Hillary's Crown Heights Problem

If Rudy Giuliani plays the race card, he most likely will try to attack Former Mayor David Dinkins's legacy in one of the city's ethnic hotbeds

As Hillary Rodham Clinton inches closer to running for the U.S. Senate, she may have inflamed— or defused, depending on your political perspective— a potentially explosive confrontation over the issue of former mayor David Dinkins's role in her campaign.

One thing is certain, the Voice has learned: The First Lady personally has assured the man who supported her throughout Whitewater and the presidential sex scandals that she will not shun him.

The timing of their rekindled alliance, however, may prompt charges from some Jewish backers of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Mrs. Clinton's potential Republican rival, that it was politically motivated— coming just days before the eighth anniversary of the slaying of Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights. These Giuliani operatives continue to blame Dinkins for prolonging the 1991 racial upheaval in a neighborhood where two of the city's most influential voting blocs— African Americans and Orthodox Jews— remain poised in a hair-trigger standoff to this day.

Holding the Race Card: Jewish Demonstrators in Crown Heights
photo: Meg Handler
Holding the Race Card: Jewish Demonstrators in Crown Heights

The fear among some of Mrs. Clinton's supporters is that Giuliani, who has aided and abetted the dispute by shelling out more than $1 million to Jews who claimed in a lawsuit they were not protected during the riots, ultimately will use this race card to incite outrage against Dinkins and the candidate.

On Sunday, a week after Dinkins told Newsday no one from Mrs. Clinton's camp had contacted him since winter— a disclosure spurred by accusations from

Reverend Al Sharpton in the August 10 Voice that she was taking the black vote for granted— Dinkins confirmed that he had met with key campaign advisers last Friday and that negotiations with them led to a phone call from Mrs. Clinton the next day.

Dinkins and Mrs. Clinton spoke for about 20 minutes. "I am very pleased with the conversation we had, and I expect that whoever is going to to be running the campaign will be seeking closer ties with me," Dinkins says cautiously. Mrs. Clinton, he adds, "recognizes that I can be helpful to the campaign." Dinkins leaves no doubt, however, that it is important to him that Mrs. Clinton and her advisers continue to view him as an asset and not the political untouchable some in the Jewish community make him out to be.

"The people who seek public office have consistently sought my endorsement and support," Dinkins points out. "When I am introduced before audiences or my presence is acknowledged, the reaction is always very positive— and I don't mean just black audiences."

Al Sharpton, who was not told about the meeting with Mrs. Clinton's advisers and the phone call, rallied to Dinkins' defense. "He is the most moderate, most balanced of the black leaders on Jewish issues," says Sharpton. "If they can demonize him, make a pariah out of him, they have absolutely eliminated blacks from the political process in this state. We can't stand by and allow this to happen."

The apparent thaw in the icy relations between the First Lady and the city's first black mayor comes on the heels of Sharpton's warning that Mrs. Clinton would lose the Senate race if she failed to align herself with powerful leaders like him and Dinkins, who can influence a massive black voter turnout.

"I would imagine that in time she would be meeting with all kinds of people, including Sharpton," says Dinkins, who declines to say whether he had raised the civil rights leader's concerns with Mrs. Clinton. "I can't see why she wouldn't [meet with Sharpton]," Dinkins elaborates. "She certainly has reached out to me."

Dinkins remains tight-lipped as to whether he and Mrs. Clinton talked about a backlash from Giuliani's more militant Jewish supporters as a result of her embracing him. It is the decency in the Democratic statesman, not naïveté, that won't allow him to think of Giuliani as a political cutthroat. "I don't think the mayor wants to try to attempt to make a racial issue of this; I certainly hope not," says Dinkins of his successor, who apologized to the Hasidic community, saying it was Dinkins's fault the city had to pay the $1.1 million. (A federal judge dropped Dinkins and Police Commissioner Lee Brown as defendants in the lawsuit, saying they "acted reasonably" in "chaotic conditions.") "It really isn't good for the city," Dinkins argues. "It's not good for him."

But can Dinkins envision Giuliani standing on the steps of City Hall, with the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum and a cadre of Jewish leaders, discrediting his stewardship in Crown Heights? "I can't say he won't do that," replies Dinkins, who had pleaded with Sharpton in the toilet of a funeral parlor to help put an end to rioting that erupted after seven-year-old Gavin Cato was accidentally struck and killed by a car in a motorcade carrying the leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect.

Giuliani, he emphasizes, would be ill-advised to make Crown Heights a campaign issue. "The world knows by now," Dinkins asserts. "I don't care how many times they try to spin it with respect to the Jewish community. Not everybody in the Jewish community buys that. Gavin Cato died. I don't think [Giuliani] wants to do that."

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