Hillary’s Crown Heights Problem


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.

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.”

In the event Giuliani signals he intends to fight nasty, Dinkins will rely on the media to expose the mayor as a hypocrite who condones racism. In fairness, he argues, reporters might want to question Giuliani’s coddling of former deputy mayor John Dyson after Dyson authored a racist memo on welfare reform. In the 1994 memo to Peter Powers, another Giuliani senior aide, Dyson referred to a Daily News article that questioned whether Powers and Giuliani were capable of running a diverse city like New York. “Do not worry,” Dyson wrote. “Two white guys have been running this city of immigrants for over 200 years.”

There were no persistent front-page stories or editorials calling on Giuliani to fire, in columnist Bob Herbert’s words, the “arrogant and obnoxious” Dyson. That, Dinkins complains, smacks of a racist double standard. “The media reported it but . . . if they thought I had said something anti-Semitic or had a relationship with someone who they suspected of being anti-Semitic, they would have been all over me,” he charges. “He said some crap like that— in writing, mind you— and got away with it.”

Dyson, incredibly, also got away with a “watermelon” insult during a dispute over whether the city should retain a company owned by a black woman. “The City Comptroller ought to know the difference between a bid and a watermelon,” Dyson remarked.

“So you tell me about Rudy playing the race card,” Dinkins says. “I don’t think it’s in his interest to attempt to play it,” he reiterates, “because if you’re going to play the race card as far as Crown Heights goes, it’s not an appropriate issue.”

Raising Crown Heights raises the temper of Bill Lynch, a deputy mayor under Dinkins who is now one of Mrs. Clinton’s top advisers. In fact, Crown Heights evokes a poignant response from the veteran Democratic operative who underwent open heart surgery and a kidney transplant, which some friends contend were hastened by racist media criticism of his role in the handling of the tragic events.

While insisting “we did the right thing there,” Lynch snapped, “I don’t want to talk about it! . . . This is traumatic enough for my family and me. . . . I’m sitting here with a scar above my heart and a scar on my stomach with a kidney from my kid. Leave it the fuck alone! If you go back and look over the records, during that period I went temporarily blind.”

Even in the Age of Giuliani, it is not as easy for people like Victor A. Kovner to leave the “wrenching agony arising from [the] tragic incidents” in Crown Heights “the fuck alone.”

On June 15, as Kovner stepped to the podium to receive the Stanley M. Isaacs Human Relations Award from the New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee, the events that triggered the race riot weighed on the mind of the widely respected civil libertarian, who was chief corporation counsel during the Dinkins administration.

If what Kovner told his audience does not resonate with Giuliani and those who have egged him on over Crown Heights, perhaps nothing will change their views about the debacle and the circumstances that began it all.

“Widely overlooked then— and today— were the deeply held grievances of the African American community, which never understood why the outrage of the Jewish community regarding the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum failed to include expressions of regret for the death of Gavin Cato, the child who was killed in what was unquestionably an accident that evening,” said Kovner, whose law firm represents the Voice.

“When anyone, especially African Americans, would remind us that the deaths [of] Rosenbaum and Cato were tragedies to both communities, they would be denigrated by those who argued that is was near-blasphemous to equate an automobile accident with a murder, as if the grief of either family was any the greater. But for several years, the public debate, led by vocal forces in Brooklyn, insisted that Crown Heights was a one-sided tragedy. . . .

“It was widely known that the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s daily trips through several African American neighborhoods to the Old Montefiore Cemetery were resented because they were invariably accompanied by a police escort, which resulted in his procession moving at above normal speeds through densely populated neighborhoods. Why should a religious leader be entitled to such extraordinary special protection, many of his Brooklyn neighbors would ask. It was widely believed that the reason for that escort was that it would not be safe for this revered figure, thought by many to be the Messiah himself, to travel through unfriendly neighborhoods unprotected. Surely, many reasoned, the African American community should understand the importance of the Rebbe and the reasons to accord him such singular protection at public expense.

