The first African American mayor in New York City history, Dinkins reflects on navigating big-city politics.
Former NYC mayor David Dinkins
Tavis: Being the mayor of New York has been called the second most difficult job in America. David Dinkins knows those challenges all too well. He’s just chronicled his life and times in a new tome called “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic.” He joins us from, where else, Manhattan. Mayor, good to have you back on the program, sir.
David Dinkins: I’m delighted to be with you again.
Tavis: You are looking as dapper as ever and I’m always honored to be in conversation with you. Let me start with what’s happening in New York right now and then we’ll get straight away into the text. Obviously, as you know, and, for that matter, as the country knows, there’s a major race happening in the city of New York.
Somehow Michael Bloomberg got the City Council to give him a third term. Christine Quinn paid the price for being the champion of that third term by sacrificing herself essentially in terms of being the next mayor.
But there are two finalists now. One of those finalists, in fact, got his start working for you. So tell me what’s happening in the mayor’s race, who you’ve endorsed, handicap the race. Just take it away and tell me what’s gonna happen in New York in a few weeks.
Dinkins: Well, I endorsed Bill Thompson, past Controller. I endorsed him last time against Mike Bloomberg. He did pretty well. Lost by four or five points, but the mayor spent over $100 million dollars. This time, I endorsed him again, but Bill de Blasio won and Bill de Blasio worked in our office in City Hall.
He worked with Bill Lynch known to many as the “rumpled genius.” and it was Bill Lynch who nurtured Bill de Blasio, brought him along as he has done so many others. Bill’s dead now. He’s gone to his reward, but he has left quite a legacy and, among them, Bill de Blasio.
Tavis: So you endorsed de Blasio now that he is one of the two finalists?
Dinkins: Oh, absolutely. I called him on election night, congratulated him and offered to do whatever I could to help. I should tell you that he not only worked for us, but his wife did too. She was not his wife at the time.
She worked in our speech office and in the office of the reporters, the news office, and she was terrific. And I’m very pleased that they’re together. They have two wonderful children. I suppose the whole world knows about Dante and his big afro.
Tavis: [Laugh] I was about to say, you are the first and only African American mayor of the city, but Mr. de Blasio is married to an African American woman and has a son, as you mentioned, named Dante with a huge afro that everybody’s talking about, including the president gave his afro a shout out the other day as he ran through New York City.
But it leads to a rather serious question, which is why it is that, in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic New York, the most diverse city ever, there has only been one African American mayor. Why is that the case? I mean, the same is true here in L.A., but we’re talking New York. Why is that the case?
Dinkins: I don’t know. There clearly have been people who were equal to the task. The aforementioned Bill Thompson is one. There are others who did not seek the office like my good friend, Basil Patterson, who once ran for Lieutenant Governor in New York and won 61 out of 62 counties. He could well have run for mayor. He once was a Deputy Mayor under Ed Koch.
And there are a lot of very competent people who just have not sought the office, but I supported Jesse Jackson in ’84 and again in ’88. And in ’88, Jesse, you may recall, did better than any other second place candidate for the presidency the Democratic ever had. Well, those persons that we got registered in ’88 voted for me in ’89 and I was in a four-way race.
The incumbent Ed Koch, Dick Ravitch who had headed up the MTA, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and Jay Golden, long-time Controller and the most articulate, knowledgeable person I’ve ever encountered in New York City government, and the conventional wisdom was that we wouldn’t win, and you have to get at least 40% to avoid a runoff.
Well, we got 51% and yet, in the general election against Rudolph Giuliani who was not yet America’s mayor, 9/11 has not yet occurred, 1.9 million votes cast and we had a margin of only about 50,000.
Tavis: And to what do you attribute that?
Dinkins: Well, I’ve always said from the very beginning, when the press would ask me why was it so close, my response always was, “Why do you ask?” In more recent years, I’ve allowed as how I believe it is racism. Now we lost by about the same margin in 1990 or ’89 – I’m sorry, ’93. Now in the book I mention racism, but that’s not the total reason because I wouldn’t have won in ’89 if a lot of white folks hadn’t voted for me.
Dinkins: And I certainly didn’t lose later in ’93 because of the Blacks who did not vote for me. But racism is alive and well in our country and certainly in New York, but it’s not as bad as it once was. We often say that Dr. King’s dream has not yet been realized. Things are not what they need to be, but, thank God, they’re not what they used to be.
Tavis: Yeah, but this current race, as you well know, this current race for the mayoralty of New York, is bringing back up some of that Dinkins-Giuliani rancor of years ago. I saw a big piece in The New York Times, as I’m sure you saw the other day, about this.
Mr. de Blasio worked for you; Mr. Lhota hung out with Mr. Giuliani. So now we got this, you know, Giuliani-Dinkins things all over again. Is that much ado about nothing?
Dinkins: Probably, but I say if it’s a rerun of the Giuliani and Dinkins years, then I hope it’s ’89 when I won.
Tavis: [Laugh] And not ’93, yeah [laugh]. Let me ask you, though, all jokes aside, going through the book, I got a sense of this and I’ve been honored and blessed, I think, to have known you and sort of sat at your feet for many, many conversations over the years and learned a lot.
