David N. Dinkins became the 106th mayor of New York on Jan. 1, 1990, pledging to be the “toughest mayor on crime this city has ever seen.” On that day, 12 people were murdered in the city. Four years later, Mr. Dinkins lost his bid for re-election, beginning a contested legacy that can still generate an argument.
“David Dinkins failed as mayor,” begins a 2012 biography of Mr. Dinkins.
“David Dinkins is a leader we can look to,” Hillary Clinton said in 2015, adding that Mr. Dinkins “helped lay the foundation for dramatic drops in crime.”
So goes the complicated late career of David Dinkins, who won office by the slightest of margins over Rudolph W. Giuliani, and lost it again to the same man four years later. To critics, he symbolizes the bad old days of unchecked crime, racial tension and fiscal anarchy. To supporters, he began a turnaround for which his successors still take credit. When New Yorkers voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Mayor Bill de Blasio this week, it was in part a vote for the values they once rejected.
What does it mean to succeed or fail as mayor of New York City? And how does a former mayor live amid this judgment?
On a recent afternoon in his office at Columbia University, Mr. Dinkins sat surrounded by plaques and photographs celebrating highlights from his career, a world apart from the arrows that once filled his days. At 90, the only African-American mayor in the city’s history, he has been a former mayor for one quarter of his life, three times as long as he held elective office. Across from his desk was a New York Newsday headline celebrating him as “Mayor Cool.”
“I sit here sometimes and I look and I reminisce,” Mr. Dinkins said, nodding toward a photograph of him with Harry Belafonte, a friend. Both men turned 90 this year. “He was the M.C. of my inauguration,” Mr. Dinkins said. “He was one of those who said to me: ‘You have to run. You must run.’ He insisted I run for mayor.”
Mr. Dinkins wore a red patterned bow tie and a blue double-breasted suit, filled out since he stopped playing tennis a few years ago. As he talked, his daughter called to ask whether he had seen a doctor about a nagging pain in his knee, and an alarm on his cellphone, programmed by his grandson, reminded him to take his several medications. These would have to wait; he left them at home.
He noted his unique place in New York lore. All mayors face criticism for problems that linger after they leave office; Mr. Dinkins’s critics focus on problems that quickly abated.
“The New York Times probably has an obit there for me now,” he said, raising a grievance he has aired before. He spoke with a courtly formality, quick with a set piece or a score to settle. “I always used to say, they’ll say, ‘David Dinkins, first black mayor of the City of New York,’ and the next sentence will be about Crown Heights,” the Brooklyn neighborhood where a four-day riot broke out on his watch, for which he was widely criticized.
Would that be unfair?
“In a way,” he said. “I don’t say it’s unfair, but there are things that are more accurate or of greater moment. I think we did overall a pretty good job. When things went well, we didn’t always get the credit to which we were entitled, but if things do not go well, you’re the mayor, it’s your fault. Still the greatest job in the world.”
In 2013, when Bill de Blasio was running to be the first Democratic mayor since Mr. Dinkins — a two-decade drought in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by six to one — the state Republican chairman, Edward F. Cox, warned that Mr. de Blasio “is going to take the city back to the Dinkins era,” adding, “The Dinkins era of crime and grime and high welfare rolls, that’s what’s going to happen to the city.”
David Dinkins was not always a code word for the bad old days. The son of a housekeeper and a barber, raised in segregated schools in Trenton, N.J., he entered New York politics through the powerful Harlem Democratic clubhouse, where he formed alliances with Charles Rangel, Basil A. Paterson and Percy E. Sutton — the “gang of four” of the city’s African-American power structure. When he ran for mayor in 1989, it was as a figure of civility and healing.
At the time, the first African-American mayors were in office in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland and Baltimore; black mayors governed in Atlanta, Newark and Washington, D.C., as well. The Rev. Jesse Jackson carried New York City in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary. New York seemed due.
The city, in turn, needed healing. Recent racially charged attacks of a white jogger in Central Park and of a black teenager fleeing a white mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and a skyrocketing murder rate exacerbated by the crack trade, created an image of a city out of control, ungovernable. Wall Street was still reeling from the Black Monday crash of 1987, and the city government faced budget shortfalls of more than $1 billion.
Mr. Dinkins arrived in office on a wave of hope, said Wilbur C. Rich, a professor emeritus at Wellesley College and author of “David Dinkins and New York City Politics.”
“I was excited, and many other black people were excited to see what he’d do,” Mr. Rich said. “There was some triumphalism. But there’s just so far you can go with that. After a while that wears off, and he’s just the mayor. A lot of us thought that he would do something about the police department. He didn’t do that. A lot of us thought that he would demonstrate to the white community that black people were competent to manage a city of that size.”
