He made history in becoming mayor and faced multiple crises during a single term in City Hall.


David Dinkins in 2009.

David Dinkins, who projected dignity as he smashed racial barriers, steered the city through tumultuous times, lost a bitter reelection campaign and spent nearly 27 years as an elder statesman of city affairs, died Monday at his home at the age of 93.

A Korean war veteran, Dinkins was a lawyer and clubhouse politician who rose steadily through the ranks of the Harlem Democratic establishment to serve in the Assembly, lead the Board of Elections and serve as City Clerk. He nearly became the city’s first deputy mayor during the Beame administration, but was sidelined by a minor scandal. It took him three tries to become Manhattan borough president, finally succeeding in 1985. 

When Rev. Jesse Jackson performed remarkably well in the 1988 Democratic president primary in New York City, Dinkins’ advisers saw a path for a Black candidate to win the mayoralty. Dinkins, reluctant at first, agreed to make the race. He bested three-term Mayor Ed Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary and then earned a razor-thin margin against former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani to become the city’s 106th mayor.

Koch had navigated New York out of the fiscal crisis into a period of growth driven by real-estate development and his pugilistic optimism, but by the time of Dinkins’ inauguration, the limits of that approach were becoming clear: Crime was rising and AIDS and homelessness had evolved into crises. Fiscal strains forced Dinkins to make cuts in his first budget, dimming his hopes of creating new social programs.

A few months later, a recession hit; it was short but economic growth was sluggish in its aftermath. Persistent unemployment drove the city’s welfare rolls higher. An attempt to make homeless shelter eligibility rules more humane was followed by a surge of new cases, which led Dinkins to tighten the rules again.

Despite the challenges, Dinkins managed to get New York City divested from the apartheid regime in South Africa, create the city’s first policy to encourage the awarding of city contracts to minority and women-owned enterprises, launch Fashion Week and Restaurant Week, begin revitalizing Times Square, sign the first landmark supportive housing agreement with the state and expand the National Tennis Center in Queens to ensure its continued hosting of the U.S. Open.

Though history has often credited his successor, Giuliani, with the city’s turnaround in battling violent crime, it was under Dinkins that the murder count peaked and began its fall during his final two years in office. That decrease and the steep fall that occurred through the 1990s and into the Bloomberg era was grounded in Dinkins’ Safe Streets, Safe City program, which expanded the police force.

Incidents like the Korean grocer boycott and the Crown Heights riots bruised Dinkins’ reputation for being able to manage conflict in the city and protect all communities. While his management of those incidents was imperfect, it was also clear that he faced unique animosity: His effort to remove NYPD officials from the Civilian Complaint Review Board touched off the infamous “police riot” in front of city hall in which racial epithets were spewed and Giuliani was a prominent speaker.

Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, notes that the coverage of Dinkins’ death mirrors the unique challenges he faced as mayor. In obituaries Dinkins’ legacy is sometimes “reduced to, like, ‘violence’ and ‘Crown Heights’ in a way in which white mayors are never held accountable.” That narrow focus overlooks not just Dinkins’ impact on the city but his national significance. “Becoming mayor of the largest city in the county makes him Obama before Obama,” Greer says. It is particularly ironic that Dinkins laid the groundwork for the further reduction of crime under Giuliani—a development that was used retrospectively to paint Dinkins as incompetent.

Dinkins also charted territory in a different way, Greer notes: “You have the race-bating antithesis of David Dinkins become mayor after him” in much the same way Donald Trump followed Barack Obama.

And Dinkins mapped one of the great paradoxes facing Black politicians. “Both of them [Dinkins and Obama] are know for their grace, their eloquence and also because they were palatable to white people,” Greer says. Dinkins’ trademark depiction of the city’s “beautiful mosaic” was an article of genuine faith but also signaled the complexity in translating his political achievement into policy gains for Black New Yorkers: He had to govern for all New Yorkers, even when some New Yorkers needed government’s support more than others.

While some pioneers face unrealistic expectations, even meeting realistic ones can be difficult. In Dinkins’ case, despite his work on MWBE, the CCRB and South Africa, he lost in 1993 in part because Black voters abandoned him. “Sometimes Black people get less from Black leaders because even treating Black people as equals makes it seem like the leader is ‘catering’ to them,” Greer says.

In the 1993 election, Dinkins lost to Giuliani by 53,000 votes. Dinkins left City Hall for a professorship at Columbia University, where for more than 20 years he led the David N. Dinkins Leadership & Public Policy Forum. In the summer of 2019, as the 20th anniversary of his landmark election neared, Dinkins joined the Max & Murphy Show to talk about that race and his mayoralty.

Dinkins did not seem like the type of man for whom vengeance was a priority. But he achieved a measure of recompense in his post-mayoral life, especially after his rival Giuliani left office. As one man traded off his mayoral reputation to make millions as a consultant, run disastrously for president, and become associated with the greatest excesses of the Trump phenomenon, another graciously aged into a quiet voice for a city that many people still manage to believe in.