As Mayor Eric Adams battles low poll ratings, a federal investigation and potential challengers to his re-election in New York City, a Democratic ally has emerged as an unexpected adversary: Adrienne Adams, the City Council speaker.
Ms. Adams, who shares many of the mayor’s moderate stances, has become one of his most powerful and vocal critics, unifying the most diverse City Council ever and empowering it as a forceful wedge against him.
On Tuesday, Ms. Adams led the Council in overriding the mayor’s vetoes of a bill banning the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails and another bill requiring police officers to record the race, age and gender of most people they stop.
The actions were an unusual rebuke of a New York City mayor by his Democratic colleagues: It was only the second time in nearly a decade that the Council has overridden a mayor’s veto.
When she was chosen as Council speaker in 2022, Ms. Adams was seen as a compromise candidate, a moderate Democrat who could work with Mayor Adams without being beholden to him. But in recent months, she has begun to regularly play the role of political antagonist to the mayor.
She has questioned Mr. Adams’s management of the budget and criticized his approach to handling the influx of migrants as inhumane. She prompted the Council to pass the bills banning solitary confinement and improving police accountability, despite the mayor’s objections, and carried enough support to override his vetoes.
Ms. Adams, 63, said that she and the mayor, who is not related to her, speak regularly and were “quote, unquote friends.” But she said they differ “in the way that we think, the way that we govern and in the way that we move.”
And as her criticism of the mayor’s policies grows in frequency and ferocity, she has also become more adept at seeking attention.
Earlier last week, she staged a news conference outside a church in Midtown Manhattan that serves asylum seekers arriving from the southern border. She criticized the mayor’s decision to impose a 60-day limit on how long migrant families can stay in shelter and introduced families that she said would be hurt by his policy.
Less than 24 hours later, she gathered reporters to the famed City Hall rotunda to castigate the mayor’s veto of the police accountability bill. The mayor seemed peeved: His deputy chief of staff attempted to remove reporters’ chairs from Ms. Adams’s news conference, before eventually giving up.
“She is one of the only counterbalances to a mayor that does not listen to anyone outside of his inner circle,” said Kirsten John Foy, president of the activism group Arc of Justice. “He is a mayor that does not have the willingness to compromise with people who are equal stakeholders, and Adrienne Adams ain’t having it.”
Left-leaning leaders and advocates do not view Ms. Adams, the first Black woman to lead the Council, as a progressive, but said she has given them something they did not anticipate at City Hall: a seat at the table.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Adrienne is a champion or the face of the left,” said Anthonine Pierre, director of the Brooklyn Movement Center. “But you don’t have to be the left to support values and policies that are actually going to impact people’s lives.”
In recent months, Ms. Adams — who, in 2020, opposed defunding the police after the murder of George Floyd — has argued for de-emphasizing the use of law enforcement to address public safety.
“Our communities are only offered more policing and criminal justice approaches as stand-alone responses,” Ms. Adams said at a recent rally with faith leaders.
At another rally, Ms. Adams, the third woman to hold the Council speaker position, noted that she was “the first mother and grandmother” to serve as speaker. She said the goal in both criminal justice and caring for migrants should be to “minimize harm,” but said that the mayor’s stance on those issues “actively hurts people.”
Ms. Adams said she has not undergone any sort of transformation, suggesting that her bolder challenges to the mayor were more a gradual evolution.
“This is the same old girl that’s always been here,” Ms. Adams said at a recent news conference. “What you are seeing now compared to 2017, or two years ago when I was first elected by this amazing body to represent them as speaker, this is growth.”
The next major Council battle is the push to close Rikers Island, one of the most dangerous and troubled jails in the country, by the mandated deadline of 2027. The mayor, who counts the correction officers union among his strongest allies, has said he does not see a path to closing the jail.
Ms. Adams responded by creating a second version of the independent commission that originally called for closing Rikers to create a new pathway to shutting it.
Jumaane Williams, the public advocate who introduced the police accountability legislation with the City Council, said he had expected to be able to regularly partner with Mr. Adams, a former police captain who led a group called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care that often spoke out against police brutality.
Instead, Mr. Williams has found a more natural partner in Ms. Adams.
“We have to treat crises with humanity and make sure the budget reflects those things,” Mr. Williams said. “The speaker has kept to that. I’m not sure what happened to the mayor.”
Ms. Adams’s political rift with the mayor belies their shared background. They both grew up in South Jamaica in Queens, were classmates at Bayside High School and worked their way up through local politics. She endorsed his candidacy for mayor; he, however, did not immediately back her bid to become Council speaker, opting instead to support Francisco Moya.
When it became clear that Ms. Adams had the votes to become speaker, the mayor capitulated. “How am I going to dislike someone that shares my same last name?” Mr. Adams said at the time. “I love Adrienne.”
The mayor recently returned to that theme, insisting that their recent political differences had not affected their relationship.
“Adrienne Adams, I love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” the mayor said recently at his State of the City address, calling her his “sister.”
Several people familiar with her thinking say Ms. Adams feels disrespected by the administration. In a recent statement criticizing his veto of the solitary confinement bill, she asked him to acknowledge that they were “coequal” branches of government.
“By saying ‘we’re buddies’ and ‘it’s just the two of us as a team,’ that is an effort to decrease the power of her critique,” said Christina Greer, a Moynihan Public Scholars Fellow at the City University of New York. “In city government, Ms. Adams is as close to an equal that the mayor is going to get, someone who can and will challenge him.”
There have been dust-ups. After Mr. Adams announced his veto of the police bill, he questioned whether Council members understood how the legislation would affect policing and suggested they ride with officers during a shift.
Ms. Adams bristled. “Obviously, we’ve been around a while,” she said. “I’ve personally done them already.”
She has also not been afraid to flex her muscles on the City Council, though not without some blowback. Keith Powers, a councilman from Manhattan and one of Ms. Adams’s most loyal allies, was informed just an hour before the meeting after a new Council took office in early January that he would not be reappointed as majority leader.
Progressive leaders and groups have also accused Ms. Adams of retaliating against three Council members for voting against the city’s $107 billion budget in June by stripping them of their committee chairmanships, though others who voted against the budget kept their leadership positions or received new ones.
Chris Coffey, a Democratic political strategist, questioned whether the decision to move Mr. Powers would undermine the speaker at a moment when she needs to hold the City Council together.
“He went out and fought hard for every bill that was a priority for the speaker,” said Mr. Coffey. “There’s something politically perplexing to me from a loyalty standpoint that you just benched the most loyal guy you had.”
In spite of the criticism, Ms. Adams maintains strong Council support and seems undeterred when it comes to challenging the mayor.
“I think that we both realize the work that we have to do,” Ms. Adams said at a recent news conference. “He’s on one side of City Hall. I’m on another side of City Hall.”