Mr. Dinkins’s first year saw record numbers of murders and other major crimes, a fiscal crisis, high levels of homelessness and a city hall that seemed in disarray, with staffers battling with one another and then leaking to the press.
But by his second year, crime began a long decline that few imagined possible. Mr. Dinkins added more cops on the streets — wangling a tax increase to do so — and more cadets in the police academy, who went on duty only after he left office. He averted a fiscal takeover by the state, began the remarkable transformation of Times Square, returned the public libraries to six-day weeks, opened schools at night for community use and expanded the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, in what the city’s 108th mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, called “the only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York but in the country.”
“Overall I think we did not bad,” Mr. Dinkins said.
Yet mayors succeed or fail not just in the halls of government but also in the public imagination, said Kenneth T. Jackson, editor of “The Encyclopedia of New York City” and a history professor at Columbia.
“I think Dinkins’s heart was in the right place, but he didn’t create the image of someone who’s strong,” Mr. Jackson said. “Koch and Giuliani, who book-ended Dinkins, both seemed more powerful, more take-charge. Whether they were wrong or right as a policy for New York is a different issue.”
Nor did Mr. Dinkins, who promised to be a healer, mollify black leaders or other potential allies. The civil rights activist C. Vernon Mason called Mr. Dinkins a “traitor,” and Alton Maddox called him “an Ed Koch in blackface”; Fernando Ferrer, then a Democratic city councilman, called him “maddeningly slow”; Al Sharpton called him an Uncle Tom and a “whore turning tricks in City Hall.” Jewish leaders accused him of allowing black mobs to attack Jews in Crown Heights. Even this newspaper’s endorsement of Mr. Dinkins for a second term called him “disengaged,” undisciplined, “slow to react” and “maddeningly phlegmatic.”
Numbers are not stories, though they sometimes get turned into them. In one story, homicides fell by 13 percent during Mr. Dinkins’s tenure, from a record high of 2,245 in his first year to 1,946 his last. In another, 1,946 killings is the mark of a city still in crisis. (Last year there were 335.)
Successful mayors are those who inhabit the first story; failed mayors live in the other one.
“The key thing about the Dinkins years was a sense of fear,” said Fred Siegel, a scholar in residence at St. Francis College and contributing editor at the conservative City Journal, and a former adviser to Mr. Giuliani. “Crime fell, but it fell marginally. People were panicked. His response to crime was ineffectual.”
Asked about Mr. Dinkins’s impact on the city, Mr. Siegel said: “He made it possible for a moderately conservative mayor to be elected in New York. Who turned out to be the most competent mayor we’ve had since La Guardia.”
At the heart of David Dinkins’s story as mayor are four days in August 1991, after a car in a rabbi’s motorcade in Crown Heights ran a red light and killed a 7-year-old Guyanese boy named Gavin Cato.
The neighborhood exploded. Angry black residents assailed the driver, who escaped via a volunteer Jewish ambulance crew. Two hours later, a crowd surrounded and stabbed a rabbinical student named Yankel Rosenbaum, who died of a wound not noticed at the hospital.
Three days of mayhem followed, with bands of black residents taking over the streets, some chanting “Heil Hitler” or “Kill the Jews,” and Jewish residents accusing the black mayor of permitting a “pogrom,” or organized massacre of an ethnic group. Crowds hurled bricks and bottles at police patrols, forcing them to run for their lives; the mayor and police commissioner also came under attack. Network news reports showed buildings and police cars on fire, and a mayor who appeared powerless — some said unwilling — to restore order.
Finally, the mayor and police department changed tactics, from negotiating to arresting the combatants. The fires and crowds dissipated. The news cameras went home. But the damage was done.
In his office a quarter-century later, Mr. Dinkins dismissed a question about whether, had he changed tactics one night sooner, he might have won re-election.
“You don’t know that until after the fact,” he said. “I said to the police brass, Whatever you guys are doing, it ain’t working. You need to get it together. But whether some police thought that I wanted them to be lenient on blacks attacking Jews — I can’t imagine how they would have thought that — but that was not the case. I got accused of that, and that’s painful.”
Had he won, in turn, his place in history might have been different, said John H. Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The police cadets he had authorized would have hit the streets on his watch; crime might have really dropped, as it did under Mr. Giuliani, aided by the end of the crack epidemic; and the Walt Disney Company’s restoration of the New Amsterdam Theater in 1997, which began the transformation of 42nd Street (the deal was started by Mr. Dinkins and closed by Mr. Giuliani), would have lifted his mayoralty.
Mr. Dinkins declined to speculate. “The action that one takes in a circumstance like that ought not be based on what will get me votes or lose me votes,” he said. “It ought to be based on what is the right thing to do. Everybody’s a whole lot smarter after the fact.”