And one of the things that has always seemed to be the case to since your leaving City Hall is that you get – there’s a rub that is often associated with you about your mayoralty, that crime was out of control, that racism was out of control. I’ve always gotten the sense that whatever you did right, you did not get the credit for it. But what do you make of that?
Dinkins: Well, that’s one of the reasons that we’ve done this book. It is a fact that crime started to go down in New York as early as 1991. Now I assumed office January 1, 1990, but the way some people write about it, you would think there was no crime on December 31, 1989 when Ed Koch was mayor, just the next day when I took office.
The fact is that crime was rampant during the Koch years. There were a lot of reasons for it. We had a crack epidemic nationwide and that certainly didn’t help the situation. But what we did was to turn to what we call community policing and get the cops out of the patrol cars onto the street so that they would know the community and the community would know them, and it worked well.
Ray Kelly, who is the current Police Commissioner in New York, was the first Deputy Police Commissioner for the first year or so of my administration and then I appointed him Police Commissioner when Lee Brown had to step down because his wife was ill.
And Ray Kelly has held every job in the police department from cadet to commissioner. And he’s a colonel in the Marine Corps and I was a private first class, so I never called him Commissioner. I always called him Colonel. As a matter of fact, I love to tell the story of how on one occasion I greeted him. I said, “How are you, Colonel?” and turned to his wife Veronica and said, “Mrs. Colonel.”
She said, “Mr. Mayor, I have a title of my own and I outrank you.” I said, “Oh, my God, what’s that?” “Petty Officer First Class, United States Coast Guard Reserve.” Since then, she’s been elevated to Chief. So if you encounter Veronica Kelly, just call her Chief and she will know you been talking to me.
Tavis: There were – and you are transparent about this and you’re up front about it – in the book, “A Mayor’s Life.” you talk about any number of race incidents and there were certainly two or three of them that stand out that even those of us who don’t live in New York City, Crown Heights comes to mind.
There were a number of race incidents that took place on your watch that in fact, cast a light over you that didn’t shine so brightly about the way you handled some of these race incidents. What are your reflections upon it now?
Dinkins: Well, the Crown Heights is the most serious situation by far. Crown Heights is a situation wherein the Rabbi’s motorcade, the last vehicle in it, the driver lost control, hopped a curb and struck two little Black children. Gavin Cato died and word around the community very rapidly that the ambulances had come and taken away the whites who were injured and left the Black children to die.
Now that was not true, but as a result of that, a young divinity student from Australia named Yankel Rosenbaum was attacked, stabbed, by a gang of Blacks and we visited him in the hospital.
We were told he was gonna be all right, but the physicians had overlooked a second wound and he died. So when that word spread around the community of Crown Heights, Blacks and Jews were in quite a combat. I was accused, and others in my administration were accused, of telling the cops to permit Blacks to attack Jews.
That wasn’t true. That’s not what happened and I took too long before I said to the police, “Whatever you’re doing, it ain’t working and, damn it, let’s get this under control.” The police in New York are the best in the world at riot situations and they did not do a good job on that occasion. But I accept the blame. I was the mayor. It happened on my watch and the buck stops here.
Tavis: How do you process the fact that all these years later, back to my earlier point, whatever it is that you did right, this one incident seems to overshadow that and there is this cloud that still hangs over your four years as mayor?
Dinkins: Well, I don’t know the answer that, except that we did do a lot of things right. We brought crime down as early as ’91. We spent $47 million dollars to keep each branch library open six days a week, which may not sound like much, but it should when I remind you that the public library system had not six-day service for a quarter century. But we did that under difficult circumstances. There were a lot of other things that we were able to achieve of which I’m quite proud.
Our Safe Streets, Safe City program which helped us reduce crime and produced what we call Beacon schools where the schools beyond the hours of instruction did things, programs designed by the community, paid for by the city, not only for the young people, but for their parents and adults as well.
They were highly successful. To this very day, we have Beacon schools and not just in New York. I, frankly, was very surprised that my successor didn’t do away with the Beacon schools or at least call them something else.
I was fought bitterly in our effort to produce the United States Tennis Center. They said it was because I liked tennis. Well, I do like tennis, but I can tell you that what we were able to do there which required the assent of the state government, because if you take park land, that’s what you have to do.
And we did such a great job that that U.S. Open in two weeks generates more revenue into the economy of the city than a Yankees, Mets, Knicks and Rangers combined. The number these years is north of $700 million dollars each year.
Tavis: Let me jump in here because, since you’re talking about your successors, let me raise a particular point about Mr. Bloomberg who is, again, the outgoing mayor after three terms. We will see what happens in a few weeks and whether or not, as the polls indicate, Mr. de Blasio will win this race.
But I think – I don’t live in New York, as you well know, but I’m certainly there enough. I pay enough taxes in New York that I think I can say this. Mike Bloomberg, I think, gets high marks generally speaking, Mayor Dinkins, for quality of life issues, for improving quality of life issues. He gets, generally speaking, high marks.
