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Remembering the Honorable David Dinkins

A few weeks after Mayor Dinkins lost his bid for reelection in late 1993, Dean John Ruggie of Columbia’s School of International Affairs and I shared breakfast with the mayor and (as he would say) “his bride” Joyce as part of Columbia’s effort to recruit Mayor Dinkins to our faculty. After we made our pitch, the mayor turned to Joyce and observed that soon he “would be unemployed and [they] would also be losing their public housing,” and he was inclined to accept our offer. David Dinkins’ warmth, humor and pragmatism were key elements of his charm and were a gift to those of us lucky to know him.

After he moved into his office on the 14th floor of Columbia’s International Affairs building, I worked with him to develop the two classes he would teach. Both were designed to take advantage of his unique experiences and singular ability. The first was a class where each week a very prominent guest speaker would lecture and engage in a discussion that the mayor would lead on critical issues in urban policy. When we were working on the syllabus, I asked him if there was anyone in New York City who would refuse an invitation to speak in his class. He thought there might be a few, but over the past quarter-century very few turned down an opportunity to speak in his class, and each year I looked forward to my guest spot at his lectern.

The second class we developed took advantage of his experience running America’s largest city. In that class, students were assigned to simulate the role of analysts in a city agency presenting a key issue analysis to the mayor for his decision. Students had to present data and arguments to a mayor whose generous and polite demeanor never prevented him from presenting a tough and analytic response to a proposal that needed more work.

For a quarter-century, Professor Dinkins and his guests presented students with a comprehensive and nuanced view of urban policymaking, in the special context of New York City. The Mayor had a deep and profound understanding of the city’s politics and political history. He was mayor during one of the most difficult periods in the city’s history and despite mistakes and setbacks, he achieved a great deal — much more than is acknowledged. The steep reduction in crime that Rudy Giuliani always gets credit for started under Mayor Dinkin’s watch as a result of his “safe streets, safe city” program. He understood that reducing crime required more than police, but programs for young people. He added thousands of officers to the NYPD but also kept libraries open six days a week and made sure schools stayed open after hours as well. He worked to get police out of their squad cars and back on the beat where they could engage with the public. He addressed issues of housing, homelessness and mental health. He understood New York and led the city with grace and dignity during a period of racial and economic stress.

Today, New York City is enduring a similar period of economic and racial turmoil with the minor addition of a pandemic tossed into the political soup. Just prior to the recent presidential election, I thought of Mayor Dinkins and of his sense of history and commitment to democracy under the awful pressure of his loss of the mayor’s office to Rudy Giuliani. While we continue to wait (probably in vain) for a concession message from President Trump, in late October I observed:

“If Trump should win, I am confident that Biden would not contest the election and perhaps might match the eloquence of my colleague professor and former Mayor David Dinkins when he lost his rematch with Rudy Giuliani in 1993. At that time, there was real concern that racial tensions might lead to violence, but Dinkins would have none of it. While painful, he knew his job on election evening was to be gracious in defeat. Dinkins quieted his angry and disappointed supporters and memorably stated that:

“The people have spoken, and I respect their decision… Mayors come and go but the life of a city must endure… We must all reach out… Never forget that this city is about dignity. It is about decency.” Listen to Dinkins demonstrating his commitment to democracy and to New York City and its people in his remarkable concession address. Such a grace note is unlikely in today’s hyper-partisan world, although America, like New York City in the 1990s, would benefit from an effort to reach across the ideological divide.”

While today we must endure a president who monetizes discord, David Dinkins reminds us of a different path. There are echoes of his temperament in President-elect Joe Biden, and I am hopeful that we have an opportunity to do what Mayor Dinkins did: seek understanding and common ground.

Mayor Dinkins’ career after leaving City Hall was a continuation of his career before it: dedicated to public service. Unlike many elected leaders, he did not try to cash in on his fame. He did not become a lobbyist or the rainmaker for a law firm or consulting business. I remember once working with his assistant to schedule an event and when I looked at his monthly calendar, I was simply amazed. It was filled with events at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, nursing homes, schools, along with cause-related fundraisers, and countless appearances designed to help people and lift their spirits.  When he first came to Columbia, my two daughters were very young and once he met them, he insisted that I give him their picture for the collection he carried around in the pocket of his suit jacket.

