When a homeless man was choked to death on the New York City subway earlier this month by another passenger, Mayor Eric Adams had an uncharacteristically guarded response. For more than a week, he did not denounce the killing, as many of his Democratic colleagues immediately had, or express much sympathy for the victim, Jordan Neely.
Instead, the mayor chose a more detached view, noting that there were “serious mental issues in play here.”
“I was a former transit police officer, and I responded to many jobs where you had a passenger assisting someone,” he said on CNN. “And so we cannot just blatantly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that.”
The mayor’s response was the most recent example of him tacking away from the city’s left, creating a wedge with some of his Democratic colleagues. Mr. Adams has been pushing more moderate, sometimes even conservative, views on issues like rent, religion and his signature theme, improving public safety — a sharp turn from his Democratic predecessor, Bill de Blasio, and from progressive leaders who have recently won mayoral elections in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.
The latest example came on Wednesday, when Mr. Adams issued an executive order temporarily suspending some of the rules related to the city’s longstanding right-to-shelter mandate, as officials struggle to find housing for asylum seekers arriving from the southern border. The move was criticized by advocates for the homeless and Democratic officials like Adrienne Adams, the City Council speaker.
The mayor has spoken ruefully about the separation of church and state, supported charter school expansion and called for reducing the flow of migrants in rhetoric that critics have called xenophobic. He has also proposed budget cuts that could hurt key services such as libraries, arguing that all city agencies must be fiscally prudent at a time when the city’s cost of the spiraling migrant crisis is expected to be well over $1 billion — a factor that was not in play for previous mayors.
And last week, the mayoral-controlled Rent Guidelines Board proposed another year of sizable increases for the city’s roughly one million rent-stabilized apartments — the highest back-to-back increases since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was in office.
Left-leaning Democrats question whether Mr. Adams’s approach — sometimes more akin to Mr. Bloomberg or even the former Republican mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani — is appropriate for New York, one of the most liberal cities in the nation. But the mayor says that his brand of pragmatic politics is exactly what the city needs, and what his core constituency of working-class New Yorkers wants.
“It’s not comfortable for people when they can’t put you in this box,” Mr. Adams, the city’s second Black mayor, said in an interview. “I said from the time that I was running that people are not going to be able to fit me in a box.”
He acknowledged that some of his views are considered conservative, but said that others were “extremely liberal,” pointing to his support for free buses and tax credits for poor New Yorkers. Mr. Adams, who grew up in the Church of Christ, said that many Democrats were religious and that his supporters agreed with his beliefs on faith and other issues.
“The overwhelming number of New Yorkers know that this guy is trying his darnedest to fix the problems in this city and that’s what we’re focused on,” he said.
Mr. Adams emerged from a crowded field of Democratic contenders in the 2021 mayoral race as the most prominent and well-funded moderate candidate, focusing almost exclusively on a public safety message at a time when New Yorkers were anxious about crime. He won the primary by a slim margin — only 7,197 votes — under a new ranked-choice voting system where Mr. Adams was spared a primary runoff.
As mayor, Mr. Adams has mostly lived up to his campaign promises. He has been a charismatic cheerleader for the city as it recovers from the pandemic, keeping a relentless schedule of news conferences and community events. He has pushed for tighter bail restrictions, increased the city’s police presence, delighted in killing rats and is not bashful about enjoying a night on the town.
Many Democrats in New York City are Black and Latino voters who may well support much of the mayor’s agenda, including his emphasis on faith. Mr. Adams has maintained strong support among Black voters at 52 percent, even as his overall approval rating fell to 37 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll in February. Black voters were also more supportive of the mayor’s handling of crime and homelessness than white voters.
But some voters have been disappointed by his new direction for the city. Mr. Adams has removed homeless encampments, pledged to remove mentally ill people from the streets involuntarily, defended the use of stop-and-frisk policing and resisted calls to close the Rikers Island jail complex by 2027. He was also endorsed by the city’s major police union, only a year after the group backed President Donald J. Trump’s re-election bid, and recently provided officers with generous raises as part of a new eight-year, $5.5 billion labor contract.
