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Eric Adams, Once a Political Outsider, Conquers the Inside Game

Mr. Adams won the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City by portraying himself as a working-class politician who understood the concerns of average New Yorkers.

The morning after winning the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City, Eric L. Adams on Wednesday asserted that he had won a mandate to address the urgent struggles of America’s urban working class.

As he appeared at a parade celebrating essential workers and toured morning television news shows, Mr. Adams, a former police captain who would be the city’s second Black mayor, sought to cement his image as a man who understands what it is to fear both gun violence and police misconduct. It was one thing to theorize about solving problems of injustice and inequality, he suggested. It was another to experience them as a working-class person of color in New York.

“Finally one of your own is going to understand,” Mr. Adams said to a throng of health care workers at a parade.

If Mr. Adams sounded, in that moment, like a political outsider, it is because for many years, he was more iconoclast than institutionalist.

Mr. Adams was the rebel police officer who agitated against police misconduct from within the force, eventually rising to captain. He was the borough president who attracted more attention for quirky stunts — displaying drowned rats at a news conference to draw attention to a vermin problem, for instance — than for his record on land use policy. And he was the Brooklyn mayoral candidate who lost out on first-place endorsements from prominent Brooklyn-area members of the New York congressional delegation.

But in other ways, Mr. Adams emerged in the mayoral contest as something of an establishment figure, earning the support of leading labor unions, locking down key party officials including two fellow borough presidents, and building an old-school Democratic coalition that attracted working-class Black, Latino and some moderate white voters.

He was among the most message-disciplined candidates in the race, repeatedly declaring that public safety was the “prerequisite” to prosperity, a pitch that became increasingly resonant amid a spike in violent crime. And he used his personal story of overcoming poverty and police violence to emerge as a credible messenger on urgent issues of safety, justice and inequality.

“We don’t live in theory,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader who has known Mr. Adams for decades, pointing to the rise in shootings in cities across the country. “This is not an ivory tower exercise and that’s what worked for Eric.”

Despite all of that institutional support and his ultimate victory, Mr. Adams defeated his nearest rival, Kathryn Garcia, by just one percentage point, according to the latest tally of ballots on Tuesday. Ms. Garcia conceded to Mr. Adams on Wednesday, as did the third-place finisher, Maya Wiley, the most left-leaning candidate in the field among the top tier of contenders.

He still faces a general election campaign against Curtis Sliwa, the Republican nominee, but is expected to win easily because of the city’s overwhelming Democratic tilt — allowing him to already talk of an early transition as he moves toward assembling a government, and to contemplate the significant policy and political challenges that await.

Mr. Adams’s victory was, in some ways, a repudiation of the most left-wing forces in the city, even as deeply progressive candidates scored other victories elsewhere on the ballot.

A year after the rise of a powerful defund-the-police movement in New York, Mr. Adams won on a message that put public safety at the center of his platform, and he explicitly called for more police in certain scenarios: He supported adding more police to patrol the subways, for example, and backs reconstituting a reformed plainclothes anti-crime squad, even as he has been a vocal critic, for decades, of police abuse.

He ran as a business-friendly candidate who did not demonize real estate; on the contrary, Mr. Adams, who owns property himself, once declared, “I am real estate.” And he is supportive of charter schools in some circumstances.

But he is not especially ideological and on some social safety net issues, he has taken a much more liberal approach. For instance, he supports an ambitious expansion of the earned-income tax credit.

Mr. Adams faces skepticism from the left over his politics, but as he assumes the nomination, he also faces doubts from some Democrats across the ideological spectrum over questions of transparency and ethics.

In 2010, when he was a state senator and the chairman of the Senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, a state inspector general report suggested that Mr. Adams had given the “appearance of impropriety” by getting close to a group seeking a casino contract at Aqueduct Racetrack.

A review of his fund-raising practices by The New York Times earlier this year showed that he has pushed the boundaries of campaign-finance and ethics laws, though he has not been formally accused of wrongdoing. And the last month of the campaign saw controversies over transparency issues play out concerning his tax and real estate disclosures and even questions of residency, culminating in an extraordinary moment in which Mr. Adams offered journalists a tour of the apartment where he said he lived.

