In the early 1990s, the historian Melvin Holli began to solve a problem with a book called “The Great City Mayors of America”. Although governing a place like New York or Philadelphia was one of the most important political jobs in the country, we had no scientific ranking of mayors, no orderly system of evaluating them. as we did for presidents, thanks to the work of mid-century scholars. Relying on surveys of biographers, social scientists and urban policy experts and on an elaborate methodology, Mr. Holli concluded that Fiorello La Guardia was the best mayor in the history of the United States. No other New York mayor appeared on the “best” list; three were included among the worst.
New York is a notoriously difficult place to manage, and measuring success in real time is also complicated. At first glance, the question of whether the current mayor is popular or not would seem to be a simple one determined by statistics, anecdote and so on, but it is more knotty than that. In a poll at the end of June, less than half of New Yorkers – 46 percent – indicated that they had a favorable opinion of Eric Adams, a decrease of four points from his numbers in December.
In contrast, Bill de Blasio, whose mayoralty was dominated by conversations about his irresponsible gym habits and personality deficits, fared much better at the same point in his term. Even when the bourgeois creative class and the business elites came to reject him as if he were rancid fast food, at 18 months he was holding at a 58 percent favorable ratingwith 81 percent of Black voters expressing a positive view of him.
Mr. Adams’ problems occupy a wide space well outside the parameters of charisma. He has been criticized for lacking a vision or signature initiatives analogous to universal pre-K; peer access to staff; a habit of petty and bizarre distortions of the truth. Some of this was predictable. During the campaign, his evasiveness led to headlines like, “Where Eric Adams Really Live?” for it was not obvious, a confusion which he blamed on a slip of paper at the hands of a homeless accountant.
Last week, we learned that a picture of an old friend, a police officer who died in the line of duty 36 years ago, was not actually kept near the mayor in his wallet for decades as he previously suggested. Rather, it was printed in his office last year by subordinates, in response to the death of two police officers in Harlem.
These shortcomings justify fear and may cause voters to turn to someone new in 2025. And yet it is also true that New Yorkers who hope for a galvanizing figure, a mayor for all the people, may need to adjust their expectations and settle for a mayor for half the people .
Our current political landscape is too difficult for anyone to emerge with a broad consensus of affection — it’s almost impossible to imagine how widely accepted La Guardia was, or even Ed Koch in his first term. Over the past 10 years, most mayors’ approval ratings have hovered just above or below 50 percent. Although Michael Bloomberg had an approval rating of 31 percent early in his tenure, he briefly reached 75 percent during his deft handling of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, before slipping downward in the coming years.
The 50 percent benchmark is so hard to beat now, said George Arzt, a longtime political consultant in the city, because the electorate is so fragmented. La Guardia was able to govern well in part because as a liberal Republican who supported the New Deal he was able to connect with voters across constituencies. And there were simply fewer constituencies to consider.
Lacking the sharp ideological divisions that burden the party today, Northeast Democrats were united by a strong labor movement. La Guardia had to make an alliance with Jews and Protestants, with immigrants from Northern Europe and Southern Europe, but he did not work in a city of 600 spoken languages. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Dominican immigrants to the city alone multiplied more than tenfold, reaching 1.1 million.
Supporters of Eric Adams – and most people presumably – appreciate that violent crimes and hate crimes are tends down. The shootings are down 25 percent year to date. “I don’t think people are looking for a vision; I think they’re looking to not get killed,” Alan Fishman, a banker, philanthropist and supporter of Adams, told me. “What you hear about friendship and dysfunction doesn’t affect people every day. It’s inside baseball.”
What touches people is the sincerity of the commitment. Whatever you thought of his policies, it was hard to doubt Michael Bloomberg’s devotion to New York. Mr. Adams and Mr. de Blasio have been cast as temperamental opposites, but they share a prominent trait, a deep investment in their own marketing. (This was evident most recently in the case of Mr. de Blasio, with the long, moody interview he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, gave to The Times announcing their separation, when the alternative in situations like this is typically distant three-line news release. .)
Mr. de Blasio has been chasing a national profile more or less from the moment he was elected mayor, and he was absent from the city during stretches when he ran for president, remaining in the race even though his bid was nowhere to be seen. Eager to engage the high-style factions of New York that his predecessor ignored, Mr. Adams has been selling us his “swagger” since his first week in office. History shows us that it is very rare for the mayor of New York to move on to higher office. The goal should be legacy rather than fame.