Of course, no remembrance of David Dinkins would be complete without some mention of tennis. His dedication to tennis was well known and until he could no longer play, it was a regular part of his routine. While serving as mayor, his support of the U.S. Tennis Association led to the construction of the National Tennis Center and Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, one of the very few government-subsidized athletic facilities that by any measure, has been a financial success. The U.S. Tennis Open is probably one of the most lucrative sporting events in the world, and for a number of years, Mayor Dinkins served on the Board of the U.S. Tennis Association. One of my fondest memories of the Mayor was when he brought me to the Open as his guest. Every celebrity in the stadium seemed to come over to shake his hand, and the sense of joy around him was a little overwhelming.

None of us are perfect and that includes my late colleague, but for anyone committed to public service, David Dinkins was a role model that few could match. He led a principled life and truly made the world a better place. Columbia President Lee Bollinger captured some of his essence in his statement last week:

“David was a steadfast leader for social justice, in detail and as a symbol. And, for me, he was a trusted and endlessly supportive advisor and friend. At this moment, I cannot help but remember how (as on so many occasions) he stood with me at a raucous public hearing before Community Board 9 voted on the Manhattanville campus. Then, as now, I felt stronger for his presence.”

I agree. David Dinkins made us stronger, but he also made us and our city better, and we should honor his memory in this difficult time by rededicating ourselves to public service. Let’s smile as we remember him and continue the struggle to make the world a better place.

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Gary Lewis
3 years ago

Thank You Dean Cohen:
For your elegant, tribute to the service and humanity of a man who was dedicated to public service. Before I met you, and took financial management at SIPA with the “Wizard” from City University (tough, two-fisted, city-kid with a grounded, “street” understanding of how finances really work in the machinations of the real world of large, modern municipalities) Professor Robert Bailey; I had underestimated the strenuous skill-set needed to effectively administrate the demands of a municipality, let alone, a majestic, world-class city as unwieldy as NY. The ability to navigate through the labyrinth of budgetary wheels that grind the city’s coffers down to deficits, while attending to those budgets determined to be critically important to the ongoing well being of the city’s “ecosystem” is a feat of some portico-socio-economic engineering that requires more than a knowledge of what works, but a “wisdom” to know what, when, where and how to address, implement, and institute the financial instruments and economic policy necessary to bring stability to a given organ of government. It takes more than the much flaunted and celebrated, political, oratorical and/or demagoguery skills common to mediocre politicians. I learned that you have to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the vital organs of the government administration industry: budgeting, regulating, taxing, managing, planning, and devising policy to administrate and facilitate the services needed at the federal, state, and local levels. Mayoral City Administrators need a skill set that should include a strategic vision, with an incremental, deliberative plan to follow through on this “Vision” with a leadership that effectively delegates when needed, and develops the talent attracted to their vision and style of leadership. The courage needed to wade into the unpleasantries common to big city politics, and the complexities of its financial “bloodstream” demanded a cool head and flint-like certainty in the scrutiny and implementation of financial allocation. Mayor Dinkins was cool, calm and collected in his deliberations as the city’s Chief Administrator. In other words, such high profile office holders are not merely politicians, they are “ engineers” tasked with building and administrating a legislature, judiciary and executive government (those like the Mayor who implement the laws and policies issued and adopted by the legislature; moreover, these elected and/or appointed executives are tasked with framing these legislatively sanctioned policies. I.e., Mayor Dinkins, Chief Executive of NY, the largest city in the world, had the courage and foresight to appoint an executive to oversee and administrate the City’s AIDS Policy Coordination Office aka The Ryan White Care Coordination program . received through Title I of the Ryan White Act. In 1992, Mayor Dinkins asked the sitting Commissioner of Mental Health, Billy Jones, M.D., an openly gay, black man, to be the Chair and AIDS policy coordinator for this program. A courageous and prudent , delegation for a political and social climate that was still fomenting hostilities with political-economic stonewalling. I believe in so doing he was responsibly looking after the well-being of the those who suffered from AIDS, as well as the fabric of the social communities to which they they belonged. Clearly, the zeitgeist of the COVID-19 pandemic is driving home the vital necessity of competent government leadership and the need for skilled, experienced, courageous, and dedicated civil servants like the often beloved Honorable Mayor Dinkins. committed skilled, to. The People and the institutions and industries rely on such government administration to maintain good order and uninterrupted service to the needs of the public.
The other thing I came to understand about government administration is how vital budgets are to the good working order of the City’s administrating organs.
The wisdom and experience to know which budgets are vital when, to the growth and wellbeing of the “City” going forward is a skillset all together misunderstood or neglected by mediocre politicians. Most seem to expend significant sums of taxpayer’s money, shoring-up the optics of their administration’s public polls and/or spotlighting their charismatic persona. All of which belies the need to repair, reassemble, heal and restore the effective functions and vital services needed by the public in general and the city at large.

