The future looks promising for Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who holds a commanding lead in the Democratic primary race to be New York’s next mayor, even as hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots remain uncounted and the ranked-choice process has yet to begin. 

Adams, a politician whose career embodies many contradictions, is poised to take over New York City at a complicated time: A rise in crime, particularly shootings, is challenging the momentum of a broad movement to reshape criminal justice in the city, and hopes for a speedy economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic are being tested by controversial rezoning and development projects. 

These are the two areas where Adams has drawn most scrutiny throughout his career in public service. 

As a police officer, he rattled his superiors with calls for reform, yet ran as a law-and-order candidate for mayor. He has decried gentrification, drawing support from Black and Latino neighborhoods battling displacement and rising rents, and yet has received the most money of any mayoral candidate from the real estate industry. 

Maps of in-person first-choice votes showed that Adams was the top pick of working class neighborhoods that are bearing the brunt of rising gun violence in the Bronx, eastern Brooklyn and southeast Queens. Despite now being a consummate political insider, Adams pitched what he is calling his victory in the race as a triumph for New Yorkers who have felt marginalized by the city’s political process. 

“I am going to be your mayor,” Adams said late Tuesday at a gathering of supporters. “The little guy won today.”

Adams, 60, grew up in Brooklyn and Queens in a working class family, and has said his firsthand experiences of racism and economic injustice fueled his passion for public service. Early encounters with violent police officers, including an incident in which he was beaten by a group of cops at age 15 inside a station house, made him want to go into law enforcement to reform it from the inside, he has said. 

As an officer, he quickly established himself as a vocal proponent of reform, mainly through establishing the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. The organization earned him notoriety within the police department but effectively identified him with efforts to abolish racist policing tactics. 

Even at this early stage in his career, Adams drew criticism for creating attention for himself despite having a thin record of accomplishments in changing the policies of the police department or displaying a standout record as an officer.

Elected to the state Senate in 2006, Adams again earned both public notice and the ire of his colleagues for demanding raises for legislators and allying with Republicans, who gave him a committee chair. 

As a senator, Adams showed a knack for attacking criminal justice issues with both systemic and personal approaches, sponsoring legislation to limit stop-and-frisk policing tactics while encouraging parents to search their children’s rooms for hidden drugs and guns.

Adams also faced his first significant investigation, from the state inspector general, which found in a report that he had cozied up to and accepted large campaign donations from associates of a company bidding for a contract to operate video-lottery machines at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. Adams denied wrongdoing and was not accused of any illegal activity. 

After being elected borough president of Brooklyn in 2014, Adams used a private nonprofit to curry relationships with deep-pocketed developers and their lobbyists, continuing to “to push the boundaries of campaign-finance and ethics laws,” according to a report from The New York Times. 

An investigation by NY1 editorial partner THE CITY found that Adams received hundreds of thousands of dollars from real estate industry members between 2015 and 2019 through his nonprofit and his campaigns, and that industry lobbyists and executives who looked to Adams for support for their large development projects sat on the board of his nonprofit.

Through his long public service career, Adams has powered through such scrutiny with a firm belief in himself, by aligning with racial justice efforts and by maintaining a strong base of support in working-class Black communities. 

As a mayoral candidate, he brushed aside a report from Politico questioning whether his primary residence was in fact in Brooklyn by inviting reporters into the basement apartment of a building he owns in Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Just days before primary election day, he accused two candidates, Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia, of campaigning together in a racist effort to “steal” the election from him. 

On Tuesday night, Adams appeared ready to take the office he said he has dreamed of for decades -- and to prove that he knows best the needs of the city he has lived in his whole life.

“And how dare those with their philosophical and intellectual theorizing and their classroom mindset talk about the theory of policing. You don’t know this. I know this,” Adams said. “I am going to keep my city safe.”