By Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette
On the night of November 7, 1989, then-Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins made history. With election night returns coming in, it became clear that Dinkins had narrowly defeated then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani and would become the first black mayor of New York City. It was the culmination of an arduous election cycle for Dinkins, having beaten incumbent Mayor Ed Koch in the Democratic primary two months earlier.
Now, with the 30th anniversary of that momentous election, the Max & Murphy podcast decided to look back on Dinkins’ victory, tenure, and defeat by Giuliani in 1993. Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max and City Limits’ Jarrett Murphy spoke with Dinkins, now 92 years old, in his office at Columbia University to hear his thoughts on his career and life.
The show also featured legendary journalist Tom Robbins, who covered Dinkins’ elections and one term as mayor from his perches at the Village Voice and New York Daily News, with his reflections on Dinkins’ rise and fall, and how he should be remembered.
David Dinkins on His Mayoralty and Legacy
As with nearly any politician, David Dinkins is best remembered for the highest office he held: that of New York City mayor, from 1990 through 1993. But to hear Dinkins tell it, he never had his sights set on Gracie Mansion. Instead, becoming Manhattan Borough President, a seat he first won in 1985, was all he ever really wanted.
“From my perspective,” Dinkins said, “I had achieved what I wanted. I’m borough president of Manhattan, this is as good as it gets. I never ever said, gee, I want to be mayor of New York City. That didn’t cross my mind.”
Borough President was an office that Dinkins had worked hard to reach, only succeeding on his third attempt. He quipped, “People used to say to me, ‘What do you do?’ I said, ‘I run for borough president.’” But, although he liked his then-powerful job (the role of borough president has since been weakened significantly through changes to the city charter), he conceded that “We needed somebody to defeat the mayor, Ed Koch.”
At the time, Koch was serving his third term, which was beset with a slew of corruption scandals across several city agencies and ensnaring several allies of the mayor, though he himself was never accused of criminal wrongdoing. He had also become increasingly unpopular among black New Yorkers, paving the way for Dinkins’ victory.
“After having worked so hard to become borough president,” he continued, “to run for mayor was not automatic in my mind. In a sense I was drafted. My supporters insisted that I run, I said OK, and as luck would have it we prevailed.”
Once he took office as mayor, Dinkins faced an immediate set of challenges, most prominently high crime rates, but also growing homelessness, budget deficits, and more. “You didn’t need to be a genius to see that this [crime] was an area that you had to attack,” Dinkins said. “And we did. Largely, by going to Albany and persuading the Legislature that they should give us the resources…To get the money, we had to go to Albany, hat-in-hand.”
Dinkins oversaw new programs such as “Safe Streets, Safe City,” which added thousands of new cops to the police force. He also created the current all-civilian structure of the Civilian Complaint Review Board – a quasi-independent city agency that monitors and investigates complaints of police officer misconduct – and significantly strengthened its powers to combat abuses of power by the police. Though his tenure saw New York City’s highest-ever murder rate in 1990, it fell every successive year of his term, and overall major crime dropped throughout Dinkins’ final three years.
“We had to do what we did, that was what was required, irrespective of what my own political fate was gonna be down the line,” Dinkins insisted. “I mean, the city needed it. We needed more police officers…People were dying. It was tough.”
When asked about his top priorities while in office, Dinkins centered children and families. “I’m a nut for kids,” he said. “Little ones, middle-sized ones, big ones, I’m very fond of children and young people. So that was very important to me that we be as responsive as was possible to the needs of young people.”
“Sometimes people ask me what I want to be remembered for,” he said later. “And I always say, I want to be remembered as somebody who cared about people, especially children.”
Dinkins’ tenure had its fair share of difficulties, perhaps most infamously the Crown Heights riots of 1991, but he credits his team with getting him and the city through those years.
“We had the deficits to face and all, but we left in far better shape than when we started. But the key is the people,” he reminisced. “It really is. And I don’t say this out of modesty or something, it really honest to God is the people. If you’ve got good folks, you can do almost anything. And we had good people. Women and men, young and old, and they were terrific. And we believed in each other. They had faith in me, and I had faith in them.”
In his office, Dinkins was surrounded by pictures and memories of those people he credits with lifting him up. Photos of strategist Bill Lynch, whom he and many others most credit for his 1989 victory; singer Harry Belafonte; Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton; Judge Fritz Alexander; labor leader Victor Gotbaum; tennis star Arthur Ashe; South African President Nelson Mandela, whom Dinkins famously hosted in New York City in 1990; and President Barack Obama all lined Dinkins’ walls.
Asked if he had any regrets, Dinkins simply said, “No.”
It’s now been more than 25 years since Dinkins last ran for office, but he continues to be active in the world of New York politics, lending his endorsement to Governor Andrew Cuomo and other New York political figures as recently as 2018. His legacy will also live on in the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street, renamed for him in 2015 by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who worked for Dinkins at City Hall, and home to the offices of the Manhattan Borough President, the Public Advocate, the city Comptroller, and many others.
“Gosh, I’d have been happy with a lamppost!” he gushed. “But this is terrific, so I’m very pleased about that.”
