CITY HALL ARCHIVES

Why’s a Nice Man Like David Dinkins Running for Mayor?

“The David Dinkins that David Dinkins wants voters to see is a man who can bring the city together, who cares about the city's growing underclass, and who can do something about New York's out-­of-control drug and crime problems.”

by

Except for a 109-year-old woman and some of her family members, the Most Worshipful Enoch Grand Lodge in Bedford Stuyve­sant was nearly empty on a recent April night. The 17 people in the masonic hall’s main meeting room were waiting for David Dinkins, mayoral candi­date, to arrive to present a proclamation — on the oc­casion of her birthday — honoring Aunt Jannie Glover for living so long. As photo opportunities go, it was not shaping up to be a good one: one local television camera crew, one reporter, and one photographer. An organizer of the birthday party worried about the turnout: “There were a lot of people who were supposed to show up who didn’t. I don’t know what happened to them.”

When he arrived at 6:25, Dinkins ap­proached Aunt Jannie, who was sitting at a folding table, and introduced himself:

“Hello, Aunt Jannie, I’m David Din­kins. I’m the borough president of Manhattan.”

“Who?”

“I’m David Dinkins, the borough presi­dent of Manhattan. I’m here to give you this proclamation.”

“What?”

“I’m going to be the next mayor.”

“What?”

“I’m going to be the next mayor.”

“That’s nice,” a not-too-impressed Aunt Jannie responded.

Dinkins read the framed proclamation announcing April 20, 1989, to be Aunt Jannie Glover Day in Manhattan. That Glover, a Brooklyn resident, has never lived in Manhattan a day out of her 109 years does not really matter. This is, of course, an election year, and 109-year-­olds are not that easy to come by. Espe­cially ones with family members active in the Brooklyn Democratic organization.

IN POLITICAL CLUBS, synagogues, civic associations, and church basements across New York City over the past few weeks, a familiar scene has been played out nightly. The three Democrats actively running for mayor — Dinkins, Comptrol­ler Harrison (Jay) Goldin, and banker/builder Richard Ravitch — are each given about 15 minutes to explain to crowds numbering as few as 25 people why they should be the one to replace Ed Koch, who has not yet begun to campaign.

Ravitch, hampered by his perennially hoarse voice and plodding monotone, reg­ularly has trouble holding a crowd, though his speech is thoughtful and his resume impressive. Goldin’s presentation, on the other hand, is a high-speed trip through the failures of Ed Koch’s admin­istration, a talk that often includes the recounting of a bicycle ride through Cen­tral Park during which Goldin’s son won­ders, “Daddy, would you like to see the pushers?” The comptroller, with his arms flailing about, sounds like a mix between Lowell Thomas on speed and Eddie Mur­phy’s Gumby character.

As the front-runner in the race — the latest Marist Institute poll shows him with a 12.5 per cent lead over Koch­ — Dinkins is often the most anticipated speaker at these forums.

In his standard address, the borough president focuses on crime and drugs as well as the poor planning and “crisis-to-­crisis management” of what he calls the “current administration,” to which he rarely attaches Koch’s name. But since he has yet to unveil detailed solutions for the major problems he identifies, Dinkins falls back on general, conceptual notions. Speaking last month before the Douglas King Democratic Club in Queens Village, for instance, he said, “We must expand the criminal justice system” to deal with jail over-crowding, and spoke of the need for a “greater police presence” at the lo­cal level. Referring to drug treatment and education, Dinkins said, “We’re not handling it right. We’ve got to find options for young people.” As to other problems, the often says, “I suggest that we can do better. And we must.”

In his public appearances, Dinkins is careful not to stray too far from his stump speech, careful not to take any unnecessary chances this early in the campaign. While he ticks off various shortcomings in the city’s hospital and health care system, all Dinkins will say about quality of care is that city hospitals “are not doing nearly as well as they might.” Of course, the candidate must realize that the city’s health system is in abominable shape, but he does not choose to say this. When asked at an East Side candidates’ forum about the conditions in Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital, Din­kins appears surprised by the question. All he can offer the questioner is that “I’m distressed,” and that city emergency rooms have become the family doctor for many city families.

