David Dinkins

A Mayor and His City

Air Date: November 15, 2014

106th New York City Mayor David Dinkins reflects on his mayoralty.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. “A Mayor’s Life” is our guest former New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ new memoir, an in-depth candid portrait of his fascinating political career. “I see New York as a gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation”, Dinkins writes. “Mayors come and Mayors go, but the City must endure.”

Longtime Urban Affairs correspondent, Sam Roberts of The New York Times called the book “required reading for New York’s new mayor … Bill de Blasio … a moving memoir by an upwardly mobile son of the city…and a timely reminder that liberals seem to get elected in New York just as the city is running out of money.”

Nonetheless, always statesmanlike, calm, cool and collected Mayor Dinkins relates his governing temperament and the obstacles he faced to recent political struggles of President Obama. While the past six years have marked a decline in unemployment, the American people sometimes indicate their lack of confidence in what they perceive as President Obama’s passive approach to policy making.

While crime actually slowed during the Dinkins administration, opponents of the Mayor accused him of “inaction.” Explaining defeat in a rematch against Mayor Giuliani, Dinkins said: “I think it was pure racism.”

In light of his comment, I first want to ask Mayor Dinkins if his personal composure – that coolness – has always been innate … or if he was afraid, as Mayor, of displaying emotion because of a fear of an electorate’s racism? That being an outspoken Black man, a Black Mayor would fit in with the stereotype. Mayor? Thank you for being here.

DINKINS: Thank you. And the legacy goes on (laugh).

HEFFNER: How about that?

DINKINS: I’m talking about your legacy.

HEFFNER: Oh, thank you I appreciate you saying that, Mayor.

DINKINS: Well, I … one of the reasons for writing the book and I really owe that very much to Len Riggio, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, he didn’t publish it, but he’s a very good friend and without his support and encouragement, there would have been no book.

HEFFNER: And he wrote the preface.

DINKINS: Yes, yeah … he, he’s a terrific guy and he just loved Bill Lynch. Bill Lynch was a guy who really got me elected. He was the … The New York Times called him “the rumpled genius” and he was a … my Chief of Staff when I was Manhattan Borough President and a Deputy Mayor when, when I finally got elected. And it was, it was Bill Lynch … I, I think more than any other single person who helped us do a lot of the things that we did.

Although one of the reasons for writing the book was to make the point that no principal, no governor, no mayor, no president gets anything done alone. And it’s the quality of the people with whom you surround yourself that makes the difference. And I had the good fortune of having had a lot of friends, some who worked with us and some who did not.

For instance, there’s Peter Johnson, Wall Street lawyer, young fellow and I’m of … as a matter of fact, I’m “Or Counsel” to the law firm there … Leahy and Johnson. And it was Peter who on election night in 1993 and we had lost, people were very upset. As a matter of fact, earlier that day … election day, we had a press conference in City Hall to point out that people in Brooklyn were complaining about White off-duty police officers who were questioning the people waiting in line to vote. Questions such as “Have you ever been arrested? Do you have a driver’s license?” Things that are totally irrelevant to whether or not they were qualified to vote.

So we had a press conference to, to point that out. So people were very angry … but the eager supporters are always angry when you lose. And they demand a re-count and things of that sort. So Peter Johnson said “No, Dave, we, we really should … we should be statesmen.” And so some of the language you use in your intro … we said “In this country we don’t have coups and revolutions, we have elections. And the people have spoken. And Mayors come and Mayor’s go, but the city must endure.” I was a real statesman.

The next morning I looked at my bride of now 61 years and I looked at her and I said, “You know what, we’ve got less than 60 days to get out of Gracie Mansion, find a place to live, a means to pay the rent and simultaneously transition an entire government in a professional, responsible way, less they say ‘See, you let those people in and look what they did.'”

So her job was to find us a place to live. And the Rudin’s are good friends. In fact, Lew Rudin, I spoke at his funeral … we were that close. So she went to Lew and Lew showed us some apartments and we ended up on East 68th Street. The rent’s paid for this month at least, so we’ll, we’ll be there.

