Brooklyn, registered voters received a brochure declaring: ‘Here are some Black, Hispanic and Asian mayors elected in Nonpartisan Elections,’” wrote reporter Dan Janison in Newsday. “To black areas went pieces with Eric Adams, co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, and black civic activists Robert Lovick of Brooklyn and Debi Rose of Staten Island.”
“Show Me the Money”
Once elected to the state Senate, Adams began to amass a relatively progressive voting record. Early into his tenure, though, the fiery Adams took to the Senate floor to argue for pay raises for state legislators, raising eyebrows with his confrontational rhetoric.
“I don’t know how some of you are living on $79,000; to tell you the truth, you qualify for public assistance,” Adams said in 2007. “Don’t be insulted for yourselves. You should be insulted for your children that you are not allowed to give your children an affordable, decent form of living because all of us know when we’re up here, our children are down there. … I deserve a raise, I deserve to be paid more, and I’m only a freshman and I’m already complaining.”
Adams boomed, “Show me the money, show me the money, that’s what it’s all about, we deserve more money.”
For those in the Senate at the time, it was the combative way the demand for pay raises was delivered, not the message itself, that surprised legislators and staffers. One former staffer to a New York City state senator present at the time of the speech said Adams shocked many in the chamber.
“People were definitely taken aback by the words,” the former staffer said. “But the bigger ramification of that speech was that it was used against Democrats, in what I would call a false context, by Republicans that fall.”
The pay raise was not granted, and state legislators still earn $79,500. Of course, Adams and many of his fellow lawmakers have other sources of income. In addition to his legislative pay, Adams collects a pension from the NYPD.
A year later Adams aggressively defended fellow state Sen. Hiram Monserrate, a Queens Democrat charged with assaulting his girlfriend. Monserrate would be convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to three years of probation. In 2009 the Senate voted overwhelmingly to expel Monserrate. Adams voted against immediate expulsion, though he supported a second resolution that would have ousted the senator had he lost the appeals process and his conviction been upheld.
“As a former NYPD captain, I have some serious concerns regarding the unusual handling of the case against Councilman Monserrate,” Adams said in 2008, when Monserrate had been elected to the Senate but had not yet been sworn in. “The primary goal of investigating a complaint of domestic violence is to ensure the safety of the innocent victim.”
After explaining several concerns he had about the case, including Monserrate being forced to take a “perp walk” past television cameras, Adams added that the investigation against him was suspect.
“It is well known that Councilman Monserrate has been an outspoken advocate for police reform,” Adams added. “I believe his role as an agent for change cause him to be denied his rights and a thorough investigation.”
Adams’ support of Monserrate angered some of his fellow Democrats. State Sen. Diane Savino, who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, described a furious confrontation with Adams and Brooklyn state Sen. Kevin Parker in February 2010.
“We were going around the room and everyone was voicing their opinion, and I made the point that since the recommendation for the penalty had come from the Select Committee—which was a bipartisan committee appointed by the leader—that it’s possible that they should have some say as to whether we bring this resolution to the floor,” Savino said in an interview with blogger Colin Campbell. “And in the midst of me making my point, Eric Adams starts yelling about how, pardon, “They have no f—ing right, to dictate…” and then Kevin [Parker] started screaming, “They have no f—ing right! They have no f—ing right! F— you!” So I’m no shrinking violet. Kevin stood up, and I stood up and said: “I didn’t interrupt you, don’t interrupt me. I’m speaking.” He starts screaming: “F— you! F— you!” and so I said, ‘No, f— you!’ ”
An October 2011 trip Adams took to South Korea with Brooklyn State Sen. John Sampson has drawn additional scrutiny since Sampson was indicted on embezzlement charges in May. Adams, through his consultant Evan Thies, refused to provide any further details to the Times Union about the four-day trip, other than to state that it was financed with campaign and private funds. Adams also traveled with Stacey Rowland, a lobbyist for the top Albany lobbying firm Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker. Filings show that Adams paid more than $3,000 for the trip out of his campaign funds. The lobbyist, according to a source, was the girlfriend of Sampson, then the Senate majority leader and the organizer of the trip.
“When he went to South Korea and doesn’t tell anyone why he was there, I think he owes a little more to the public than what he’s been telling them,” said Gangemi, Adams’ long-shot opponent.
Adams elaborated only slightly on the South Korea trip at the Brooklyn Young Democrats meeting in May, where he disputed the Times Union story written by James Odato (who declined to comment for this piece).
“[In] 2011, I went to Korea to look at converting garbage to energy and a reporter questioned my trip, and I spoke with him for hours and gave him the information of the trip,” Adams said, referring to Odato. “He wrote an article attacking the trip back then, which I could’ve paid for the entire trip through my campaign fund, but since my lady was traveling with me, I said, ‘I don’t want any problem, I’ll pay for the hotel.’ He rewrote the same article Monday and said that I didn’t talk with him, and I spoke with him Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. My team spoke with him and said, ‘If you want to see Eric’s American Express, he said he’ll give you a copy of that, here’s how it’s paid for, he put it on his website,’ and they still wrote the article saying, ‘Eric is hiding something.’ ”
“Listen, when people hate you, they’re out to get you, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Adams continued. “I’m at the point now where people have to start staying, ‘We know the man and what he represents.’ ”
Problems at Aqueduct
Since returning to the Democratic fold, Adams has faced criticism for the role he played in the flawed bidding process to bring casino gaming to the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The state Lottery Division in 2010 disqualified a winning bid from the Aqueduct Entertainment Group. A scathing Inspector General’s report later that year would call the bidding process a “political free-for-all” in which lobbyists and campaign donations slanted the competition toward AEG.
Adams, then the chairman of the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, was castigated in the report for not being diligent enough in his oversight of the bidding process.
“Aside from the obvious disregard for the analysis and diligence involved in creating these documents, it seems reasonable to expect the Chairman of the Racing and Wagering Committee in the Senate to actually review all proffered information thoroughly before recommending a vendor for a 30-year contract that meant billions of dollars to New York State,” Inspector General Joseph Fisch wrote.
Adams, along with several other state senators, mingled with AEG lobbyists at a “victory celebration” held at the Albany home of Carl Andrews, one of the lobbyists and a former state senator, according to the report. During the bidding process Adams also received several thousand dollars in campaign donations from groups and individuals associated with AEG. How AEG was ultimately chosen, according to the report, was a “murky” business: Fisch wrote that he was given “contradictory accounts of the climax of the process by the ‘three men in a room’ and Senator Adams.” On this count Adams disagrees, arguing that Fisch “made what I’m sure was an innocent oversight in its report, which unfortunately led to misperception.”
“A Great Borough President”
Despite the senator’s unconventional history and rumors of wrongdoing, the son of the congressman whom he attempted to unseat two decades ago says he thinks Adams is now qualified to be Brooklyn’s next borough president.
“I believe he wants to do really good work, and I think he’s committed to that,” said Chris Owens, a Democratic district leader in Brooklyn. “I am shocked he has no opposition, but I’m also very pleased. There’s long been talk of having a black borough president, so for him to essentially walk into the position is amazing.”
And endorsers like Liu are not backing away from Adams either.
“I still support Eric Adams, and he’ll be a great borough president,” Liu said, a smile frozen on his face.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece described Adams as a “retired transit cop.” Though he was a transit cop earlier in his career, he retired as an NYPD captain. This article has been updated to reflect that distinction.