What Makes Eric Adams Fight City Hall Over Rats?

Mayor Eric Adams’s voice was calm, his argument straightforward. The city — his city — was acting unfairly, he politely told a hearing officer on Thursday.

And as he cast himself as a responsible, hardworking and fastidious Brooklyn landlord, the mayor said, once again, that he did not deserve the latest fines levied against him for summonses that said he had failed to control rats at his Brooklyn rowhouse.

The hearing, conducted via telephone before an administrative law judge, will eventually determine whether Mr. Adams will have to pay fines on two summonses issued in December, or get them dismissed — as he did late last year with a similar rat summons.

But it raised other questions.

Why is the mayor of the nation’s largest city again troubling himself with something so mundane as a personal rat summons? Why not just pay up and move on? Might paying up amount to an admission of guilt? Isn’t this issue so picayune as to fall beneath the station of a man now occupying the second-hardest job in the United States, as it is often described?

True motive is hard to discern. Mr. Adams would not be the first mayor of New York City to adopt an Everyman schtick, even though a landlord may not be seen as the archetypal New Yorker. But his schtick may be more central to his political profile than most — he often describes himself as the city’s first blue-collar mayor in generations.

Among his predecessors, Edward I. Koch insisted on keeping his rent-regulated one-bedroom apartment, while mostly living in the official mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion, for fear of losing an affordable rent upon leaving office.

On his third day in office as mayor, Bill de Blasio shoveled snow and posted about it on social media. He also withstood years of ridicule for traveling by motorcade from the Upper East Side mansion to the Y.M.C.A. in his old Brooklyn neighborhood to ride a stationary bike, despite the bounty of gyms in Manhattan.

And Michael R. Bloomberg served meatloaf at his Upper East Side mansion while mayor. He also claimed to rotate between only two pairs of loafers.

Mr. Adams’s spokesman, Fabien Levy, said Mr. Adams is not cultivating a persona. He is merely being himself, and that self hates rats and rights wrongs.

“If any other New Yorker feels they have been unfairly issued a summons, they have a right to fight it, and I don’t know any true New Yorker who wouldn’t take that opportunity to fight a wrong,” Mr. Levy said.

Not everyone agrees.

“I don’t want to speculate on any of his motives, but it is out of the ordinary,” said Bill Cunningham, the communications director during Mr. Bloomberg’s first term. “And unless he feels strongly that somebody is picking on him in some way and he’s tried to comply in every way possible with the regulations, and he has to prove that point, I don’t know. But I would think there are plenty of other things he could be doing.”

Certainly, Mr. Adams’s distaste for rodents is well documented. Fighting rats has become integral to his mayoral agenda. But the mayor has also come a long way since his childhood in Brooklyn and Queens.

He is the owner of a rowhouse in Brooklyn, where property values have surged in recent decades. He sometimes buys his own vegetables at a cart near City Hall, but he also lives at the mayoral residence at Gracie Mansion, where he has his own chef. He rides the subway, but has drivers and police protection and fraternizes with celebrities. He receives both a police pension and a salary of $258,000. He frequents New York City’s most exclusive clubs and restaurants.

Mr. Adams has kept some of his premayoral habits, including visiting private clubs.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

But if it can be hard to leave old friends behind — he has put many of them in high-level positions in his government — it can also be hard to leave behind old habits, especially when those habits come with political benefits.

“The mayor, when he was campaigning, heard from small businesses and from individual homeowners all across the city, which Andrew did too, that the city was continuously gouging them,” said Chris Coffey, the former co-campaign manager for Andrew Yang, who lost to Mr. Adams in the 2021 Democratic primary. “I think he gets some points in a lot of areas for going through the experience himself.”

That experience involves a rat problem at his rowhouse in Brooklyn. Or maybe it doesn’t. During a recent visit to his property, a neighbor suggested that the real problem was the property directly next to Mr. Adams’s, which was littered with feces and animal bones.

Even so, on Dec. 7, the very day after the mayor successfully contested another rat-related summons, the health department inspector who had written him up before hit him again.

In an area “known to be rodent infested,” wrote the inspector, the mayor had created “harborage conditions that encourage the nesting of rats.” She said she also saw a rat burrow, fresh rat droppings and “an active rat runway” (a reference not to aerial rats, but rather the paths they form through frequent use).

The mayor was now facing a minimum fine of $600.

Like any New Yorker, he could appeal the inspector’s finding by appearing at a telephone hearing with an city administrative law judge.

And so Mr. Adams did, bristling with evidence: photos of a rat burrow on his neighbor’s property, not his; photos of well-packaged garbage from the day of the inspection and of a new metal container for his recycling; receipts for extermination services that he said cost him $200 a month.

Then, having failed to digitize those receipts before the hearing began, the mayor hastily snapped photos and sent them to the judge.

“The video and the photo clearly shows that my property is well kept,” the mayor said to the hearing officer on Thursday morning, following an appearance on CNN to discuss weightier matters. “It’s well cleaned, the garbage is disposed properly.”

A spokeswoman for the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings said she could not immediately share the evidence the mayor submitted with a reporter.

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