On Adams and AOC, the Times Chooses Style of Substance

Governor Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams, and MTA Chair & CEO Janno Lieber announce a Subway Safety Plan at Fulton Transit Center on Fri., February 18, 2022…(Marc A. Hermann / MTA) – Matt Johnson – CC BY 2.0

Forget policy – it’s the battle of the brands.

A recent piece in the New York Times (5/9/22) tells the story of two New York Cities and of two visions of the Democratic Party, one old school and pragmatic and the other  one of idealistic hopes of millennials. The former, as the Times tells us, is embodied in Mayor Eric Adams, and the latter’s public face is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The two have not been friendly with each other, and in the paper’s deep dive into their rivalry, we are treated to reporting on the differences in their public styles of politics.

But this piece oversimplifies an important struggle going on in Democratic Party politics today, as socialists and progressives attempt to move the party leftward. And by boiling this struggle down superficial differences like generational personality types the paper is distracting readers from very real issues at hand, because there is wide skepticism about Adams’s so-called pragmatism as he wages a class war against his own residents and continues to raise eyebrows with his potentially corrupt administration.

The Times said that the “schism between the two seems to be underlaid by a complicated mix of personal disdain and policy differences,” while they maintain an “almost symbiotic relationship, with each finding a useful foil in their own backyard…to polish their own brand.” The article focuses on Adams’s preference for street-level communication while highlighting Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity on Twitter. Quoting mainstream political analysts as well as Ocasio-Cortez’s political allies – such as fellow socialist elected officials City Council Member Tiffany Cabán and State Sen. Jabari Brisport, as well as political scientist Susan Kang, a frequent socialist commentator on Spectrum News – the piece does note that the two represent differing factions within the Democratic Party, but frames the situation as a personal rivalry rather than competing visions of politics.

The piece’s author, Jesse McKinley, would have benefitted from reading his own newspaper for background. One of the biggest class-based issues currently animating the city and state’s socialists is the Adams administration-backed plan for rent increases on stabilized apartments, which the Times noted (5/5/22) was a result of the fact that “members of the real estate industry have been among the biggest donors to the mayor.” These proposed increases “echoed his friendlier posture toward the city’s business leaders,” the paper said.

The McKinley piece did mention that Adams is calling for more cops in the next city budget, but what is just as newsworthy is that Adams’s budget proposal has been criticized by the City Council for proposed cuts in most other of the government (Daily News, 4/45/22; Gothamist, 5/2/22).

McKinley could have also consulted the city’s most conservative newspaper, the New York Post, which enthusiastically supported Adams (5/10/21; 10/21/21)  in his race for mayor based on his anti-crime platform. The paper, despite it’s support for Adams last year, pointed out (5/3/22) that Adams’s budget proposal is also incredibly self-serving: “Adams has requested $204 million for his 1,400-strong executive operation, up from the $163 million [previous Mayor Bill] de Blasio allotted to his office during his final year running the city.”

The Post (5/7/22) also focused on how Adams recently appointed 10 political backers with plum positions. While the city is famous for its patronage, the Post said that “there’s a growing concern that Adams has already gone too far by bringing in too many cronies who aren’t qualified or might be in over their head.” Charges of nepotism (Guardian, 1/9/22) and dealing with shady characters (Politico, 2/5/22) have plagued his office since his inauguration.

All this is to say that there is a widely held and growing frustration about Adams’s administration of the city as well as his rising status within Democratic Party politics that are based on very serious material issues: city spending, the cost of living and corruption. Chalking up the critics of his administration as a style issue between the city’s mayor and one well-known progressive congresswoman obfuscates what’s really important. And while it is tempting to make AOC the figurehead of the city’s socialist movement because she broke the political mold when she won her 2018 primary as an underdog, it’s not really reflective of the current reality. The socialist caucuses in the city and state legislatures have more direct impact on city residents’ material lives than the very public imagery of AOC.

The Times has a responsibility to cut through the celebrity-style observations of politics and get to the real issues. It failed this time.