Former mayor David Dinkins, who is supporting public advocate Mark Green for mayor, denied he twisted Al Sharpton’s arm about an endorsement of Green when he visited Sharpton in federal prison last week.
“That’s not true,” said the city’s first black mayor, who met with Sharpton for about 20 minutes on July 31 at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where Sharpton is serving a 90-day sentence for protesting naval exercises on Vieques island in Puerto Rico. “He will tell you that the campaign was not mentioned at all. Zero! You can’t twist Al Sharpton’s arm,” Dinkins reiterated. “I didn’t twist [Manhattan Democratic county leader] Denny Farrell’s arm before he came out for Mark Green. He was with Mark Green while I was still considering what to do.”
Dinkins’s visit first raised concerns among some panelists on The Week in Review, a popular, black-oriented talk show that airs every Sunday night on WRKS-FM. Former New Jersey judge Bob Pickett, the only conservative member on the panel, had “learned from reliable sources” that Dinkins went to the prison as an emissary of Green. Others argued that Dinkins’s mission was either to get the nod for Green or at least force Sharpton to make up his mind about who he will endorse. An aide said Sharpton was mourning the sudden death over the weekend of former Abner Louima attorney Carl W. Thomas, and could not comment.
Dinkins’s endorsement of Green came during a wide-ranging interview with the Voice about his views on the mayoral race, Sharpton, a black-Latino coalition, Crown Heights, Rudy Giuliani, and Dinkins’s own controversial legacy.
On Green’s chances of becoming the city’s next mayor, Dinkins bragged, “He can get elected. It is no wonder to me that he is so far in front of everybody else.” Dinkins said he appears in a series of Green campaign radio and TV commercials that have not yet been scheduled for airing. “Mark was one of my commissioners, and I have faith in him,” offered Dinkins, whose endorsement surprised some African Americans and Latinos who are seeking to elect Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer the city’s first Latino mayor. “I hope they’ll say, ‘Well, Dinkins likes him, maybe we ought to take another look.’ ” Observers say the most successful endorsements of the mayoral campaign so far have been those designed to get across a specific message—such as Green’s endorsement this spring by former police commissioner William Bratton. “Just like Al Sharpton has some influence, presumably your humble servant has some influence in the African American community,” Dinkins said.
But not all endorsements carry the same weight. And most political observers agree that Sharpton’s nod is one of the few that really matters. “Sharpton gets a certain number of votes when he runs,” Maurice Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute, told the Associated Press. “His endorsement doesn’t get nearly as many, but it matters.” Ferrer, who is trying to make history with a black-Latino coalition, has gotten the nod of state comptroller H. Carl McCall, New York’s highest-ranking black elected official. That makes Sharpton’s endorsement all the more critical to Ferrer, whose political future could hang on it. To some, Ferrer is the clear front-runner for Sharpton’s endorsement. But the civil rights leader has played a waiting game, stretching out the process long after he was scheduled to make an announcement. (The delay is due partly to Sharpton’s imprisonment.) The activist has told the Voice who he will endorse. He will make the announcement after he is released from prison on August 17. So Ferrer still waits, hoping a Sharpton endorsement will help him build a coalition of minority voters.
“If he does support Freddie, I am sure that will help Freddie,” scoffed Dinkins. “I’m just saying that to suggest that all the blacks are gonna be with Freddie in a black-Puerto Rican coalition in that sense cannot be, for the reason that you know well,” Dinkins added. “People talk about a black-Latino coalition and that’s terrific, if there were such an animal.” He reminded backers of such a coalition that two of the four major county leaders—Denny Farrell and Brooklyn Democratic county boss Clarence Norman, both of whom are black—are not supporting Ferrer. Norman is supporting city comptroller Alan Hevesi, and Farrell is backing Green. “Some might accuse me of having harmed that coalition, but I say, ‘What coalition?’ ” asked Dinkins. “There was no coalition!”
The former mayor denounced others who might speculate that his endorsement of Green was political payback to Ferrer. On May 6, during a televised debate, the mayoral candidates were asked which of the previous three mayors they would now vote for. Green unhesitatingly chose Dinkins; Ferrer did not articulate a choice. At the time, Dinkins said he did “not hold that against Freddie.” He emphasized that position again in the Voice interview: “Freddie called me after the debate and explained how it had occurred, how he had not had the opportunity to fully respond. I said, ‘OK, I accept that.’ I did not make my choice of Green based on Freddie’s statement about who he’d support.” But some say Dinkins has been holding a political grudge against Latinos for 24 years.
In 1977, Herman Badillo, the turncoat Democrat who is running for mayor on the Republican line, jumped onto a crowded mayoral bandwagon that included former Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, who is black. “Percy announced his candidacy in February, and Badillo came along and announced his in June,” Dinkins recalled. “But this isn’t a tit for tat or who owes whom what,” he insisted. “This is about these particular candidates in this particular year. That’s what motivates me. I don’t think Freddie can succeed. I think Mark can.”