But it … thanks to Peter … I think we behaved as we should have, and in fact, Peter said to me, “Well, why don’t you think about teaching at Columbia?” Because Peter’s a Columbia graduate and Columbia Law School, brilliant fella, he really is. And so, I said, “Well, I haven’t practiced law since 1975 … he said, “No, SIPA”. I said “What’s SIPA? SIPA is the School of International and Public Affairs.

So in literally two day, by two days, I mean 48 hours … we met with the President of the University, the Dean of the School and I just sat there with my mouth hanging open and Peter said things like “Well, he’s a former Mayor, he’s got to have an office. Former Mayor’s got to make at least this much.”

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

DINKINS: So I’m, I’m still there and I love it. The young people are … the graduate students, they’re a whole lot smarter than I am, but it gives you hope for the future. They, they really are terrific. Many from outside the city, and, and outside the country. But they’re, they’re good.

HEFFNER: But as far as your personality … friendly, on an even keel, equanimity … is that … was that innate? Because you’re, your mayoralty … certainly proved to pave the foundational steps upon which Mayor Giuliani could build in, in several different realms.

But your own personality … is that, is that coolness something that no one could dispossess from you under whatever circumstances …

DINKINS: Well, I don’t know that I’m so cool (laugh) …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

DINKINS: (Laugh) I don’t know that I’m so cool. But I, I just …I am who I am. And I used to say to our, our staff and they were really good people …women and men … ah, man I was so fortunate to have been able to select a refined staff. Many of them suggested to me by people like Bill Lynch and Basil Patterson and Percy Sutton and some, some of whom, some of the people who went to work for us, I didn’t know before. Some I met in the Borough President’s office and, and later … in the Mayor’s office … but I, I used to say to them, I’ll take your advice 95% of the time, perhaps, but you must understand that the Lincoln Rule obtains … and they say, “What’s the Lincoln rule?”

I said, Well Abe Lincoln would convene his Cabinet … and he’d put a question and take a vote …and go, “Nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay … and Lincoln would say ‘The aye’s have it’.” (Laugh)

So, they understood that, but I can think of instances, like take needle exchange … that’s where the government gives free needles to drug addicts. And when I first heard this I said, “You’ve got to be kidding”. And, and they said, in effect, “Sit down, Mayor and listen.”

And it took a couple of weeks, but they explained to me that one) we would decrease the spread of AIDS because contaminated needles was what was helping that. Plus a small percentage, maybe only one percent, two percent …would because of the, the free needles … would get introduction to a drug programs and some of them would get off of drugs.

So today it’s accepted as a, a good and wise thing to do. But … I cite that as an extreme example of something they persuaded me to … we have wonderful people.

And Basil Patterson …and I’m just getting to the point now where I can talk about Basil without getting overly emotional. He was a dear (cough) … pardon me … a dear friend and law partner and … but Basil was the Chair of our Judiciary Committee … it’s a non-paying position, but he would vet and recommend from his committee persons who would go to the bench … become judges. And the Mayor gets to appoint Criminal Court and Family Court judges which as we have observed … not that it’s so profound … but for many people that court is the court of last resort. So in that sense it’s very, very important.

We think of the Appellate Courts and the Supreme Court of the United States … obviously important, but for many people, for who knows, millions over time … that Family Court or Criminal Court is really the court of last resort. So, Basil brought me such good people, that if I had, say, one opening, he’d bring me three … it didn’t matter which one I picked because each was good. And so we are proud of our record of having appointed more women, more minorities, more gays, to the bench than any other administration.

HEFFNER: It was easier, in effect, for Mayor Giuliani to demagogue … I mean that, that’s what you’re getting at … and to be outspoken, to be adamant, to be publicly angry over an issue like crime when race is added to that, it’s a different story.

DINKINS: Ray Kelly at the time was the first Deputy Commissioner. Lee Brown, or Dr. Lee Patrick Brown, as I loved to call him, he was my Commissioner. And they did a study of the New York City Police Department … they gave me a report that was like a phone book. And because we wanted to tackle the problem, but let’s, let’s understand what it is.

And there had not been such a study in a quarter century or more. So we, we decided that what was important was one … we needed more resources. And not just more police officers, but all the related areas. If you have more police officers, you need more Assistant DA’s, you need more defense counsels and Legal Aid Society … you need more people in probation and parole and so forth. Plus the, the report that they rendered of our program, which was called “Safe Street, Safe City” was subtitled “Cops and Kids”. Because we recognized how important it was to provide means for young people to have other things to do besides anti-social behavior.

And so we, we devised what we called “Beacon” Schools, where schools would be open beyond the hours, the usual hours of instruction and with programs, paid for by the city, but designed by the community. And it worked very well.

To this day they still have “Beacon” Schools. I thought Rudy would change the name, but he didn’t.

Now, but to get the resources for this, we had to tax ourselves and as you probably know, the city does not have the capacity other than real estate rates to tax itself, you have to go to Albany. So led by Milt Mollen …

HEFFNER: Continues to be an issue with which the …

DINKINS: Yes, it does.

HEFFNER: … current Mayor has to grapple, who was one of your staffers.

DINKINS: That’s true. Well, Milt Mollen was a very distinguished … is a very distinguished person, he was the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division in the Second Department. He, too, stepped down from that job to become a Deputy Mayor with me. Well, he was in the vanguard of the effort in Albany.

And one day a White State Senator from Queens, Republican, when we said “People are dying in the streets”. He said, “Mr. Mayor my constituency is concerned with auto theft and graffiti”. I mean it was that kind of rough. But we won. We, we … what it was a surcharge on personal income tax, which we thought was reasonable. But we had to guarantee, actual letter, memorandum of understanding, that we would not sue these resources for the general treasury. We would use it for the purposes for which we sought the tax in the first place.

So, that’s what helped us and as early as 1991, crime started to go down. But when people speak about crime today, as they write about, they’ll speak of “crime in the nineties”. I took office January 1st 1990. So they write about it as though on December 31st, 1989, there was no crime, just the next day when Dinkins became Mayor. So, a little hard to get used to that. But so … they, they don’t write, “the crime of the late eighties”, although they recognize that that was a crack epidemic and a lot of bad things were going on in that time. But it didn’t start the day we took office.

HEFFNER: So let me, let me explore with you the foundational revitalization that was underway under, under your tenure … Times Square … that began as your project. And I’m wondering as you look at Mayors who’ve succeeded you …

DINKINS: I can’t let the moment pass without telling you about Times Square.


DINKINS: On the very last day that we were in office in 1993, December … I don’t know whether it was the 30th or the 29th or what … whatever the last day was … I mean where I’m going to lock City Hall door and hand Rudy the key … I mean that late in the game.

A fellow name Carl Weisbrod, came dashing into City Hall with a Memorandum of Understanding to be signed by Barry Sullivan who was a real good guy … is a real good guy, I got him from David Rockefeller … he’s a Republican, but he was the, the Deputy Mayor for Finance and Economic Development. And that deal started … it was the Disney deal, that started the revitalization of Times Square.

Now, this is what Carl Weisbrod was doing at the very last minute. You or I, I’m sure, at that late stage would have been out circulating our resumes … gotta get a job. Not Carl … he was still on the case. Incidentally he was a co-Chair of de Blasio’s transition committee and, and now has agreed to come back into government and is the Chairman of the City Planning Commission ….I’m sure he’s taken a cut in money (laugh) to do that, but he’s a terrific guy.

These are the kinds of people I had the good fortune of having worked with us.

HEFFNER: What aspect of the city is, is in most need of revitalization?

DINKINS: Well, I, I … education and jobs, of course, are way up. But this is not to suggest that after eight years of Rudy and 12 years of Mike Bloomberg … this is not to suggest that they didn’t do anything in these areas, because that would be unfair and inaccurate.

But a budget, as Dr. Esther Fuchs of Columbia University loves to remind us … a budget is a political document in that it orders one’s priorities.


DINKINS: And perhaps if over the last 20 years resources had been expended in a different direction, some of these problems that we have today might not exist.

Now this is without assigning blame to Rudy or to Mike. I’m, I’m not doing that. Because it’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback.

HEFFNER: But in terms of how we got to the severe income inequality … the priorities or the misplaced priorities led to that point.

DINKINS: Yeah, well this is what de Blasio ran on. You know, he came out of the pack to, to become the Mayor. In fact, my candidate had been Billy Thompson, who, who was an old friend and who ran the Board of Education when we had a different system.

But Bill de Blasio successfully argued that this is the tale of two cities. And, indeed, in may ways it is. There are some of us who are privileged to have our children attend better schools, because this is where we live, in those neighborhoods and, with respect to jobs, or, or unemployment, homelessness … one has but to read David Jones who’s the head the Community Service Society and by way of full disclosure, I’m a lifetime Trustee.

But David annually writes about these kinds of things. As, as does Marion Wright Edelman, the Children’s Defense Fund. Not only on New York, but in, in general and they point out that minority children have a lesser chance of living beyond “x” years and so forth.

And, and we, we, we are less … people are less concerned with us than they ought be. I mean this is what is … it must be the case because look where we are.

But see also I should, I should point out that I’m a product of the depression years, I was born in 1927. If I tell people I’m old, they say, “What do you mean you’re old?” I say, “If you’re closer to 90 than you are to 80 … you’re old.”


DINKINS: And I’m 87, that’s a lot. But I, I was in the United States Marine Corps in 1945 at a time when Tuskegee Airmen as Dr. Roscoe Brown is and Black soldiers and Black Marines were treated less well in the South than were German and Italian prisoners of war. Now how illogical is that? That’s just bigotry, it’s racism … and ahh, but things are better now and they’re not what they need to be, but as we say, “Thank god they’re not what they used to be.”

HEFFNER: What’s your mindset towards how we can achieve greater equality? Are there aspects of reform from your Administration that you would put back to work, or new inventions that have not even been experimented with in city government, yet.

DINKINS: Well, first off, I would point out … I have never, ever argued that I was the smartest guy in the room. As some of my political friends seem to adopt that posture. Not I. I would … the advice that I would give Bill de Blasio is to surround himself with bright young and not so young women and men to advise him in these areas.

I, I, I would, I would not …there’s one … there’s only one thing that I can think of that I have told him that I favor and I, and I said this publicly (coughs, says Pardon me). I suggested to him as, as he sought the revenue to do some of the things he wanted to do.

And I said you ought to look at the commuter tax, so called. This is an income tax on people who work in the city but reside outside the city. As Mayor we sought … we had such a tax. As Mayor I sought to increase it … unsuccessfully.

Mike Bloomberg, one term … one year sought to, to get that and he was not able to, it had been eliminated by the State Legislature … another long story that goes with that. But, I think it was a big, big mistake. And, and the tax on these non-residents isn’t the same rate that we residents pay, but it is not unfair … they use our services, and what are you going to … get mad and say, “I will quit my job in the city?”. This is, this is not like some things that we concern ourselves about in the tax areas … where we say, “Well, people will leave the city, they’ll take their jobs and go away, the factories will move.” This is not such a, a situation. But … and Mike fought very hard, Mayor Bloomberg fought very hard to get the congestion pricing, which would have yielded, I think, about $300 million dollars from the Federal government, one time. And this commuter tax is $400 to $500 million each year … depending obviously on where you put the rates.

HEFFNER: We’re running out of time, Mayor, but I do want to ask you, as I did in the opening … do you see parallels between your own political career and that of President Obama …

HEFFNER: … in terms of the blow-back as a result of being a Black politician in an executive function?

DINKINS: To some degree, yes. As a matter of fact, I say to people that being Mayor of the City of New York is the greatest job in the world, if you like public service and you like people as, as I do. And that … being Mayor of New York is better than being Mayor of any city any where in the world … better than being Governor of any state, including New York State and the only job that’s better is the one Obama has … but of late, I’ve begun to wonder about that. (Chuckle) Because he’s, he’s really getting beat up on a lot and I think in many instances in an unfair fashion.

HEFFNER: Mayor, that you so much for being here today.

DINKINS: I wish you continued success.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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