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When David N. Dinkins became the first Black mayor of New York City, he completed a coast-to-coast phenomenon that started with Los Angeles, Chicago and several large urban municipalities including Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta and Cleveland.
Dinkins was born on July 10, 1927, in Trenton, New Jersey. He moved to Harlem, New York, with his family but returned to Trenton to attend high school. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C. but his studies were interrupted by World War II. He served in the United States Marine Corps then returned to Howard where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics in 1950.
Dinkins married a classmate Joyce Burrows, returned to New York and entered Brooklyn Law School. He received his law degree in 1956 and joined a Harlem-based law firm, but “kept his eyes” on the city’s politics. Dinkins combined his law practice with “quiet” involvement in New York Democratic politics. At that time, the most prominent politician in the Black community, in and around New York City, was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who also was becoming well-known on the national stage. However, Dinkins aligned himself with a lesser known but upcoming and influential group that included Charles Rangel, Basil Paterson and Percy Sutton. (Later on, they became known as “the Gang of Four,” emerging as the city’s most powerful Black politicians). When Sutton sought to expand his business empire, Dinkins was one of the investors who helped him found Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, which eventually became the flagship of Sutton’s media empire.
In 1965, Dinkins was elected to the New York State Assembly where he served for one term, until 1967—the district he represented was redrawn thereby changing his constituent base and he chose not to run. Though his tenure was brief, he left a lasting impact by helping to create the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) program, which provided grants and educational assistance to students from low and moderate income families. Dinkins had always retained his law practice while he was an elected official and continued after leaving the assembly. He was now a partner in the law firm of Dyet, Alexander, Dinkins, Paterson, Michael & Jones—where he remained until 1975—and the district leader of the New York State Democratic Party.
Dinkins became the president of the New York City Board of Elections in 1972 and was appointed deputy mayor during Abraham Beame’s tenure but declined because of the bad publicity that surfaced about his unpaid taxes, which he subsequently paid. He was then appointed as the city clerk, a post with lesser responsibilities relative to that of being the deputy mayor. However, Dinkins bided his time once again “keeping his eyes on the bigger picture”—the mayor’s job.
Then in 1977, another opening appeared when Sutton resigned as Manhattan borough president and supported Dinkins as his replacement. Despite Sutton’s endorsement, Dinkins lost, the first of three tries for the borough presidency, before being elected in 1985. The post came with a staff of over 100 and a budget of approximately $5 million. His career seemed to be experiencing “peaks and valleys” between elected and appointed positions, and Dinkins began to understand the difference between the two.
From his vantage point, he needed to maintain his constituent base, despite changing demographics, because as borough president, a stepping-stone towards the mayor’s office, he would need differing systems of support to win each office. Dinkins’ personal demeanor was calm, deliberate and non-confrontational and he reportedly did little to ‘rock the boat’ or to ‘upset the proverbial applecart.’ After three years as borough president, he was eager to test the ‘mayoral waters.’ Dinkins’ candidacy pitted him against Edward Koch, the incumbent, an ‘in-your-face,’ high profiled, volatile, politician; and Rudolph Giuliani, a conservative, law-and-order, take-no-prisoner, Wall-Street crusader. There were two points of contention that arose during the election: his support for Rev. Jesse Jackson presidential bid drew some concern because of Jackson’s infamous “Hymietown” remark and the unpaid-taxes issue resurfaced. But he bested them both to become New York City’s first African-American mayor in 1989.
As mayor of the nation’s largest city, Dinkins leadership style was described as low key; he was skilled in building coalitions but New Yorkers wondered if he was tough enough to handle New York City politics. When he came to the office of the mayor, following the turbulent years of a rough-and-tumble incumbent, Dinkins was hailed as a voice of moderation; he brought a soothing strategy as a groundbreaker bound by tradition. He fared well in comparison to his predecessor as a person of deep convictions with a non-threatening personality.
Dinkins had to prove to the people that he was the right man to fix the city’s problems. The main ones being fiscal and racial—all other municipal tasks were subordinated under the main ones. The city had a budget deficit of $1.8 billion; there was a national recession; revenues were down and crime was up and New York, being the nation’s largest city, was also its largest target of criticism.
Though he inherited the problems of the previous administration, the people of New York were looking for help from the present mayor. They were in need of more services and the federal government was also cutting back on its aid to the cities. Dinkins began to shoulder the burden by avoiding deficit spending, pledging to heal the racial wounds that were prevalent among the city’s ethnic and religious groups. In 1991, a riot broke out in the Crown Heights district and he was accused of not being aggressive enough and restraining the police department in the performance of their duties. This created a perception that the mayor was soft on crime and was pandering to the extreme elements of the city. Even though the crime statistics showed otherwise, Dinkins was saddled with an indecisive label throughout the latter half of his mayoral term.
In addition, high oil prices which were attributed to the (first) Gulf War were sending the economy spiraling downward and out of control. Private sector jobs were vanishing at an accelerated pace and investments were at an all time low. Dinkins’ budgetary woes peaked in 1991 when the city was unable to pay its employees. That seemed to spur drastic changes in New York’s economic landscape. The following year, the Rodney King fiasco caused widespread civil unrest on the West Coast and Dinkins was credited with easing racial tensions in the “Big Apple” and saving the city from suffering the same fate as Los Angeles.
The Dinkins administration proposed massive cuts in city services, $1 billion in tax increases and laying off 27,000 employees. Nothing was spared; Dinkins cut education, homeless shelters and most of the city council’s “sacred cow” programs. Within a year, the city had a surplus of $200 million. The political cost however, far outweighed the results as the next election approached. Even though, the city coffers showcased a surplus, the voters did not share in the city’s economic optimism. In 1993, Dinkins lost to Giuliani in a bitter election.
After leaving office, Dinkins received a professorship at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Though he has never attempted a comeback to the mayor’s office or tried for any other elected, he has remained active in New York (city and state politics). In 2008 during the presidential primary, he served as a delegate for Senator Hillary Clinton, his U. S. senator.
Dinkins is still married to the former Joyce Burrows. They have two children. He can also be heard on the “Dialogue with Dinkins” radio program on WLIB radio in New York City on Saturday mornings.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.