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A Well-Deserved Honor for Mayor David Dinkins

I admit that I am biased, since he has been my colleague on Columbia’s faculty for over two decades, but David Dinkins is one of the most underrated public servants in American history. His record as mayor of New York City has never been clearly understood or assessed and his contribution to the greatness of the contemporary City of New York is frequently understated. I was delighted to learn last week that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio would name the New York City Municipal Building for Professor, I mean, Mayor, David N. Dinkins.

I am not arguing that David Dinkins was a perfect mayor; he was not. The violence in Crown Heights was not his finest hour. But David Dinkins was an excellent mayor. Over the past half century, New York has been fortunate to find itself governed by the right mayors at the right time. Mayor Dinkins became mayor of New York during the height of its drug and crime epidemic and is not given the credit he deserves for reversing the tide of disorder in this city. He and then-City Council President Peter Vallone teamed up and enacted the Safe Streets, Safe City program. They then worked with the leadership in Albany to get the program approved by the state. Writing in the New York Times in 1990, Ralph Blumenthal wrote that Mayor Dinkins had proposed:

“…a record expansion of New York City’s police forces and ambitious new corrections, youth and education programs. The total cost would be $1.8 billion over the next four years. With New York City already in financial straits, the Mayor proposed paying for the initiatives through a rise in the real-property tax, a new city payroll tax to be shared by workers and employers and a 25-cent surcharge on state lottery tickets… The centerpiece of the program, which has gradually emerged in the last few weeks, is the boldest restructuring of the Police Department ever, officials said. It is designed to produce the largest street patrol force in history and the largest overall department, 42,405 members, including a record number of nearly 10,500 civilian employees to free police officers for patrol duties…”

In other words, the larger police force that Mayor Giuliani and his police commissioner Bill Bratton got to deploy when they took office would never have been in place without Mayor Dinkins’ political skill and vision. But Mayor Dinkins knew that more police and better police strategy would not be sufficient. In addition, as Blumenthal observed a quarter century ago:

“…the Mayor’s smorgasbord of proposals, portrayed as an omnibus ‘’Safe Streets, Safe City’’ program, went far beyond stepped-up police patrolling. It sought to reach into every other component of the criminal-justice system to be affected by stronger policing – from the need for more jail space for arrested prisoners to more probation officers, prosecutors and public defenders. It sought too to attack crime at its roots, with programs for youth employment, improved educational opportunities and recreation.”

As Blumenthal noted, Safe Streets, Safe City also focused on youth programs and, while again, nothing is perfect, ask yourself: why did New York avoid the intense gang warfare we saw in other cities, particularly Los Angeles? Dinkins understood the importance of giving kids hope, role models and something more constructive to do than dealing and doing drugs. New York City benefited from his wisdom and foresight.

There were other accomplishments during his term in office, notably community health care facilities designed to divert people from crowding the emergency rooms of public hospitals with non-life threatening ailments. And, of course, the construction of the Arthur Ash Tennis Complex in Queens that kept the U.S. Open in New York City and is one of the nation’s few public-private sports complexes that actually makes money for the public partner.

But to my mind, Mayor Dinkins’ true greatness came to light after his defeat for reelection and in his life as a former mayor. Writing in the New York Times on election evening, in November 1993, after Mayor Dinkins narrowly lost his bid for reelection, Francis X. Clines reported on Mayor Dinkins’ moving concession speech:

We must help [Giuliani] be as good a mayor as he can be,” Mr. Dinkins exhorted, moving quickly to help heal the city after one of the most divisive mayoral elections in years. “My friends we have made history,” he emphasized of his role as the city’s first black mayor, bucking repeated ripples of anti-Giuliani resentment. “Nothing can ever take that away from us.” The Mayor used the occasion of his farewell at the end of a bitter, bare-knuckled campaign to deliver one of the most moving speeches of his incumbency, a speech that reached beyond the ashen moment of defeat. “Mayors come and go but the life of the city must endure,” he declared. “We must all reach out,” he implored. “Never forget that this city is about dignity. It is about decency.

“Mayors come and go, but the life of the city must endure.” Often, when I see Mayor Dinkins I can’t help but think of that incredible grace note. I also think about the type of professional life he has led since leaving public office. Most public officials after leaving office try to figure out some way of cashing in on their contacts and visibility. But David Dinkins had other goals. He became a Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs—the same school that the current mayor attended before he went to work for Mayor Dinkins. Professor Dinkins has taught over one thousand public policy students since he came to Columbia in 1994.

A quick look at the mayor’s calendar will not show talks given to high rollers for big bucks, but pro bono appearances at charity events, schools and community occasions. In an interview last week with the New York Observer‘s Jillian Jorgensen, the mayor was characteristically modest when asked about the building naming:

“I’m delighted. I see it as, really, a recognition of the work that so many others did, people with whom I was privileged to work—women and men who really got the job done,” Mr. Dinkins said in a telephone interview. “While it may bear my name, I will think of Percy Sutton and Basil Paterson and Bill Lynch and Charlie Rangel—who is still with us, the others have died—and all the women and men, I might add the current mayor and his bride, who worked with me at City Hall.”

David Dinkins represents a time when public service was considered a calling. From his service in the U.S. Marines, to his time in the New York State legislature, his service as New York City Clerk, Borough President, Mayor and now Professor; he has always looked for ways to make a contribution to the public good. It is wonderful that future generations of city officials will work in a building that will carry his name. Future public servants will have another reason to look to the model of this exemplary public servant. Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for this terrific gesture, and David Dinkins deserves for history to give him appropriate credit for his accomplishments as New York City’s mayor.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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