For his successor in the mayor’s office, Dinkins did not mince words. “I was never very fond of him [Giuliani] anyway,” he said. “So from time to time, these days, things happen, and people complain about him, and I say, ‘See, I told you!’”
But Dinkins is far more pleased with de Blasio, who began his political career as a Dinkins campaign volunteer and later served as a staffer in his administration. “I have great pride in what he’s able to do,” Dinkins said when asked about de Blasio and whether he sees de Blasio’s mayoralty as something of an extension of his, “but I don’t say it’s because of our administration or anything like that.”
In 2013, de Blasio was the first person elected mayor of New York City as a Democrat since Dinkins.
Dinkins also had weighed in on the potential field of candidates for the approaching 2021 mayoral election, though he didn’t go into specifics. “I just hope that we have somebody who really cares about the same kinds of things that I care about,” he said. “I don’t know who the candidates are gonna be, but whoever it is, I hope they recognize what a magnificent city this is.”
Tom Robbins on Dinkins
Robbins, a veteran New York political reporter who frequently covered Dinkins, offered his perspective on Dinkins’ 1989 win, years as mayor, and 1993 loss. For Robbins, Dinkins was a mayor who did many of the right things, but didn’t have the political instincts necessary for greater success in the job.
“I think [Bill Lynch] recognized in Dinkins somebody whose essential decency and non-threatening demeanor could play well into the time,” Robbins said. “In retrospect, what could have been, there were other people from that ilk that Dinkins represented who probably would have been much better at the job of mayor,” he said, pointing to Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, former state Senator Basil Paterson (father of former Governor David Paterson and once a deputy mayor under Koch), and longtime U.S. Representative Charlie Rangel as three examples, all of whom were Dinkins allies.
“I think any one of those guys had a bigger understanding of politics,” he said. “They understood what it meant, and how to hold the reins of power. And Dinkins had trouble with that. We saw that almost as soon as he came into office.”
Before Dinkins could be elected, however, he first had to defeat the incumbent, Ed Koch. The previously unbeatable Koch was mired in a wide-ranging corruption scandal in his third term.
“Koch was just reeling,” as Robbins characterized it. “I mean, you could see him during the press conferences. He just was staggered by some of the things that were coming to light, that he clearly had had no idea about.”
“That segment of white voters were disenchanted because of the corruption issue,” he continued, “and there was widespread antipathy against him because of the racial unrest that he had seemed to have a tin ear to. So yeah, he was vulnerable, and David Dinkins decided he was gonna run against him.”
After Dinkins got past Koch in the primary and Giuliani in the general election, “he knew that he was gonna have to scramble, and that there were gonna be layoffs, and that he was gonna have difficulty doing new contracts with the unions,” Robbins said. “This guy had, I think, a lot of strikes against him that made it much harder, and he needed a political understanding of that.”
In spite of these criticisms, however, Robbins had praise for several aspects of Dinkins’ administration.
“Some of the people that he brought into city government in that first wave were some of the best civil servants that I think we’ve ever seen in this city,” Robbins said, echoing Dinkins’ effusive praise for his team.
Robbins also brought up Dinkins’ changes to the CCRB, his Safe Streets, Safe City program, and his targeting of squeegee men as examples of his successes. As Robbins noted, many of the gains the city made and since credited to Rudy Giuliani actually began under Dinkins. “He never really got credit for that,” Robbins argued about the reductions in crime and disorder. “A more savvy political operative, I think, would have figured out how to use that to your advantage.”
Robbins wrote many stories for the New York Daily News on Dinkins, including one he brought up during the interview on Max & Murphy: a lengthy piece on Dinkins’ daily schedule that was often cited as evidence that Dinkins was not the most attentive, hard-working mayor he could be.
“Dinkins was never as comfortable with the press,” Robbins said. “He never really was able to establish himself in a good relationship. There were lots of things to pick at. And I did some of the picking.”
“They had a perspective from the [Daily News editorial] desk, which was, this guy’s really not doing any heavy lifting here,” Robbins recalled. “Dinkins, for his sanity, needed to play tennis in the morning, so that’s what he did. And he did it in time to get to work at 9, the same time most people get to work. But so the story also showed that, about 5 o’clock everyday, he would put on the tux [for evening events]. And we would take these famous photographs that were unmistakable.”
Robbins said that this coverage led to a broader perception that Dinkins was too soft. “You want someone who’s gonna be a tiger, right? You want a mayor who’s so into the job that he can really be a [former Mayor Fiorello] La Guardia, rushing around to fires, that’s what New Yorkers want. And he wasn’t that.”
However, looking back on the administrations that came before and after Dinkins, Robbins was resolute: “David Dinkins remains my favorite mayor.”
“I think that’s shown through his policies,” he elaborated, “his attitude on the homeless, his attitude about creating low-income housing back then. Look, he didn’t just hire new cops. He decided he was going to keep high schools open every night so that kids could have someplace to go. He created Beacon Schools, which still exist. He created the Civilian Complaint Review Board…He created almost two dozen health clinics as a way to channel people away from the ERs in hospitals, another way to deal with practical medicine needs. I thought it was a great chapter in the city.”
“It was only four years and mistakes were made,” Robbins said, “but I think that during that time New York began to be the kind of city it could be.”