Where I think he’s utterly missed the boat is on issues of race and class. There’s a stubbornness about him on issues of race and class that I think New Yorkers across the board, certainly of them, have issue with.
And I think that’s what you see being played out in this enthusiasm that Mr. de Blasio has around him now, is that people feel that he is going to take on the issues of race and class in New York. I wonder – that’s my own assessment which doesn’t mean anything.
But give me your assessment of what you would be saying to Mr. de Blasio were he to ask you about how to navigate at this point in New York City issues of race and class.
Dinkins: Well, the first about Mike Bloomberg, I think that overall he’s been a good mayor, did a good job. I think he made a serious error in judgment in seeking a third term because they changed the law, as you know, in order to achieve that, and I think that was an error. This may be the first time I’ve said that publicly, but I told him before he did it that I thought it would negatively impact his legacy and it has.
It may well have cost Chris Quinn the election. I don’t know. But Mike, I suppose if you’ve got $30 billion dollars and you made it all yourself, it’s pretty hard not to believe that you aren’t the smartest guy in the room. And he is a pretty smart fellow and he does do a lot of good things.
I recall introducing him on one occasion some years ago and I made the point in my introduction which I didn’t know I was gonna get to do. I was sort of called on the last minute to present him. I made the observation that Mike Bloomberg was a philanthropist before his involvement in government and politics. That counts for something with me.
And I know that I had a Consumer Affairs Commissioner, Mark Green, who sought to do something about smoking. The way he was attacking it, we were gonna make them take down the signs in ballparks that are right on camera for much of the time advertising cigarettes. We didn’t get very far with that.
Mike has done that. You don’t smoke in public places in New York anymore. And people have gotten used to it. Since I quit smoking in 1962, it never bothered me anyway, but I think most, including smokers, real nicotine addicts, agree that he was right about that.
Now he’s come with some other things that’s limiting the quantity of sugary drinks that one can purchase, which has not been nearly as well received. But I think, overall, he has done a pretty good job. I think he’s been a good mayor.
I failed to mention his whole situation with respect to race. He’s taken a heavy hit on stop-and-frisk. And I have to tell you, when I’m asked about it, my response is in any segment of our society, police, firefighters, school teachers, priests, rabbis, there’s a certain percentage that will not follow the rules, that will misbehave.
Maybe with one segment of our society, it’s 1%. Another group, it might be 1/10th of 1% and so forth. And a reporter once said to me, “Well, in other words, you mean…” and my response always is, “Not in other words, in the words I just gave you.”
So I think that what happens is that there are some police officers who don’t use stop-and-frisk in an appropriate fashion and they may decide that, because of one’s skin color, that person is somehow or other suspect. Now, obviously, clearly, that’s wrong and I don’t suggest that Mike think that’s okay.
Tavis: But, but, why, Mayor, why, Mayor? Since you went there, why has he been so stubborn about that? He’s been absolutely stubborn about in any way seceding the point on stop-and-frisk.
Dinkins: I understand that. I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do believe him to be a good person. I don’t think he is a bigot or a racist. But I think he needs to acknowledge that, too often, those who are the victims of a stop-and-frisk circumstance are innocent, have done no wrong.
As a matter of fact, I point to the fact that Calvin Butts, the Senior Minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church located, as you know, on 138th Street in Harlem, that a few years ago, he was stopped by some police officers. They should have known who he was. Had they known, they certainly wouldn’t have stopped him in that fashion.
Tavis: If you were mayor like Bloomberg with this same Commissioner, Ray Kelly, if you and Ray Kelly had done this, they would have ran you out of New York City. Black and Brown folk in New York City would not have tolerated a mayor of color especially approving stop-and-frisk.
Dinkins: Well, you’re probably right.
Tavis: And they should have [laugh] if you had been behind stop-and-frisk, but I digress.
Dinkins: I’ll accept that.
Tavis: I digress.
Dinkins: I accept that too.
Tavis: I digress on that point. I got two minutes to go. Let me close. I want to get back to the book, “A Mayor’s Life.” How would you like for – if you controlled this, Mayor Dinkins, how would you like for your legacy as Mayor of New York City, the first and still the only African American head of this city, leader of this city, how would you like for your legacy to be viewed?
Dinkins: Well, I would hope that I’d be remembered as somebody who liked people, especially children. I love kids and I maintain that they are our future, that we adults owe them the ability to achieve their potential and that we don’t own this planet. We hold it in trust for them.
Tavis: Kind of hard to talk to the former mayor of New York City with all this going on in New York these days, particularly on the eve of a mayor’s race there. Kind of hard to talk to him and not get his thoughts on the current state of life in New York. I want to thank Mayor Dinkins for taking all those questions about life in New York generally.
But more specifically, I want to celebrate and thank him for coming on to talk about his new text. He’s finally speaking about all the stuff that we’ve wanted to know what he thought about years now after being the mayor of the city of New York.
The book is called “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic.” He’s said that over and over and over again. That is his phrase, that New York City is a gorgeous mosaic. Indeed it is and, Mayor, I think we’re all honored that we had the chance to see you serve as the leader of this city for four years. And thanks for coming on the program once again.
Dinkins: Thank you, buddy.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.