Eric Adams is playing hard to get

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With the state legislative session set to end June 2, the first-year mayor still needs some big items from Albany. And with the Democratic gubernatorial primary just a month and a half away, Hochul needs to win an Adams endorsement.

What they do next could help define their relationship in the years to come.

Hochul and Adams, the state’s two most powerful Democrats, are staring down a mutually beneficial alliance after a somewhat rocky start following Adams’ January inauguration. Hochul needs the broad support Adams enjoys with the city’s Black voters, and the mayor needs the governor’s help to secure policy wins at the state Capitol, most specifically his push to retain mayoral control over public schools and the extension of a controversial property tax break favored by real estate developers.

Adams, in an interview with POLITICO, demurred when asked if he would endorse Hochul without a significant push from her to extend mayoral control.

“To me, it’s two different conversations,” Adams said. “The totality of the record of the person that’s running for governor, I’m going to look at.”

He said extending mayoral control, which he has rebranded as “mayoral accountability,” is “one of the issues” — in addition to public safety — “that I’m going to look at to make a determination of the person I’m going to endorse for governor.”

“So I would not say that if I don’t get the support from the governor on one issue, it’s going to determine that, and so I would say no today,” Adams added.

Adams’ caginess over what would appear to be a fait accompli — a Democratic mayor endorsing a sitting Democratic governor — and his courtship with Cuomo suggests Adams is playing classic tit-for-tat New York politics. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he has options he could use, even if they extend to Hochul’s disgraced predecessor, who is said to be considering his own political comeback — maybe even a run for governor this year.

“The interesting thing is you don’t want to wait too long until an endorsement becomes obsolete,” said Christina Greer, a Fordham University political science professor who hosts a podcast about New York. “We’ve seen people endorse two or three days before elections, but if its in that final push, it’s no longer a favor, they’re no longer beholden politically.”

An endorsement in the waiting

Now is a strategic place and time for Adams to be withholding his endorsement because, even though his polling has been mixed, there are several loyal cohorts that he could rally to support Hochul, particularly Black voters in New York’s outer boroughs. Adams also has had a relationship with a Hochul primary foe, Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi.

Adams lending his energy to her campaign, in what is likely to be a low turnout year, would be particularly helpful in November — if, as polls show, Hochul wins the primary and might face a tougher general election bid in what is expected to be a strong year for Republicans.

“I don’t think Kathy Hochul has to worry about Black voters going over to her Republican opponents,” Greer said. “She has to worry about them staying home.”

Public signs point to a cordial rapport between Adams and Hochul, absent the enmity that characterized the relationship of their mutual predecessors. Cuomo and former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had such disdain for one another that they would often go out of their way to undercut the other — particularly Cuomo, who used his power to upstage de Blasio on many occasions.

Adams called Hochul “an amazing partner” in his interview with POLITICO, and he emphasized their shared views on an array of issues.

But Adams has been fussed that Hochul delivered so little in the way of his agenda so far this year, given their ideological alignment, according to a person familiar with the matter — a frustration compounded by her willingness to expend political capital for a controversial Buffalo Bills stadium deal for her hometown in an election year that the person said did not match her vigor for Adams’ crime-reduction agenda.

“There’s a difference between saying and thinking the right things and getting stuff done,” said the person, who was granted anonymity to speak openly about the relationship.

Adams, who has boasted of his ability to achieve his goals in Albany because of his previous years as state senator, has yet to follow through on developing the kind of political force necessary to fulfill his “Get Stuff Done” mantra at the state Capitol, according to several top Democrats in the Legislature.

So he may need Hochul — who has shown recent sway with legislative leaders, both in the state budget and in changing state law to clean up her former lieutenant governor’s resignation — to advocate on his behalf.

Adams is pushing for an extension of state legislation that would sustain mayoral control of New York City’s public school system. Mayoral control began in 2002 but was never made permanent, allowing lawmakers to dangle some political power over the mayor.

Hochul had signaled her approval when she included a four-year extension — longer than any given to Adams’ predecessor — in her executive budget proposal in January. But the demand — which Adams readily points out his white predecessors who aren’t New York City natives like him achieved in more hostile state capitals — has gone unanswered so far by lawmakers.

