As New York Democrats sought to spread blame for their dismal performance in the midterm elections, a fair share was directed toward someone who wasn’t even running: Mayor Eric Adams of New York City.
One Democratic strategist wrote on Twitter that Mr. Adams had “betrayed” his party by elevating “the Republicans’ crime panic narrative.” The Working Families Party accused him of “fearmongering” tactics that may have swung suburbanites to vote Republican.
And when Mr. Adams suggested that the state’s revised bail law was the reason for the Democrats’ poor performance, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered a curt reply: “Nope.”
Mr. Adams, a former police officer, couldn’t care less. He sees the election results in New York as a validation of his message and an opportunity to proselytize to national Democrats that they should embrace his brand of moderate politics rather than critique it.
“I think those who stated, ‘Don’t talk about crime,’ it was an insult to Black and brown communities where a lot of this crime was playing out,” Mr. Adams said in an interview.
He suggested that Democrats should treat the midterms as a teachable moment — a recognition that they mistakenly allowed Republicans to seize the narrative over public safety and crime.
“We’re strong on crime,” he said. “We voted for sensible gun laws. We voted to fund police officers, which the president has done, and yet we’ve allowed others to state that we’re just the opposite.”
In his first year as mayor, Mr. Adams has certainly tried to control the narrative on crime in the city. He constantly talks about public safety, visiting crime scenes and repeatedly pushing state lawmakers at news conferences to change bail laws to make it easier to keep people in jail.
The heightened fear over crime in New York City is a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Are people more worried because Mr. Adams calls attention to nearly every high-profile crime and focuses on offenders returning to the streets? Or are New Yorkers genuinely more scared based on their experiences, and the mayor is responding to that?
Polls consistently showed that crime was a major issue in New York during the midterms. Roughly 42 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of independent voters listed it as their top issue, much higher than inflation and protecting democracy, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
The Aftermath of New York’s Midterms Elections
- Hochul’s New Challenges: Gov. Kathy Hochul managed to repel late momentum by Representative Lee Zeldin. Now she must govern over a fractured New York electorate.
- How Maloney Lost: Democrats won tough races across the country. But Sean Patrick Maloney, a party leader and a five-term congressman, lost his Hudson Valley seat. What happened?
- A Weak Link: If Democrats lose the House, they may have New York to blame. Republicans flipped four seats in the state, the most of any state in the country.
- Blame Game: The Times spoke with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her own race handily, about what went wrong for Democrats in New York.
Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of the Working Families Party in New York, said Mr. Adams’s comments about crime were particularly damaging because the public considers him a potent and credible messenger on the issue.
“What we see, especially because of the bully pulpit of the mayor, because of his lived experience as a former police officer, as a Black man, real badges of credibility in our communities, is that he accelerated a fear-based vision of the world that coincides exactly with what the G.O.P. strategy was,” Ms. Nnaemeka said. “It left many voters looking to the G.O.P. to solve the issue.”
Indeed, while Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, held off a challenge from Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican, her margin of victory was narrower than any governor in the state in three decades. And the party’s losses in several swing congressional races in New York helped Republicans take control of the House.
Ms. Hochul did well in New York City, where Democrats far outnumber Republicans. But in the Long Island suburbs, where television ads depicted the city as a lawless hellscape, Mr. Zeldin won 55 percent of the vote and Republicans flipped two Democratic House seats. Some Democratic state lawmakers in more conservative neighborhoods like Brighton Beach and Dyker Heights in Brooklyn also lost their seats.
In those neighborhoods and in Floral Park on Long Island, along the Queens-Nassau County border, numerous voters said that concerns over crime influenced their choice of candidates, but no one said that Mr. Adams’s relentless messaging was a factor.
“He’s trying to do a decent job,” Joan Jones, 67, who lives in Floral Park, said of Mr. Adams.
Ms. Jones, who said she voted for Republicans for governor and Congress, said that crime and inflation were the two most important issues to her and that she wants to see harsher punishments for criminals.