Dinkins also often avoids talking about how programs would be implemented, and what they would cost. And with bud­get restraints at the city, state, and feder­al levels-not to mention possible eco­nomic downturns, or even a recession­such a financial component has taken on added importance this election year. Din­kins’s desire to limit high school size to 1500 (some currently have more than 3500 students) and his desire for treat­ment on demand for substance abusers are commendable, but the candidate has yet to explain where the money would come from to pay for these programs.

Since announcing for mayor in Febru­ary, Dinkins has been badmouthed and second-guessed — behind the scenes — on everything from his choice of media ad­visers (the high-profile Washington team of David Doak and Bob Shrum) to his speaking style (“almost as boring as Ra­vitch,” according to one elected official), his lack of concrete proposals, and his supposedly slow-developing campaign apparatus. Although the Dinkins campaign is just beginning, the general wisdom seems to be that it’s already stalled. That the efforts of Ravitch, Goldin, Koch, and Republicans Rudolph Giuliani and Ron­ald Lauder cannot approach the organi­zation, volunteers, or enthusiasm gener­ated so far by the Dinkins campaign is rarely discussed. (Clearly, none of the other three Democrats could come close to mustering the horde of noisy supporters that greeted Dinkins at the overflow opening of his West 43rd Street head­quarters in late March.) These swipes at Dinkins may well come with the title of front-runner, but they are also surely rooted in an ugly mix of racial paternal­ism, jealously, and greed, especially from some of the city’s traditional political “handlers” who have been excluded from Dinkins’s campaign, and therefore left without a paycheck.

But with polls showing Dinkins with large leads over his three Democratic op­ponents, this backbiting can be fairly eas­ily ignored by the candidate and his cam­paign. Bill Lynch, who served as Dinkins’s chief of staff before leaving to manage his mayoral campaign, says of his campaign apparatus, “We’re damn sure closer than anyone else. As far as I’m concerned, we’re where we should be at this point.”

In fact, campaign supporters — and sometimes Dinkins himself — sound as if the Democratic primary has already been won and that the real battle this fall is with Rudolph Giuliani, who might appear on two lines in November’s general elec­tion. In 15 campaign appearances attend­ed by the Voice over a recent two-week period, Dinkins uttered the word “Koch” only three times, while he often brought up Giuliani. His remarks at a Greenwich Village fund-raiser were typical. “I’m sure Rudy will get around to announcing someday and then it’ll be interesting to see him explain how he can be running as a Liberal and a Republican,” Dinkins said. “It should also be interesting to see him explain whether he’s been pleased with the Reaganism of the last eight years. Homelessness is a problem brought on by the Republicans in Washington. And let’s see him explain why the Justice Department he worked for did so little for civil rights.”

Compared to Goldin’s slashing attacks on Koch, Dinkins has been downright genteel when it comes to the mayor. “It has never been his style to scream at the top of his lungs,” one supporter says. “And I don’t think he’s going to get into a mud-slinging contest. He’s happy to leave that up to Jay [Goldin].” While the comptroller gleefully recounts episodes from the municipal corruption scandal, Dinkins only occasionally mentions “problems with the Talent Bank,” which, he says, “apparently was used for patron­age.” On the stump, Dinkins has not ut­tered the names Donald Manes, Stanley Friedman, or Meade Esposito, or even let on that, under the incumbent’s leader­ship, City Hall had been turned over to the county organizations. Calling Koch on these dangerous liaisons, of course, would be a sticky proposition since Dinkins himself is actively seeking the sup­port of the same three Democratic orga­nizations once headed by the aforementioned crooks.

The David Dinkins that David Dinkins wants voters to see is a man who can bring the city together, who cares about the city’s growing underclass, and who can do something about New York’s out-­of-control drug and crime problems. Dinkins is confident in crowds, patting shoulders, shaking hands, and calling ev­eryone “buddy” or “darling” if he does not already know their name. His facility with crowds serves him well, for the nature of the mayoral race forces Dinkins to put in appearances at some bizarre events. There was, for in­stance, the recent ritual at the Friar’s Club, where the candidate “celebrated” —  in the Milton Berle Room, no less — the release of another vanity book by Toast­master General Joey Adams. Dinkins purchased a copy of Joey’s Guaranteed to Make You Laugh, and chatted and posed for photos with such celebrities as Cindy Adams, Anthony Quinn, Dr. Ruth, How­ard Cosell, Morton Downey Jr., Alan King, and various old Borscht Belt come­dians. The mayoral candidate was one of only three blacks not serving drinks in the Uncle Miltie Room.