Mr. Adams’s formative years in the public eye were spent in the Police Department, where he helped found an organization called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. His efforts inspired some and rankled other colleagues on the force who describe a career trajectory that was more complex than Mr. Adams sometimes suggests.

But to this day, some voters remember Mr. Adams from those efforts, which helped him dispatch arguments from opponents that he was overly inclined to embrace policing as an answer to the city’s challenges.

“My admiration for him really started when he was a policeman talking about police brutality, and a captain talking about police officers not fulfilling their oath,” said Charles B. Rangel, the former New York congressman, who endorsed Mr. Adams.

As an outspoken police officer, Mr. Adams had his share of controversies, too, aligning himself at various times with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has repeatedly promoted anti-Semitism, and the ex-boxer Mike Tyson after his 1992 rape conviction. Mr. Adams lost a 1994 congressional run, and he was also a registered Republican for a period of time in the 1990s.

In 2006, he was elected to the State Senate as a Democrat, part of a wave of Central Brooklyn politicians who came up from outside the party, and in 2013, won an election to be Brooklyn borough president.

Mr. Adams, who became an evangelist for veganism after he says he reversed his diabetes by reforming his diet and exercise routines, became known for preparing vegan meals at Borough Hall, and he developed a reputation as a splashy New York character prone to making unexpected remarks and appearances. There was the gruesome rat-related news conference, for instance, or Mr. Adams’s announcement that he, as a former law enforcement officer, would begin bringing a gun to houses of worship after a massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“In order to get a message across in New York City, first you have to get people’s attention,” said Evan Thies, an Adams spokesman. “People might look at the spectacle of dead rats at a press conference and be turned off by that, but they’re paying attention, and they’re paying attention to a critical health issue to lower-income people. Why was it on the news? Because Eric forced people to look at something they didn’t want to look at.”

There is no question that Mr. Adams has an idiosyncratic streak. But his decades in public life suggest that the likely next mayor of the nation’s largest city also has shrewd instincts and an ability to navigate a politically eclectic set of relationships.

Mr. Sharpton noted that Mr. Adams was “literally a founding member” of the National Action Network, Mr. Sharpton’s organization.

“At the same time, he was a policeman, able to be friendly with more conservative elements that were not supportive of me,” Mr. Sharpton continued. “He has a way of working with people who don’t work with each other.”

In his current role, Mr. Adams has been an enthusiastic promoter of his borough, building deep relationships there with diverse constituencies including Black voters and Orthodox Jewish leaders.

But Representative Nydia Velázquez, who backed two of Mr. Adams’s rivals under the city’s ranked-choice voting system, noted that he was not the first choice of the members of Congress who represent much of Brooklyn (though Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the highest-ranking House member in the New York delegation, backed Mr. Adams as his second choice).

“He will have a honeymoon with voters, but then people want to know how his administration — what does it mean for them, the ascension of Eric Adams to City Hall?” said Ms. Velázquez, who said she hoped Mr. Adams could have a “more productive” relationship with the delegation moving forward. “That will be measured by the agenda he will be able to tackle.”

Mr. Adams’s team is especially focused on ways to use newly available state and federal resources to combat gun violence, and his campaign plans to offer more details on dealing with violence tied to handguns in coming weeks.

Mr. Adams said on “Good Day New York” that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made it easier to fight crime with his recent emergency declaration concerning gun violence.

“We have to look at the feeders of crime,” he said. “My team is going to sit down and look at the common denominators of those who are committing crimes. If you don’t start targeting what’s feeding crime then we are going to throw good money into a bad scenario.”

Mr. Adams said he would go after gang violence in the city, but that he also wants to help crisis management teams and youth organizations trying to prevent violence.

He is aware of the skepticism he faces from some on the left. Mr. Adams reached for conciliatory notes on Wednesday, urging New Yorkers to “get over the philosophical differences we have.”

“Let’s decide that we must live in a safe city where we educate our children and make sure everyone has an opportunity to prosper in this great city,” he added.

Plus, he said, the ride could be fun.

“You all would be bored if those other candidates were mayor,” he said. “You guys are going to have so much fun over the next four years.”

Almost as to offer proof, Mr. Adams ended his day by fulfilling a rather unorthodox campaign promise he had made to a group of young New Yorkers: He had his left ear pierced.

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