The Dinkins’ Autobiography: Filling in a Missing Chapter


Ross Sandler

Ross Sandler

Join us at the September 27th CityLaw Breakfast, featuring the Hon. David N. Dinkins, former New York City Mayor. This event is sponsored by the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School.  Click here to RSVP.

David N. Dinkins, New York City’s 106th mayor, now 86 years old, tells his story in his newly published autobiography, A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic (Public Affairs 2013).

Dinkins is justifiably proud of becoming the first African American mayor of New York City, and summarizes his policies as “attacking the problems, not the victims.” He suggests that the public misunderstood his “measured manner and precise diction” as a lack of mayoral fortitude. He says that his administration failed to receive sufficient public credit for the Safe Streets, Safe City crime reduction program, a program which many believe was the foundation for New York City’s stunning decline in crime. He attributes his 1993 reelection loss to Rudolph W. Giuliani to “racism, plain and simple.” Of the falloff of his African American support, he writes that the black community had expectations of him that were “elevated almost to the mythical,” and which could not be met because of economics and the requirement that he be mayor of all New York.

Hon. David N. Dinkins- A Mayor's Life

A Mayor’s Life by David N. Dinkins

Dinkins’ book provides a missing chapter in the narrative of New York City mayoral politics. The narrative begins with New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis and the November 1977 election of Edward I. Koch. Koch’s election marked a resurgence of more conservative values and a halt to the Lindsay-era’s full-throated support for a liberal expansion of New York City’s human services programs. Dinkins’ subsequent defeat of Koch in 1989 represented a partial return to those liberal values. In turn, Giuliani’s 1993 defeat of Dinkins solidified Koch’s approach to managing municipal government, an approach which remained dominant through both the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations.

David N. Dinkins was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1927. His father was a barber who had entrepreneurial skills that helped keep the family more or less secure during the depression. His father and mother separated when Dinkins was around six. Dinkins lived with his mother and grandmother in Harlem for a short time, but returned to Trenton to live with his father when he was in grammar school. The school he attended was then an all-African American school with black students, black teachers and a black principal. He went on to Trenton Central High School where there were no black teachers. His father eventually remarried. Dinkins’ stepmother taught in the Trenton schools, eventually teaching English and drama at Trenton Central High School long after Dinkins graduated.

In 1944, when Dinkins was seventeen, he sought to enlist in the Marine Corps. The Marines had only been de-segregated two years before, and recruiters consistently found racially motivated reasons to reject him. Dinkins persisted and in July 1945, on his 18th birthday, he succeeded in enlisting in the Marines. He was assigned to an all-black training platoon in North Carolina and recalls, without rancor, acts of discrimination he experienced while training in the South. Of Jim Crow and physical acts of discrimination Dinkins says “I was not intimidated by white folks, and I wasn’t angry at white folks.”  In his book he appears more comfortable expressing anger when discussing acts of discrimination that occurred to others. For example, he tells a story that he had heard about a group of black Tuskegee Airmen on a train who were forced to give up their seats to white German prisoners. He says “I found this to be un-American in the extreme, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

Service in the Marine Corps provided Dinkins with the G.I. Bill, which allowed him to attend Howard University where he encountered a charismatic teacher who was “intensely serious about the English language, its grammar and usage.”  Dinkins says he responded to her every word and traces his precise English and traditional speech patterns to her influence, which, he says, reinforced his own sense of manners and speech. For Dinkins, the use of correct English was a core value. He writes that “Howard students all knew that to succeed in a white world one would be required to present and comport oneself in accordance with white community standards. African American culture, then and now, has its own unique and expressive outlook and lexicon that stand outside the white mainstream. My generation had integrationist, not separatist, aspirations. Speaking unimpeachable English, I felt, offered not only the rewards of intellectual propriety but the added benefit of easier entrance into the halls of wealth, power, and respect. These were the goals of a college education, and I pursued them.”

Dinkins met his future wife Joyce Barrows at Howard University. He eventually moved to Harlem, earned a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, and became involved with Harlem’s political life through his father-in-law, David L. Barrows who had served in the New York State Legislature. Through his law practice and activities in the local political club house, Dinkins came to the attention of Harlem’s political leader J. Raymond Jones. Dinkins also befriended other Harlem lawyers who were active in politics and who later emerged as important participants in New York politics. These lawyers included Fritz Alexander, Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson and Charlie Rangel.

Dinkins became a leader in the Harlem community and was elected to the State Assembly in 1966. As a member he helped form the Council for Black Elected Democrats. He was a delegate to the 1966 New York State constitutional convention, and in 1968 worked for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential race in California. In 1972 he was appointed to the New York City Board of Elections. Dinkins was prominent and active in many civic organizations including the Harlem Lawyers Association, the Urban League, the NAACP, 100 Black Men and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He attended the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana in 1972 where he served as one of the vice chairs of the convention.

Dinkins’ prominence brought him to citywide attention. Abe Beame, elected mayor in 1973, asked Dinkins to join his new administration as the deputy mayor for planning. This was high recognition for Dinkins and the political importance of Harlem. The deputy mayor title had never before been held by an African American. Dinkins, however, lost the appointment when the Beame Administration discovered that Dinkins had gotten extensions for, but not paid, his taxes for three years.  The extensions were legal, but the failure to pay was sufficient to cause the Beame Administration to backtrack. Dinkins explained that the extensions were “rolled over,” and that he was “comfortable in the knowledge that we had informed the government of our good intentions: we would pay our taxes in the fullness of time.” Dinkins corrected the error and paid the back taxes with interest, but it was too late for Abe Beame. At a closed meeting Beame’s senior deputy mayor took the offer off the table. Dinkins opted to announce his own withdrawal.