SPEAKING AT THE Gramercy Park Syna­gogue last month, Dinkins recalled being raised in Trenton, New Jersey, by his mother, a manicurist and domestic work­er, and his grandmother. Dinkins’s par­ents were divorced in 1934, when he was six years old. “I remember we moved a lot. Often times, when the rent was due it was prudent to move,” he said. As a young man, Dinkins sold shopping bags on Eighth Avenue and 125th Street and worked washing cars and dishes. “I can’t remember being without a job,” he said. Dinkins served in the Marine Corps, but World War II ended while he was in boot camp. After graduating from Howard University with a mathematics degree, Dinkins entered Brooklyn Law School; he helped pay his tuition by working as the night manager of a Harlem liquor store. Dinkins maintained a private law practice from 1957 until 1975, when he became city clerk. After unsuccessful tries for the Manhattan borough presi­dency in 1977 and 1981 (he lost to Andrew Stein by less than three points), Dinkins was elected beep in 1985 by a two to one margin.

Unlike many, if not most, politicians, Dinkins does not tailor his speech to his audience. Speaking before the mostly white, middle-class John F. Kennedy Democratic Club in the stifling basement of a Jackson Heights Methodist church in April, Dinkins departed from his stump speech and began talking about the plight of the homeless. Dressed in a blue double-breasted suit and sweating profusely (Dinkins could break into a sweat riding the elevator in the Munici­pal Building), the candidate was unusual­ly forceful. “One day an elderly couple could be living in their apartment, the next day they’re out on the street. Some­one gets sick, the bills pile up, they fall behind on the rent and then” — snapping his fingers for emphasis — “just like that, they’re on the street.”

In fact, far from pandering to his audi­ence, Dinkins often does the opposite. In Jackson Heights, after discussing the homeless, Dinkins spoke about his 1984 and 1988 support of Jesse Jackson, not­ing that some Jews were distressed about “Jesse this and Jesse that. If I thought he was anti-Semitic I wouldn’t have sup­ported him.” The candidate then told of his longstanding support for Israel, his trip to the White Rose gravesite in Mu­nich while Ronald Reagan was in Bit­burg, and his courageous 1985 denuncia­tion of Louis Farrakhan.

Similarly, when speaking to predomi­nantly black crowds, Dinkins often does not even mention Jackson’s name­ — though to do so would draw surefire ap­plause — despite the fact that Dinkins co-­chaired the reverend’s two presidential campaigns. Speaking at the monthly meeting of the predominantly black Fred­erick Douglass Club in Queens, Dinkins told the crowd of “my deep concerns for the safety and security of Israel,” as well his belief that IRA member Joe Doherty be released from prison and granted po­litical asylum.

It is rare for Dinkins to diverge from his controlled public persona. But when he does, his flashes of passion — like the ones he showed in the Jackson Heights church basement — can strongly affect crowds who view him simply as a quiet, reserved politician. On the other hand, Dinkins can also turn off crowds when his testy side appears. When pressed in public about an issue. Dinkins can be quick to snap back at a questioner.

At an endorsement meeting of the Cen­tral Brooklyn Independent Democrats, for instance, former liberal assemblyman Joe Ferris calmly asked Dinkins to ex­plain his vote in favor of the Atlantic Terminal development, an urban renewal project that, Ferris contended, would hurt poor people. “I can’t give you specifics on that, Joe. I really can’t remember,” Din­kins replied. Ferris pushed again for an explanation, pointing out that he believed the project would create more homeless families. “Now hold it,” Dinkins bel­lowed. “Look, if I asked you to remember the last time you ate egg for breakfast, you probably wouldn’t remember either.” An indignant Ferris was set to try a third time for an explanation, but he backed off. “That was a bullshit answer he gave to a serious question,” Ferris said. “We deserve better than that,” He added later. “Based on my experience with the man, in my gut, I’m troubled by him.” The former state legislator sat out CBID’s endorsement vote later that evening. Din­kins, as it turned out, did not need Ferris: the candidate won the club’s endorse­ment by a landslide.

