After only a few minutes into 2022, Eric Adams was sworn in as mayor of New York City. Adams is only the second Black person to ever hold that office, stepping into the legacy of David Dinkins, who ran the city in the early 1990s and who passed away in 2020. Adams election is part of a larger phenomenon in America’s most populated city and one with the country’s largest Black population. New York Times editor Mara Gay recently discussed the phenomenon in an article titled “The Rise of Eric Adams and Black New York.” Indeed, with more Black people in positions power in the city than ever before, New York appears to be experiencing a political Black renaissance. Here are five of the Black leaders who have taken high-ranking positions in New York City.
1. Eric Adams, Mayor
Eric Adams’ life, career and aspirations are marked by contrasts. As a teen, he was the victim of horrible police brutality. As an adult, he joined the NYPD, rising to the rank of captain. Earlier in his political career, Adams became a Republican for several years because he said that New York Democrats “were too soft on crime,” yet won a crowded Democratic primary race on his way to being elected mayor, pledging to both tackle crime and reform the police. As one New York Times profile of the new mayor described him, “He has alternately referred to himself as a ‘pragmatic moderate’ and ‘the original progressive.’ He claims to take bubble baths with roses and has said he would carry a handgun in church. “
With several challenging issues facing New York City — COVID, cops and crime among the top concerns — Adams will have his work cut out for him. No one knows what to expect from the new mayor quite yet. Some of his preinaugural statements, like his support for reinstating solitary confinement, have given progressives pause that Adams’ administration will have an authoritarian, conservative streak. Others have applauded the new mayor for appointing a diverse collection of leaders to top positions in the city. Only time will tell which version of Mayor Adams becomes the dominant one for his term as leader of the city.
2. Adrienne Adams, New York City Council Speaker
Joining Eric Adams in a key leadership role in New York City is City Councilwoman Adrienne Adams (no relation), who defeated challengers to become the first Black person to hold the position of City Council speaker, the leader of New York City’s main legislative body. Though Eric Adams had initially backed one of the rival candidates, he congratulated Adrienne Adams on her victory last month and touted her qualifications to lead the Council.
Adams, who grew up in Queens and graduated from Spelman College, assumes leadership of the City Council at a historic moment. As The 19th
reported in December, a majority of the 51 councilors will be women for the first time in history. The Council will also include its first Muslim member, as well as record numbers of Asian and LGBTQ councilors. Adams will thus lead the city’s lawmaking body at a time when it looks more like the city it represents, with high expectations that diversity in leadership will lead to new ways of thinking about how to tackle New York’s biggest challenges.
3. Keechant Sewell, New York City Police Commissioner
When Keechant Sewell was sworn in on New Year’s Day, she became the first woman to lead the New York City Police Department, as well as only the third Black person to lead the NYPD in its 176-year history. As CNN notes, women occupy only 3% of executive-level positions in police departments across the country, though several large cities have chosen women to lead their police forces in recent years.
The new NYPD Commissioner, who previously served as chief of detectives of the smaller Nassau County Police Department, was a surprise choice from the new mayor. As a local CBS News affiliate reports, Sewell, 49, grew up in the Queensbridge Houses before spending 25 years on the Nassau County police force. In an interview with CBS 2, Sewell touted her experience fighting guns and gangs in Nassau County and explained that she looks to implement similar policies in New York City. She also acknowledged that her approach, which includes the continued policing of nuisance crimes such as turnstile jumping or disorderly conduct, puts her at odds with prosecutors such as incoming Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg Jr., who has publicly stated that he wants to stop prosecuting such petty crimes.
4. Alvin Bragg Jr., New York County District Attorney
Speaking of Bragg, the incoming New York County district attorney takes over the Manhattan prosecutor’s office at one of the most important times in the office’s history. Bragg replaces outgoing Manhattan prosecutor Cyrus Vance Jr., who has spent the last several years investigating the business dealings of former President Donald Trump, who was for decades one of New York’s richest business moguls. The district attorney’s office is in the middle of pursuing a criminal case against the Trump Organization and individuals within it, such as Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg. The DA’s office has also obtained copies of Trump’s tax returns after years of fighting with the former president’s legal team over the release of these documents.
Bragg, the first Black DA in New York County’s history, has pledged to pursue the case, which could potentially lead to a former president facing criminal charges for the first time in U.S. history. Along with the separate investigation being conducted by New York Attorney General Letitia James, Bragg’s case may be the first to hold Trump legally accountable for his actions. But while Trump may be the most prominent issue for the new DA, the former president’s case is far from Bragg’s only focus. Bragg has pledged to fundamentally change the way prosecutions are handled in New York, vowing to “shrink the system” and stop putting people away for “crimes of poverty.” This mission stems from Bragg’s upbringing in Harlem, in which he and his family experienced police harassment firsthand. Bragg now has a chance to be the type of change he and his community have sought for so long.
5. Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York
Damian Williams’ position on this list is a bit different than the others on the list. As U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Williams holds a federal position with a jurisdiction that includes Manhattan and the Bronx as well as other parts of New York State. He was nominated for the role by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate in Oct. 2021. Williams, who started his law career as a clerk for now Attorney General Merrick Garland, is the first Black person to hold his position, which has in the past been occupied by up-and-coming figures such as Rudy Giuliani and James Comey.
Because Williams was confirmed in October, he has already been hard at work and he has recently won his first high-profile victory in his current role. As Blavity previously reported, Williams successfully prosecuted British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell for sex trafficking. Beyond the Maxwell case, Williams has announced an ambitious agenda for the U.S. Attorney’s office, including the recent creation of a civil rights unit to tackle white supremacy, antisemitism and anti-Asian hate. He has also pledged to tackle gun and financial crimes as well.
Williams and the other leaders have their work cut out for them as they seek to lead and serve America’s most populated city in a time of unprecedented public health crisis, racial reckoning and social change. Together, they bring a variety of experiences, perspectives and goals to their offices. New Yorkers in general, and the city’s Black communities in particular, will no doubt hold each of these officials to high standards as the city looks to its new leaders to make New York and its government work for all of the city’s residents.