The title of “Person of the Year” is bestowed upon the individual who dominated the headlines and/or profoundly influenced New York City over the course of the year. Eric Adams clearly earned that title in 2021.
The 61-year-old Brooklyn native and former cop made history in 2021 by becoming the second Black New Yorker elected to the city’s highest office. His fate was sealed in this heavily Democratic city back in June, when he won an extremely competitive Democratic primary. The next few months on the campaign trail produced no surprises; it wasn’t a matter of if Adams would win, but by how much. In November, the then-Brooklyn borough president was officially elected as mayor in the general election in a landslide victory over his Republican rival, Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.
Adams didn’t reach the highest point in New York City politics by happenstance. His entire career has been spent in public service, from his days walking the beat as a New York City cop; to becoming an outspoken advocate for Black officers within the NYPD; to his service in the State Senate and later as the two-term Brooklyn borough president.
The path wasn’t easy. Adams overcame the trauma of being a victim of police brutality as a child in Queens in order to pursue a career in law enforcement. In 1995, he co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care as an advocacy group against police brutality and racial profiling; the organization held seminars for young Black New Yorkers on how to properly avoid confrontation with police.
During his two terms as Brooklyn borough president, Adams proved to be a champion for the borough, with a hands-on style to governing. When the borough and the city were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Adams set up a mattress in his Brooklyn Borough Hall office so he could directly answer the call for help in leading the area through the health crisis.
Adams even overcame the challenge of diabetes, which at one point had left him temporarily blind. He dramatically changed his diet and put the debilitating disease into remission, and in doing so, became a champion for plant-based diets in the city.
Then Adams made the biggest career move of his life in the fall of 2020, declaring his candidacy for what’s often described, in a normal year, as “the second toughest job in America”: being mayor of New York City.
“This campaign was for those who have been betrayed by their government,” Adams recalled at his victory speech on Nov. 3 after winning the mayoral election. He had run on a moderate progressive platform, seeking to pull the city back together following the strained pandemic years with a mixture of what he would later call “swagger” and being “radically practical.”
As one example, Adams said he wanted to address both the horrific conditions on Rikers Island and expand community resources to help combat violence. But he’s also been quick to call for reforms to stop violent criminals from returning to the streets.
“The best-anti-violence measure is a job,” Adams said at his victory speech. “We can’t continue to put dangerous inmates back in the same housing areas where they are attacking innocent officers and those prisoners who’re trying to serve their time.”
We asked Mayor Adams to reflect on his career and the challenges that lie ahead for him and the city.
Q.) When the race was officially called in your favor on Election Night last year, what went through your mind? Can you explain what it meant for you to be elected as mayor of America’s largest city?
Adams: It was an incredibly meaningful moment for me. That night, I reflected on my journey, which began on the floor of the 103rd Precinct in southeast Queens, where my brother and I were beaten by police when I was 15 years old. From my 22 years in the police department to my career in elected office, first as a state senator, then as the first Black Brooklyn borough president, I have always been committed to serving the people of this city. Being elected mayor is the culmination of a long journey in public service, and I’m deeply humbled by the faith New Yorkers have placed in me.
Q.) Who were the people who most influenced your political career and made you the person you are today?
Adams: The person who had the greatest influence on me was my mother, Dorothy, who raised me and my five siblings as a single mother. I brought my mother’s portrait to my swearing-in ceremony in Times Square to pay homage to her memory. My life’s journey reflects a lesson she taught me at a young age: being in a dark place isn’t always a burial — for me, it was a planting.
Q.) What has been the most difficult challenge in your career to date? Could you talk about how you responded to it and how it shaped your leadership skills?
Adams: The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most challenging periods in our city’s history. When the first wave hit New York in the spring of 2020, my staff and I immediately were on the ground to deliver supplies, such as food and PPE, to frontline workers and hard-hit communities. It was an important reminder for me that leaders, like generals, don’t lead their troops from the back; they lead them from the front.
Q.) Would you describe the greatest accomplishment you’ve made in your career to date, besides being elected mayor?
Adams: My greatest accomplishment is being a father to my son, Jordan.
Q.) Describe the three biggest challenges you’re facing as mayor and how you’re going to address them in the next 100 days.
Adams: My main priorities right now are beating back the surge in COVID cases and building an equitable recovery, keeping our schools open and safe, and upholding public safety. We have already hit the ground running to Get Stuff Done for New Yorkers.
Q.) Four years from now, when you’re up for re-election, where do you see New York being? And beyond the next four years, where do you see your future going?
Adams: It’s too early to discuss the future. I’m living in the here and now, and focused on delivering for the people of this city each and every day.
More of Eric Adams: Through the years