But Dinkins has also been able to han­dle touchy subjects well. At a meeting last week of Manhattan’s Lexington Democratic Club, the second question directed at Dinkins seemed to be a plant: “Is it fair that you live in a large Mitchell-­Lama apartment when the city is in the midst of a major housing crisis?” a man asked. “Yes,” Dinkins replied, trying to dispose of the question. When the man then asked, “Is that a proper response for a public official?”, the candidate ex­plained that he, his wife, and his two children needed the space of a three-bed­room apartment when they moved into their Riverside Drive home years ago. “Nobody told us back then that someday we would be forced to move. My 430 neighbors feel the same way,” Dinkins said. He added, “I trust that you’ll ask Mayor Koch the same question about his rent-controlled apartment.”

The question of Dinkins’s large, subsi­dized apartment is not considered a cam­paign negative since the man most likely to raise it — Ed Koch — is himself ware­housing a one-bedroom apartment on Washington Place in the Village. Koch has said he believes that Mitchell-Lama residents without families who live in large apartments should move into small­er ones to help ease the city’s housing shortage. Dinkins says that these tenants would undergo “extreme hardship” if forced to relocate.

There are, however, two “negatives” Dinkins will have to face in the upcoming campaign: the “tax question,” and the issue of race in an increasingly polarized city.

From 1969 to 1972, Dinkins did not file tax returns. Doak and Shrum are cur­rently “massaging” that issue, according to Lynch, since it is expected that some opponent (read: Koch) will use this 17-year-old episode against Dinkins. The borough president, who deftly handled the question at his February announce­ment, recently said. “I don’t think it’s unfair to be asked about it. I have never ever avoided making a full explanation.” Dinkins, who was forced to pay $15,000 in back taxes, says he believed some of his taxes were paid and that “it was one of those things that I was always going to take care of but sometimes I did not have all the funds or I did not have all the documents.”

One city campaign consultant says that Dinkins’s old tax problems will “definite­ly be used against him. It’s going to be a real item in the campaign. It doesn’t mat­ter that it’s ages old. The approach will be something like, ‘How can he handle billion-dollar budgets when he can’t even file his own taxes?'” “It only loses him votes, that’s for sure,” a party official agrees.

A second, and perhaps a more serious “negative,” is race. Within his campaign, Dinkins’s ability to find support in the predominantly white neighborhoods of the outer boroughs is widely considered to be the key to a primary victory and the avoidance of a runoff election. Harlem congressman Charles Rangel says that while “a lot of New Yorkers might feel uncomfortable with a black mayor,” a number of white congressmen in the city delegation are close to defecting from Koch to Dinkins. Though he would not discuss individual names, Rangel says that some of these representatives “have not yet found ways to tell their constitu­ents that they want to leave Koch.” Ac­cording to Rangel, the only two congress­men who would find it “difficult to walk away from Koch” are Queens’s Gary Ack­erman and James Scheuer.

Brooklyn’s Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a member of the conservative Lubavitcher Hasidim community, says that “Ed Koch would have you believe that anyone who talks to Jesse Jackson is an anti-Semite. Don’t think that everyone out here agrees with that. The stereotype is that we are crazies out here, but that’s not the case. People understand that, politically, Din­kins needs to have Jesse near him.” Gold­stein, who is chairman of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights, adds, “The Jewish community outside of Manhattan has not seen much of David Dinkins. When he gets out into the communities, people will see that he doesn’t have horns on his head.”

As he addressed audiences about last month’s gang attack in Central Park, Dinkins referred to the arrested teen­agers as a band of “urban terrorists” who could have “attacked my wife, my daugh­ter.” While his proposals to combat at­tacks like these are thin — he has suggest­ed that unarmed park rangers (“Y’know, the guys with the hat”) become more involved in crime prevention — Dinkins has spoken out forcefully about the at­tack, though his words have been over­shadowed in the daily papers and the electronic media by the reactions of Ed Koch and Donald Tump.

In an interview last week, Dinkins said, “You’ve got to have a sister or daughter to feel this. It has shit to do with race. But it’s got everything to do with a real brutal fucking act. They not only raped her … but they beat the shit out of her. Now in that climate, I cannot get exercised about whether someone calls them a ‘wolfpack.'”

