Cultural Watch

David Dinkins, Understated Pioneer and 106th Mayor, is Dead

(CITY LIMITS) November 27, 2020

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.

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