In the Crown Heights and East New York neighborhoods of Brooklyn, reaction to Mr. Adams’s performance was mixed. Older voters tended to support the mayor, praising his effort, his energy and his devotion to public safety.
“He’s fighting for the city, keeping the city cleaner, there’s plenty of police all around,” said Garfield Miller, 65, a carpenter who lives in East New York, and said he voted for Mr. Adams. Vibert David, 66, and his brother, Asworth David, 65, also voted for Mr. Adams, and said they would enthusiastically do so again.
“You got to be visible,” Vibert David said. “As an old officer, he’s doing good.”
But others accused the mayor of trying to solve everything with more police, and said he was not doing enough to ease the city’s problems with homelessness, mental illness and lack of affordable housing.
“He parties at 3 a.m. when he’s supposed to be helping the city,” said Ineze Thompson, 25, a barista who lives in Washington Heights in Manhattan.
On Friday, Mr. Adams was confronted with more direct blowback: When he began speaking at the CUNY School of Law graduation ceremony, many graduates turned their backs to him.
“When the mayor is cutting things like libraries and schools, it really begs the question: Who is the constituency who he feels accountable to, and what is the legacy he wants to leave behind?” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of the Working Families Party in New York.
The Working Families Party and other progressive Democrats have made great strides in New York, winning seats and pushing a left-leaning agenda on the City Council and in the State Legislature. Earlier this year, progressive lawmakers were even were able to nix Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nominee for the state’s top judge, Justice Hector D. LaSalle, because of fears that he was too conservative. But they have also been frustrated on some key issues because the two most influential elected officials in New York, Ms. Hochul and Mr. Adams, often do not align with their views.
Mr. Adams, who was a registered Republican in the 1990s, is friendly with Republicans and the real estate industry, appearing regularly on a conservative radio show. He chides “woke” members of his party and recently named Jimmy Oddo, a Republican, to head the Buildings Department, replacing another Republican who held the job.
The mayor has quarreled with left-leaning leaders, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though they appeared to reach a détente in March when Ms. Ocasio-Cortez visited Gracie Mansion for dinner. But after Mr. Neely’s death, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez accused Mr. Adams of reaching a “new low” in his stoic response.
“Killing the mentally ill is wrong,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “Why is that so hard to say?”
Some Democrats believe that Mr. Adams will face a challenge from the left in 2025, and their hopes were buoyed by recent mayoral victories by Karen Bass in Los Angeles and Brandon Johnson in Chicago, who were both endorsed by the progressive Working Families Party. Running against a “tough on crime” candidate, Mr. Johnson won on a public safety message that went beyond policing, focusing on youth employment and mental health services.
“Eric Adams’s bluster and rhetorical style has caught a lot of people’s attention, but his policy positions are deeply out of step with what most big, blue-city voters want,” said Anna Bahr, a Democratic political strategist who worked on the Bass and Johnson campaigns.
Some of Mr. Adams’s rhetoric may have frayed his relationship with President Biden. After the mayor harshly criticized the president’s handling of the migrant crisis, his name was quietly removed this week from an initial list of national surrogates for Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign.
The mayor has, at times, seemed to acquiesce to the criticism. On Wednesday, the mayor delivered a speech designed to soften his stance on Mr. Neely’s death, called for more help for homeless New Yorkers, and said clearly for the first time that “Jordan Neely did not deserve to die.”
Two days later, Daniel Penny, a Marine veteran who applied the chokehold to Mr. Neely, was charged with second-degree manslaughter, and Mr. Adams welcomed the news, saying, “now justice can move forward against Daniel Penny.”
In the interview, Mr. Adams said that he identifies as progressive — just not the brand embodied by the Democratic Socialists of America. In fact, he said that the “far left” had won major successes during his administration on issues like the environment, including citywide composting, and programs to assist young people involved in the justice system.
Mr. Adams has also been a vocal supporter of abortion rights and Democratic social issues. During his campaign, he crafted a plan to help poor people, through tax credits, low cost child care and a new website to access city benefits, and he is following through on those measures.
“I am a combination of just about every mayor, from Koch to Dinkins — I’m skipping over Giuliani — to Bloomberg to de Blasio,” he said. “I’m a combination of all those guys because I learned from all of them.”
Liset Cruz and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.