Though Lynch and Dinkins dismiss the possibility that the Central Park attack will have a negative impact on the Din­kins campaign, five city politicians inter­viewed by the Voice said the event would probably hurt the Manhattan borough president. One city councilman said, “Strictly on racial terms, this does noth­ing to enhance [black] empowerment ar­guments.” Herman Badillo, a Dinkins foe, says that the park attack “has got to hurt him. It’s an unspoken disaster.” Lynch rejects this argument, contending that anyone who would be turned off to Din­kins because of the attack “probably wasn’t voting for him anyway.”

Lynch also dismisses the suggestion that the announcement last week of At­torney General Robert Abrams’s endorse­ment of Dinkins was intended to counter any white hostility stemming from the Central Park attack. Lynch confirms, however, that the campaign had had the Abrams endorsement lined up for more than a month. But he says Dinkins decid­ed to announce the endorsement now ­rather than late in the summer and closer to the primary-to “give us some mo­mentum.” This reasoning seems suspect, however, since momentum — in the form of recent major union endorsements — is not in short supply in the Dinkins campaign.

The role that Jesse Jackson will play in the campaign is also being discussed. Last month, Dinkins said that his cam­paign “will surely draw people from all over the country. I’m sure he’ll [Jackson] be here.” Dinkins declined to discuss whether the question of Jackson’s in­volvement was a concern to his campaign strategists, though this is another issue Doak/Shrum are examining. “We want everybody to remember that this is David’s campaign,” Lynch says. “We don’t want him overshadowed by anyone.” A Brooklyn Jewish leader who supports Dinkins says, “If Jesse is here one or two weekends, that’ll be fine. I don’t think anybody in this community will have a problem with that. But if he’s here all the time, well, that’s another story.”

The Marist poll released in April gave Dinkins a favorable rating of 59.4 per cent, far ahead of Goldin (41.4) and Koch (40.5). His unfavorable rating was 9.1 per cent (Koch’s was a whopping 54 per cent), while 31.3 per cent of those polled said they were unsure or had never heard of Dinkins. The only major candidate in either party with a higher favorable rat­ing was Giuliani (74.3 per cent), who also had as low an unfavorable rating as Din­kins (9.0). A New York Newsday poll re­leased last Sunday showed that if the primary were held today, Dinkins would receive 38 per cent of the vote, compared with Koch’s 28 per cent. However, it’s worth noting that neither of these polls (nor any other surveys released to date) have asked voters about any of Dinkins’s potential “negatives,” including race and taxes. One Dinkins supporter says, “Be­cause David is a new face to many people, you don’t know what the downside, if there is one, might be.” On the other hand, as David Garth recently made clear, Ed Koch’s negatives are all well-­known.

WITH THE GLARING exception of his steadfast support for the Board of Esti­mate (and then for weighted voting), Dinkins has been the most progressive — ­while still pragmatic — voice on the Board of Estimate in his three-plus years a borough president. He has opposed the berthing of a nuclear homeport in Staten Island, beat the mayor in a showdown over the construction of heavily subsi­dized luxury housing in Clinton, and fought for community interests in con­nection with proposed commercial and residential developments at Lincoln Cen­ter and the New York Coliseum. He has been the strongest voice on the board calling for additional funding for AIDS prevention programs and the most pas­sionate spokesman for the city’s growing homeless population. His staff — which West Side council-woman Ruth Messinger calls “the most extraordinarily skilled and racially integrated staff in my memo­ry” — features some of the city’s best housing, community service, and health advocates.

But despite his record as borough pres­ident and his inspired hiring decisions, many politicians and community leaders still have reservations about Dinkins. Al­though he has proven his independence on the board, Dinkins’s organization background (he was a district leader for 20 years and is a charter member — along with Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton, and Charles Rangel — of what is derisively re­ferred to as the “Harlem Gang”) still wor­ries some.

Oliver Koppell, a Bronx assemblyman who heads that county’s “reform” move­ment, says that he believes Dinkins is untested as an “administrative manager” and that the candidate has not been an “antiorganization politician. He comes out of a regular background. Jay [Gol­din], despite some of the ethical ques­tions, does come out of a reform background.”