“Once again, such a presumption—
protection from a hostile African American community— was simply wrong. In fact, the special police protection for Rabbi Schneerson was first granted during the 1970s because of tension between the Lubavitchers and the Satmar community, another Hasidic sect with equally devout adherents in Brooklyn. It was to protect the Rebbe from Satmar threats that police were first assigned to give him unprecedented special protection. And, over time, that daily escort elicited resentment that festered for more than a decade prior to that fateful August evening. Here was yet another example of misunderstandings that exacerbated deep wounds whose scars remain. Indeed, there are those— including those in high office— who still seek to exploit those scars, making more urgent the need for organizations that are committed to overcoming such tensions.”

Kovner said that since the tragedy, Jewish leaders like Martin Bresler, Diane Steinman, Martin Begun, and Howard Teich have reached out— to their own detriment— to the family of Gavin Cato.

All four, portraying themselves “as representatives of the Jewish community, paid a visit to Gavin Cato’s father to express the community’s profound condolences,” Kovner noted.

“I was proud that they did so and deeply regret that I had not done so myself,” he added. “When the group arrived, they were received in an African American restaurant only to find that, in appreciation, the family had arranged for a kosher dinner to be served. But their visit drew a barrage of vicious racist threats upon those attending. Some members of the delegation who paid that condolence call, particularly Howard Teich . . ., had their homes and offices picketed, with signs far more offensive than those criticized [by the Giuliani administration] during the recent demonstrations regarding the killing of Amadou Diallo.”

Kovner said that compassionate Jews
today are doing a lot more than paying condolence calls to African Americans. They are, he added, becoming more deeply involved in the struggles for racial justice led by black leaders such as Dinkins and Sharpton.

“Police violence had reached epidemic proportions in our city and, as is too often the case, only the minorities and the dispossessed could be heard to address this critical condition,” Kovner declared. “Some would say that this was not an issue for the Jewish community. After all, Jews are not frequently victims of
police violence, at least not for many, many years. The city’s crime rates are down and those injured have plenty of leaders who are heard frequently and vociferously. Unfortunately, that view, widely held, ignores our collective history, in which our families knew all too well what it was to live in fear of the police— to walk gingerly in their presence.

“When thousands— hundred of thousands — of our fellow New Yorkers now have reason to fear the police, given our history, you would have thought that the organized Jewish community would have been the first to protest the wave of police violence and racial profiling. Unfortunately, you would have been wrong. It is worthy of note that the American Jewish Committee was the first Jewish organization to protest publicly. They did so at a press conference held at the steps of City Hall, which had recently been liberated for such occasions by order of the federal courts. I was proud that shortly thereafter many other Jewish groups, particularly Jews for Racial and Economic
Justice— many rabbis, among others— were
arrested and incarcerated for several hours in solidarity with those who organized the protest.”

If Kovner’s assessment of the current state of black-Jewish relations is correct, then David Dinkins indeed may have a point about Rudy Giuliani and the Crown Heights race card. Blacks, Jews, and progressive whites— who could form the backbone of a winning Clinton coalition— won’t stand for it.

“What Mrs. Clinton ought to say to Rudy Giuliani’s supporters,” Sharpton suggests, “is ‘Show me the evidence that David Dinkins led a pogrom. Show me the evidence that David Dinkins is anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.’ What they are really saying to her is that she should not be dealing with black issues or anybody with a strong black image.”

Unlike Dinkins, Reverend Sharpton believes Giuliani will show his true colors on Crown Heights. “It’s not like he’s not gonna raise it,” Sharpton scoffs. But he agrees that such a mean-spirited move would spell disaster for the mayor.

Sharpton recalls that during his ill-fated 1989 mayoral campaign, a desperate Giuliani, seeking to defeat Dinkins, ran a series of commercials featuring the black ultra-nationalist Sonny Carson saying he was not anti-Semitic but “anti-white.”

“It backfired because David Dinkins took him head-on,” Sharpton claims. “That stuff with Sonny didn’t work then and it shouldn’t work
in 2000. Hillary Clinton cannot afford to let
Rudy Giuliani scare her from adopting a black
strategy. I predict that they will push this Crown Heights race button until it backfires on them.”

Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir