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David Dinkins, New York City’s Only Black Mayor, Dies at 93
David Dinkins, New York’s only Black mayor, whose struggles with civil unrest and racial strife in the early 1990s overshadowed his success in beginning the city’s two-decade trend of reduced crime, has died. He was 93.
Dinkins died on Monday night at his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the New York Times reported, citing Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Dinkins coined the phrase “gorgeous mosaic” to describe New Yorkers’ tolerance and respect for ethnic diversity. His contributions included his role in creating the privately financed National Tennis Center in Queens, where the U.S. Open is played. He suffered irrevocable political damage during three days of riots in August 1991, after a Black child was accidentally killed by a Jewish motorist in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Dinkins won election as the city’s 106th mayor in 1989, besting Republican Rudolph Giuliani by 47,000 votes, the narrowest margin in New York history. He lost a rematch to Giuliani by 53,000 votes four years later, after Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, vowed to reorganize the Police Department in a war against crime. Dinkins spent his post-mayoral years rebutting critics whom he said unfairly blamed him for conditions he inherited.
“One would have gotten the impression that on Dec. 31, 1989, there was no crime, and on the next day, when I took office, the homicide rate was over 2,000 a year, as though it had occurred overnight,” Dinkins wrote in his 2013 autobiography, “A Mayor’s Life.”
I extend my deepest condolences to the family of Mayor David Dinkins, and to the many New Yorkers who loved and supported him. He gave a great deal of his life in service to our great City. That service is respected and honored by all.6:04 AM · Nov 24, 2020
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De Blasio got his start in city politics working as a 28-year-old volunteer coordinator in Dinkins’ 1989 campaign, and later served as a City Hall aide in the Dinkins administration. De Blasio named the city’s municipal office building after Dinkins in 2015.
Dinkins said his biggest achievements included “keeping each branch library open at a time when we had little or no money,” at a cost of $47 million, and persuading the state legislature to enact an income-tax surcharge to pay for the hiring of thousands of police officers.
His favorite moment as mayor was the 1990 visit of Nelson Mandela, whom Dinkins hosted at Gracie Mansion.
“He’s one of my all-time heroes, as you might imagine,” Dinkins said during a 2011 appearance before the Association for a Better New York, a civic organization of real estate developers and corporate executives that Dinkins helped create.
The most lasting impact of Dinkins’ tenure was the political breakthrough he achieved by becoming the city’s first Black mayor, said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist who directs the Benjamin Center for regional policy research at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He is co-author, with Daniel Feldman, of “Tales from the Sausage Factory: Making Laws in New York State” published in 2010.
“New York had enormous challenges when he was mayor, and many fiscal issues remained unaddressed,” Benjamin said in a 2012 interview. “While Dinkins addressed the crime issue, people didn’t feel a change in the city’s quality of life until he was gone. His major contribution lay in motivating political inclusion among a vast number of minority residents who hadn’t felt included or empowered.”
Most recently, Dinkins served on the faculty at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, which in 1995 created an annual public-policy forum in his name. He hosted a radio interview program on WLIB-AM.
He also served on the boards of non-profit organizations including the U.S. Tennis Association, Acorn, the Children’s Health Fund, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and was a founding member of the Association for a Better New York.
He began his political career as a New York state assemblyman in 1966, then became president of the New York City Board of Elections before the City Council appointed him city clerk in 1975. He was elected Manhattan borough president in 1985.
Dinkins helped organize and enhance African-American political influence in New York City and state as one of four Harlem-based leaders who began their work in the 1960s. Dinkins joined with U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, former Manhattan borough president and broadcasting executive Percy Sutton and Basil Paterson, a labor lawyer and father of former Governor David Paterson. They were known as the Gang of Four.
David Norman Dinkins was born July 10, 1927, in Trenton, New Jersey. After serving two years in the U.S. Marines, he entered Howard University in Washington, where he studied mathematics and graduated with honors in 1950. He received a law degree in 1956 from Brooklyn Law School, where he served on the alumni association board of directors.
As mayor, Dinkins, who had characterized himself as a racial conciliator, found himself embroiled in ethnic strife throughout his term.
In August 1991, three days ofriots in Crown Heights ensued after a seven-year-old Black child, Gavin Cato, died when hit by a car in a motorcade carrying Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement that’s based in the neighborhood. Hours later, about 20 Black youths surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, an Australian exchange student, who was stabbed to death.
In 1992, a state investigation of the episode concluded that Dinkins “did not act in a timely and decisive manner” in ordering adequate police deployments to quell the violence. Dinkins spent much of his remaining years defending himself against criticism stemming from the incident.
“If I had it to do over again I might have said to police 24 hours earlier, ‘What you’re doing isn’t working, which I finally said,’” Dinkins said during the ABNY panel in 2011.
Elected in 1989, at the height of a crime wave fueled by crack cocaine use in impoverished neighborhoods, Dinkins added about 5,000 officers to the Police Department, increasing staffing to about 40,000, which helped start what has become more than two decades of decreasing violent crime.
Murders fell to 1,927 in 1993, Dinkins’ last year in office, from a high of 2,262 in 1990, under the leadership of Raymond Kelly, whom Dinkins had appointed police commissioner in 1992. Citing Kelly’s performance as Dinkins’s appointee, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose him for a second stint in 2002.
“It was Mayor Dinkins’ misfortune that most of the police recruits arrived during the administration of Mayor Giuliani, who took credit for an expansion enabled and paid for entirely through the Mayor Dinkins’ leadership,” said Victor Kovner, who headed the city’s Law Department in the Dinkins administration.
Dinkins‘ wife, Joyce Burrows Dinkins, died last month. They had two children: David Jr. and Donna Hoggard.
Bloomberg, the city’s 108th mayor, is also founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.