State legislators have in previous years pushed the extension to the final weeks of session after the state budget deadline on April 1, offering the reasoning that policy items shouldn’t be included in the state’s fiscal plan, and that mayoral control isn’t set to expire until June 30.

But this year, especially, the issue shot to the bottom of the priority list in Albany as Hochul and the Democratic-controlled Legislature spent much of their budget negotiation time hashing out differences about changing the state’s bail laws in response to criticism from both right and left, including Adams, about how Democrats have addressed crime and public safety.

Mayoral control will very likely be extended “well before the sunsetting of the current law,” said state Sen. John Liu (D-Queens), who chairs that chamber’s education committee.

But the Legislature isn’t looking to give anyone an easy political win when parents have been explicit about the need for better input and responsiveness from officials about their children’s education systems, he said.

“It’s unlikely that there’ll be a four-year extension with no changes, as the mayor and governor want, and it’s unlikely that that we’ll allow the school governance system that’s been in place for 20 years to revert back to the previous system,” he said, referring to the convoluted school governance structure that existed before mayoral control.

Adams and the city’s real estate industry, who are generally aligned, are also facing the possibility of losing a property tax break they view as essential to the production of housing in the overcrowded city, something lawmakers have signaled they have very little interest in addressing in the coming weeks.

“Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul have a great working relationship,” Adams’ spokesperson Fabien Levy said.

“There are countless issues where the two are aligned, from reducing gun violence and crime on our streets and subways, to recovering from COVID, to getting our economy back up and running. The mayor considers the governor a partner in boosting New York and moving our city forward.”

An ongoing courtship

The Hochul campaign declined comment on the Adams endorsement talk. Several people in the Hochul camp, however, acknowledged that Adams’ endorsement would go a long way in building momentum, but pushed back on the idea that it’s their top objective when it comes to rallying support among Black voters downstate.

“There’s been conversations among our teams” about an Adams endorsement, said one individual within the Hochul campaign familiar with the conversations. “Would we love to have his support? Of course, but it’s only one piece of a larger plan to target turnout communities.”

Hochul and Adams have publicly emphasized a unified front, a direct pushback to the consequences — which ranged from irritating to dangerous — that arose from the longstanding feud between Cuomo and de Blasio.

But they’ve also grappled with the natural tension that exists between the governor of New York and the city’s mayor, one that festers in the gap between roles as different as the office holders themselves, to say nothing of their leadership styles. And the political calculations for their allyship have changed over the past nine months.

According to an individual familiar with the relationship, Hochul and Adams got off to a rocky start after she appeared on stage at his victory party at the Brooklyn Marriott in November, grabbed his arm and did a victory cheer with him. She had not alerted him to the fact that she was coming.

Adams invited her to say a few words at the tail end of his speech, but was surprised, the person said, because Hochul was invited to the party, but not on the stage.

Still, one individual in the Hochul administration familiar with the evening’s events said, “He didn’t want her to speak and he was being a dick, so we went up there anyway.”

They also noted that such public appearance slights often irritate Hochul’s staff more than the governor herself: “From our perspective, he sees an opportunity to institute the supremacy that existed when Bloomberg was mayor, but she’s not taking the bait.”

The relationship eventually strengthened as they worked together on several city projects and demonstrated a united front against new variants of Covid-19 through the winter and fall — again a change from Cuomo and de Blasio, who often warred over Covid policies.

More recently, the offices have been working more closely together around legislative issues, including changes to bail laws in the state budget that leaned closely to some of Adams’ proposals but stopped short of a key piece that would have allowed judges to consider “dangerousness” when deciding to set bail.

Whether mayoral control is part of a back and forth between governor and mayor over his endorsement is uncertain: Adams has been clear about his positions in public press conferences, but still hasn’t had the direct conversations with state legislators about his plans for schools, Liu said.

Liu said Hochul appears to have bigger things on her mind right now — mainly fending off Republicans in November — than earning specific support prior to the June primary. She has a sizable lead, polls show, against her primary foes, Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Cuomo isn’t running in the primary, although he has contemplated an independent run in November.

“Her priorities, even in the budget, which was passed over a month ago, indicate that she has an eye towards the general election,” he said.

He declined to hypothesize if she might need Adams to be a key part of her general election strategy, but suggested that it would be inevitable.

“I highly doubt that Eric Adams would even toy with endorsing a Republican nominee,” he said.

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