New Yorkers do not always love their mayors. Mr. de Blasio, in a July poll by Quinnipiac University, had an approval rating of just 50 percent, with only 46 percent of respondents saying he deserved re-election. After three years in office, Mr. Bloomberg had an approval rating of just 43 percent.
Neither met any real resistance to re-election. Mr. Giuliani finished his first term with a 62 percent approval rating, but sunk badly in his second, before he rebounded with his dynamism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Mr. de Blasio, who was a junior staffer under Mr. Dinkins, said Mr. Dinkins’s problem was an image created for him by the tabloids, which were still loud and powerful in the early ’90s.
“Dinkins got a raw deal largely because of race,” Mr. de Blasio said in a telephone interview before his re-election. “And he got a raw deal because he was not a loud, showy personality and he wasn’t always trying to claim credit. But any normal assessment of history would say, wait a minute, he added cops, that’s why this turned around.”
“The thing I learned from that is an audacity of how to deal with what appeared to be an intractable problem,” Mr. de Blasio added. “The fact that we’re the safest big city in America today directly links to his actions with getting resources from Albany to get us the size of the police force we needed.
“None of his predecessors figured out how to do it. I’m not sure his successor, who took a lot of the credit for work done with resources Dinkins got — I’m not sure his successor could have pulled it off in Albany as a political reality.”
Yet if Mr. Dinkins failed, it was not among voters at the time. After winning the election in 1989 with just over 50 percent of the vote, he lost in 1993 with just below 50 percent, a difference often attributed to a surge in voter turnout in Staten Island, where voters had a ballot initiative to secede from the city. So he was almost as well regarded after four years as he was before taking office. In neither election did he win more than one third of white voters, even though most were Democratic and his opponent in both races, Mr. Giuliani, had no political experience and a lot of rough edges.
In Mr. Dinkins’s 2013 autobiography, he attributed his loss to “just racism, pure and simple.”
J. Phillip Thompson III, who worked in Mr. Dinkins’s administration and now teaches urban politics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that Mr. Dinkins’s true legacy is coming to fruition only now.
“A lot of the things that de Blasio has been successful around, such as his emphasis on affordable housing and universal pre-K, those were things that Dinkins pushed for very hard,” Mr. Thompson said. “Also, the way he went after the crime issue was a much deeper approach to community policing than Giuliani had, and over time those approaches have proved to be more effective. And you avoid the issues we got into with stop and frisk and police chokings. Dinkins worked hard to develop strong relationships between the police and the community.
“He doesn’t get credit for a lot of those things,” he added. “Giuliani took credit for reducing crime, but he isn’t the one who hired 5,000 cops with a $3 billion budget gap. The narrative tends to skip over that.”
In defeat, Mr. Dinkins became just the second New York mayor in the last century to lose re-election after a single four-year term. This, too, is a legacy he has had to live with. Before him, no black mayor of a major American city had failed to win a second term.
“I’m not sure how people think of me today,” Mr. Dinkins said dryly. “I think we should have won re-election. I can’t answer why we didn’t. For that matter, it could be argued that we never should have won in the first place, but we did. Then the people in their infinite wisdom determined on that great American mayor, Rudy Giuliani.”
He added, “We didn’t go into the job saying, well, we can’t solve the problems of crime, and we can’t solve the problems of homelessness. Everything you thought you could do. And overall I think we did not bad.”
His two successors, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg, were courted to run for president, largely for the differences between their cities and Mr. Dinkins’s. Mr. Giuliani promised at his inauguration, “The era of fear has had a long-enough reign,” and by the end of his first term, that reign was over and has not returned.
Even now, said Letitia James, who was re-elected as public advocate on Nov. 7, New Yorkers are too contentious to agree upon the Dinkins legacy. Ms. James, who studied under Mr. Dinkins at Columbia, became the first African-American woman to hold citywide office when she was elected to City Council in 2003. But she said that this distinction, like being the city’s first black mayor, was “nothing more than a historical footnote, particularly if you don’t reach across and form coalitions with others.”
Still, Mr. Thompson, the M.I.T. professor and former Dinkins staffer, said history would be kind to his old boss. In recent years, the city named a historic Harlem tennis court after him, as well as the Manhattan Municipal Building downtown and David Dinkins Circle in Flushing Meadows, near the tennis stadium.
“If you look at blacks, Latinos and progressive whites, in 80 percent of cities they’re the majority now,” Mr. Thompson said. “And Dinkins symbolized the beginning of that.
“Whether you agree with everything he said or did is kind of secondary. The point was, we did this. David Dinkins didn’t elect himself. We the African-American community, we the Latino community, we the progressive white community did this. And if we did it for Dinkins, we can do it again.
“The message is change. It’s possible. That’s what Dinkins symbolized.”