Dinkins describes these events in a chapter entitled “From Sugar to Shit in a New York Minute,” a phrase he repeats several times in the book. This is one of the only times that Dinkins lapses into either slang or vulgarity. Dinkins’ three years of extensions on filing his tax returns involved no illegality, a fact that Dinkins cites and uses to help explain why he does not forgive Beame and others who did not back him.  Many of Dinkins’ friends did rally in support of him, however. In 1974 City Council president Paul O’Dwyer and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, among others, enabled Dinkins to be elected to the city clerk position. Dinkins held the city clerk’s position for ten years. During those years Dinkins ran for Manhattan Borough President three times, finally winning in 1985. In 1989, after one term as Manhattan Borough President, Dinkins ran in the Democratic mayoral primary. He defeated Ed Koch who was seeking a fourth term and went on to defeat Republican Rudolph Giuliani by two percentage points in the 1989 general election.

Dinkins’ mayoralty was saddled with difficult budget shortfalls that stifled much of the progressive programs that he and his staff had hoped to create or expand. One cannot overemphasize the difficulty of managing New York City during a budget crunch. Dinkins describes many of his successes at saving programs or managing not to reduce services, which were real triumphs of management, but deadening to the kinds of innovation and expansion that he had sought to introduce. Some activists whom he brought into City government ended up frustrated by their inability to deliver on their ideas. Even Dinkins’ major effort in getting Albany to pass his Safe Streets, Safe City crime program was frustrated by the budget. Dinkins opted to delay the first class of new police officers because of the budget with the result that the new recruits did not graduate from the Police Academy until Dinkins was out of office. Mayor Giuliani, not Dinkins, welcomed the new officers to the NYPD.

Dinkins wanted his administration to reintroduce a sense of community to municipal government. Community “had been missing for years,” he writes, a sentiment shared by many in the City who felt that the Koch Administration had not done all that it should for the various communities, especially on human services. The Koch Administration, of course, was not against providing human services, but stood for living within realistic revenue projections. Mayor John V. Lindsay during the 1960s had advocated that the federal government use its resources to pay for the human services that the City was, at the time, aggressively expanding. Koch, by the time of his election, however, understood that the federal government was not going to pay the full cost of the City’s human services programs, or for the other social programs the federal government had mandated that the City undertake such as Medicaid. Over-promising programs had been a substantial factor in causing the City to experience near bankruptcy in 1975. During his three terms, Koch often had to say “No,” or reject community requests concerning some of the most volatile community issues such as fire houses, homeless shelters, hospital services, libraries, and schools.

In 1989 Dinkins offered the voters a more calming and responsive alternative. Dinkins saw everyone in the city as connected, and believed that he was someone who could bridge large divides. On a personal level, Dinkins easily bridged these divides, but many public divides proved unyielding to personal diplomacy and empathy. A case in point was the 1991 Crown Heights riots that followed the death of a young black child, Gavin Cato, who was hit and killed by a vehicle driven by a member of the Lubavitcher community. The reader may be surprised to see how involved Dinkins was in seeking to calm the situation. He spent time at the hospital bedside of the rabbinical student Yankel Rosenbaum who had been stabbed during the riots. He met with Reverend Al Sharpton whom the Cato family had called in as a representative shortly after young Gavin Cato had been killed in the auto accident that precipitated the events. As the street riots continued, Dinkins attended a meeting of angry community members in a public school auditorium to hear their complaints. He visited the grieving Cato family at their home, and met with the angry leaders of the Lubavitchers in their headquarters on Eastern Parkway. Despite these efforts, the events on the street remained out of control. Dinkins’ conciliatory presence and his orders to the police to restore calm were insufficient to bring the communities together.

Despite budget limitations, the Dinkins Administration notched many achievements. Dinkins set a standard of integrity, decorum and empathy for all the people who make up the mosaic of New York City which he famously described as “gorgeous.” The Dinkins Administration launched Safe Streets, Safe Cities, began community policing, negotiated fair labor settlements with the municipal unions, and signed the cornerstone agreement with Disney that led to a revitalized Times Square. Dinkins ended the pernicious system of housing homeless families in the Martinique Hotel in Madison Square and the Hotel Carter in Times Square. He built Beacon Schools with special community and afterschool programs, kept the U.S. Open in Queens, and helped launch Fashion Week and Restaurant Week.

Dinkins cites several reasons for his statement that race was the determining factor in his 1993 reelection defeat. He points to the issuance of a state report on Crown Heights commissioned by Governor Mario Cuomo which was critical of how the Dinkins Administration handled Crown Heights. Dinkins also states that Giuliani’s campaign emphasis on street crime carried “race as a subtext,” and that the Staten Island secession referendum which Governor Cuomo allowed to occur had racial overtones. But other factors that support conservative municipal politics were at work as well. These factors were still at work eight years later when Republican Michael R. Bloomberg defeated another Democrat, Mark Green, who campaigned on many of the progressive ideas that Dinkins had championed. Michael Bloomberg in his two subsequent victories over liberal opponents continued to adhere to the essence of Koch’s policies concerning municipal government and economic growth.

The year 2013 is yet another mayoral election year. The campaigns have brought out issues similar to those over which Dinkins, Koch and Giuliani fought: the conflict between the obligation of community and its human needs on the one hand, and the realities of what a municipal government can realistically accomplish within its limited economic and political resources, on the other. The candidates of 2013 and the voters would do well to spend a few hours reading David Dinkins’ book, A Mayor’s Life. They might also pick up Ed Koch’s 1984 autobiography Mayor. The two books present nearly polar opposite views of municipal government. Together they help explain much of New York City politics even as they are debated twenty years later.



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