“There has to be more consequences,” she said. “I’m afraid to ride the subway. It’s a shame.”
Crime has risen in New York City since the pandemic began, but the city is much safer than it was in the 1990s, when there were more than 2,000 murders each year. Murders are down this year by 13 percent, and shootings are down 15 percent, according to city data. But major crimes are up this year by 28 percent, driven by robberies and assaults.
In 2019, state lawmakers in New York rewrote bail law so that fewer people awaiting trial landed behind bars because they could not afford to post bail.
There is no clear evidence that those changes contributed to an increase in crime. Critics and supporters of bail reform have pointed to data and particular cases to advance their argument, but the research is inconclusive.
Mr. Adams has nonetheless blamed some of that crime uptick on those changes — a position that found him more closely aligned with Mr. Zeldin. In August, Mr. Adams held a news conference to hammer home that message, providing specific examples of people who have been arrested repeatedly with guns, and Mr. Zeldin applauded him.
Ms. Hochul held her own news conference that day and appeared visibly peeved at the broadside from Mr. Adams, her ostensible political ally. Still, Mr. Adams campaigned for Ms. Hochul and sought to help her, holding a joint event shortly before the election to announce more police officers for the subway — though a $10,000 donation to Mr. Zeldin from a political action committee run by a key Adams ally did raise questions about his loyalty.
The bail issue was so contentious that Mr. Adams began to soften his rhetoric in late October after attending a summit on crime organized by Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Bail reform was such a divisive issue that participants agreed to not address it and to instead seek common ground.
At a subsequent news conference with Ms. Hochul, Mr. Adams sought to broaden his message.
“Everyone wants to point one word to dealing with the criminal justice issue we have. Bail reform, bail reform, bail reform,” Mr. Adams said. “No, it’s more than that. There are many rivers that feed the sea of violence.”
Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic political strategist, said that Mr. Adams did help legitimize the Republicans’ messaging on crime, but that it would have been a major issue even without the mayor’s frequent comments.
“Adams did far more to help Hochul than to hurt her,” Mr. Gyory said.
Plenty of Democrats support the mayor’s approach. Representative Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat who represents northern Manhattan and the Bronx, said that Mr. Adams had sent more police officers to violent places in his district, and that voters were concerned about public safety.
“The No. 1 issue people came up to me about was crime,” he said in an interview. “He’s doing the right thing to address it.”
Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from the Bronx who did not support Mr. Adams during last year’s mayoral primary, said in an interview that he believed the mayor’s influence in the midterms was overstated. People do feel less safe, he said, especially in communities of color.
“It was clear that The New York Post was on a crusade against Hochul regardless of what Eric Adams was saying,” he said.
As for Mr. Adams, his crusade continues. In one national television appearance two days after the election, the mayor harped on the importance of tightening bail restrictions. “This catch, repeat, release system is just destroying the foundation of our country,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “That’s why we are losing this election.”
He wrote an opinion piece for USA Today last week, arguing that Democrats should focus more on the present-day needs of working class voters who are concerned about the economy, crime and inflation.
Now left-leaning Democrats like Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, are worried that Mr. Adams and other elected officials will push for more changes to bail laws during the next state legislative session in January, and the issue will again dominate headlines.
“When you hyperfocus on something such as bail, it can take away resources and discussion about how you create public safety in the city and state,” Mr. Williams said.
In the aftermath of the midterms, New York’s Democratic power brokers flocked to Puerto Rico for an annual gathering. Mr. Adams and Ms. Hochul met privately for nearly half an hour at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Friday. The hotel served cookies, which Mr. Adams declined to eat because they were not vegan, and the pair discussed legislative priorities for January.
Mr. Adams would not say whether they talked about bail laws, but he said that he and the governor were closer than ever despite meddling by Mr. Zeldin’s supporters.
“People who supported him used everything they could to create a wedge between Kathy and Eric,” the mayor said. “Thank goodness the two of us didn’t bite. We didn’t fall into the trap.”
Nate Schweber contributed reporting.