Endorsements, however, can potentially hurt candidates. Is David Dinkins wary of some of Mark Green’s opponents who might dredge up Crown Heights to embarrass Green? “Will any candidate come out and try to tar Mark Green with this brush?” asked the would-be kingmaker. “I don’t think they will be very successful.”
What if Republican candidates Michael Bloomberg and Herman Badillo play the race card? “There is no point in me worrying about what Bloomberg or Badillo will do,” Dinkins replied. “I cannot affect it. What I continue to do is make the point about Gavin and Angela Cato—two young kids, one who was killed, and one who was severely injured—and how the media in some instances have portrayed this as a circumstance of rioting over several days culminating in the death of one Hasidic man. That is just inaccurate. Chronologically, that’s not what happened.” Dinkins was referring to the three days of violence that erupted in the summer of 1991 after seven-year-old Gavin was struck and killed by a car that was part of an entourage transporting the Lubavitcher grand rabbi, Menachem Schneerson. August 19 marks the 10th anniversary of the upheaval in which Hasidic student Yankel Rosenbaum was murdered.
Dinkins scorned revisionist historians like Giuliani and former mayor Ed Koch, whom he accused of attempting to tarnish his legacy. “Yankel Rosenbaum got stabbed in the first few hours, and there was sporadic rioting over a period of time; it did not go on continuously for three days,” he contended. “It is not true that [former police commissioner] Lee Brown and I gave orders to hold back the cops and let blacks attack Jews. Giuliani and Ed Koch to this day blame me for that. Ed Koch calls it a pogrom, which is by definition a state-sponsored activity. But the courts have dismissed the lawsuits against me and Lee Brown. They found no such evidence. Giuliani chose to settle the case for $1 million when he could have moved for summary judgment. I have never seen all of the papers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they speak of what the hospital did, because they were really responsible for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum by overlooking the second wound.”
Riding a wave of outrage from Jewish and white voters, Giuliani defeated Dinkins in 1993. Today, Dinkins, a professor at Columbia University, still struggles to wipe clean the image of him as a “murderer” and Jew hater. “I have a sterling record of supporting the Jewish community and the state of Israel,” he pointed out. “In 1975 I was among a group of blacks who formed the Black Americans in Support of Israel Committee. At the time, the United Nations had passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. I went to Israel when the missiles were falling there. I am the guy who stood at Madison Square Garden all by myself denouncing Louis Farrakhan for calling Judaism a gutter religion. So there is little that anybody can do to me personally that they haven’t already done in this regard.”
Dinkins argued that race relations was better under his administration. “I’ve taken a big hit because of Rudy,” he said. “When rioting after the beating of Rodney King happened all over the country, we did not have rioting in New York City. Rudolph Giuliani, Ed Koch, and Al D’Amato publicly praised me for calming our city. Later on they decided I was a bad guy.” He said Giuliani will be remembered for condoning stop and frisks by cops that violate the civil rights of African Americans and Latinos.
“Some in our police department think it’s OK if you violate the constitutional rights of 10 people if one of them happens to have a gun or contraband of some sort,” he claimed. “I say they’re wrong. First of all, you’re violating the rights of all 10. Worse yet, the bad guy may go free because the evidence is suppressed and not permitted to be introduced as evidence because it was secured unconstitutionally. These kinds of things are out there for everyone to see what some of us have been saying for a long time.”
Giuliani, Dinkins continued, refused to recognize top black elected officials like Carl McCall and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. It was only after the uproar over the police shooting of Amadou Diallo that Giuliani seemed to relax his isolationist stance of not talking to his black critics. “Here’s a guy who for five years refused to meet with Carl and Virginia—with whom he had not met since she was elected to office,” Dinkins said. “When he finally met with them, some journalists wrote: ‘The mayor is reaching out.’ Reaching out? Ain’t that a. . . . ? In my case, anything I said about Rudy during the first few years of his administration was ‘sour grapes.’ I was ‘bitter’ because I was a ‘disgruntled former mayor.’ ”
One of the biggest criticisms of David Dinkins is that he continues to associate with Al Sharpton. Asked about that, Dinkins loses his cool. “Some have attempted to attack Al Sharpton around Tawana Brawley and Crown Heights, and are upset with me for not denouncing him,” the former mayor said. “My position has been that he has been my friend since he was a teenager. We have not always agreed, but I have said repeatedly and publicly many times that Al Sharpton has never counseled violence, but he gets blamed for a whole lot of that. There are times when I would have him do this instead of that—go right instead of left. We have a relationship that is very strong, and I don’t think that folks can mess with it.”
Peter Noel is a cohost of the WRKS program The Week in Review. Additional reporting by the Associated Press