Herman Badillo is more critical, con­tending that Dinkins does not have “im­pressive credentials.” Badillo adds, “The mistake that he is making is that because Jesse got 45 per cent, that he too can get 45 per cent. In reality, Dinkins is closer to Denny Farrell than he is Bo Jackson. Dinkins doesn’t stir up the passion that’s needed.” Badillo’s comments are no sur­prise, since he holds Dinkins responsible for the Coalition for a Just New York’s last-minute support for Manhattan as­semblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell over Badillo in the 1985 mayoral race. (Far­rell’s entry into the race and his non-cam­paign helped Koch easily gain reelection.)

Dinkins dismisses Badillo as “not a factor” in this year’s election. (The Latin vote may be the key bloc in this year’s primary, and, according to both New York Newsday and a recent poll conduct­ed by Local 1199 — which supports Dinkins — the Manhattan borough president already holds a wide lead over the other Democratic candidates in the Latin com­munity.) “As for the betrayal he speaks of, I was never for him [Badillo],” Din­kins says. “I was supporting Carol Bella­my.” He adds that he has been unfairly slammed on the Farrell debacle: “The vote was 28 to 14 … including such peo­ple as Herb Daughtry and Roger Green voting for Denny. Will you tell me how, in that climate, this gets to be my fault? That’s the dumbest shit I ever heard of. It’s just plain asinine. And I have been carrying the weight for that from that day right down to now, right now, with The City Sun and certain others. So they can all take a running jump.”

However, even some of Dinkins’s sup­porters are worried about the lack of “passion” that Badillo cites. A Brooklyn community activist who supports Din­kins says, “I’m concerned that David start turning up the heat a bit. I think Lynch should be feeding him raw onions­in the morning.” Charles Rangel, howev­er, insists that Dinkins “has the ability to govern. I’ve heard this stuff about him being a wimp, being quiet. But I’ve known him too long. He is a former Ma­rine. And I have seen that former Marine take charge.”

SOME OF THE BEST receptions Dinkins has received to date have been on Staten Island, which is not usually a hotbed of liberalism. It will be in white areas of the city like this where the Dinkins campaign must make that crucial crossover, accord­ing to Lynch.

On a recent Friday night, in a Knights of Columbus hall, Dinkins spoke to about 100 men gathered for the monthly meet­ing of the Amalgamated Transit Union. The ATU has been fighting against the explosion of private bus lines on the is­land and the city’s granting of franchises to out-of-state, non-union bus companies. Many of the bus drivers and mechanics in the crowd were dressed in their MTA uniforms, having come directly from work.

After being introduced by former city council president Paul O’Dwyer and Shir­ley Quill, the widow of former Transport Workers Union boss Mike Quill, Dinkins got a standing ovation as he walked to the podium. Wearing an ATU cap and baseball jacket, the Manhattan borough president looked very much like a Little League coach. Speaking below portraits of Christopher Columbus and Fulton Sheen, Dinkins drew sustained cheers when he told the predominantly white unionists that he opposed the city’s poli­cy of granting franchises to the out-of-­state firms. As he left the hall, Dinkins proudly displayed the jacket the union had given him, with the inscription, “Da­vid Dinkins, Mayor.”

At another Staten Island meeting — ­this time, a public hearing of Community Board 3 — Dinkins reiterated his support for the transit workers. After Dinkins had departed the auditorium, Ron Bell, the business manager for a longshoremen’s local at Howland Hook, told the crowd, “We have to change the city gov­ernment come November. And I person­ally feel that David Dinkins is the man.” Bell, who is white, received a large ova­tion from the audience. People like the union leader, with his gray hair and brown flannel shirt, were once Ed Koch’s core voters.

In less than a month, the Dinkins cam­paign will begin gathering nominating pe­tition signatures for the September primary. Though the bulk of these signatures — 10,000 are needed to qualify for the ballot — will surely be collected in minority neighborhoods like Harlem and Fort Greene, it will be in such areas as Riverdale, Stapleton, and Forest Hills that Dinkins’s campaign must take root. It is in these neighborhoods that Ed Koch’s base has eroded from under him. And it is in these neighborhoods that David Dinkins must prove he is the best alternative, something he has yet to accomplish. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 25, 2020

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