My more personal understanding of who The Honorable Mayor David Dinkins was, came from his time on the faculty at Columbia University where he taught classes at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs as a Professor in the Practice of Public Policy (SIPA). A recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a Montford Point Marine in the United States Marine Corps, during World War II, he graduated with honors from Howard University in 1950 with a B.S. in mathematics and an LL.B. from Brooklyn Law School in 1956; whereby he maintained a private law practice prior to entering public service. His legacy in the “academy” is preserved with the inaugural David N. Dinkins Professorship Chair in the Practice of Urban & Public Affairs at SIPA, and the opening of the David N. Dinkins Archives and Oral History Project at the Columbia University Libraries.
As Mayor he quietly pursued his aim to get the wheels of industry and government working in tandem while diluting the acerbic racial and political environment fomented by unaddressed incidents of racial injustice, or equally violative incidents of budgetary displacements that devastated the positive social inroads achieved by the often maligned John Lindsay Administration (b. 11/24/21 – d. 12/19/2000, mayor of NYC from 1966-1973 promoted the city as a “Fun City”.). Mayor Lindsay walked through my neighborhood (Brownsville/East NY) during a period when his staff strongly advised against it. Similarly, during the rioting in Crown Heights over the accidental shooting of a young black boy, (which further exacerbated already volatile Jewish/Black relations) Mayor Dinkin’s demonstrated the same kind of confidence and Grace in making personal public appearances to assuage the emotional turmoil. Like Mayor Lindsay, he weathered volatile unrest from all sides: (Lindsay had unprecedented strikes, riots, City shut-downs, anti-war protests, civil rights demonstrations, heated racial hostilities and the antipathy of his own Republican Party.). Mayor Dinkins had the rioting in Crown Heights over an accidental shooting of a young black boy, which further exacerbated already volatile Jewish/Black relations. Both men handled these volatile circumstances with a grace and kindness that is reflected in the quiet tributes by the people of NY in roads, parks and buildings bearing their name. (Named in Lindsay’s honor, the Yale Law School Lindsay Fellowship Program, the Lindsay Triangle in Brooklyn, the 57.5-acre, East River Park renamed, John V. Lindsay East River Park, and the South Loop Drive in Central Park was renamed the John V. Lindsay Drive, in recognition of Lindsay’s aspirations for a car-free Central Park.). Similarly the Honorable Mayor David Denkins was lauded by his once bitter rival, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who famously lost his first mayoral bid for Mayor to Dr. David Dinkins who defeated Mayor Koch (b. 12/12/24, d. 2/1/13, mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989) during the Democratic primary, and defeated Giuliani in the closest race in NY’s history [margin of only 47,080] becoming the first and only black mayor of the City of NY.
“He gave a great deal of his life in service to our great City,”, “That service is respected and honored by all.” Giuliani on Twitter.
He is remembered by. As an avid tennis player, Mayor Dinkins secured the 99 year lease to keep the US Open at the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. As a tribute, a pedestrian plaza, David Dinkins Circle is named for him at the entrance.
The 40-story, 580-foot (180 m) Manhattan Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street, east of Chambers Street, is now called the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building (As an aside I wonder which public memorials are named for in Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

“ People may forget what you say, they may forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.” Maya Angelou.

The Honorable Mayor Dinkins defeated these two formidable opponents on a platform of advancing racial harmony. He notably described the city’s diversity as a “gorgeous mosaic”. During his one term, a modest reduction in the homicide rate was in the opinion of many, a harbinger of a falling crime rate that came to full fruition, despite (or some would argue, because of) the heavy-handed, zero tolerance policing policies of Mayor Giuliani (b. May 28, 1944, 107th Mayor of NY, January 1, 1994 – December 31, 2001). Among the incidents that loomed large in his term was several days of rioting in Crown Heights after the accidental killing of a young Black boy. The optics of this incident alone was considered to be a primary reason why Mayor Dinkins lost his bid for re-election to Guiliani.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said all the mayors who followed Dinkins “stood on his shoulders and built on his legacy.”
“I will always remember a man, a Marine, a mayor and a friend who was deeply proud of his service to his city and country — and rightly so,” Bloomberg wrote on Twitter

“He taught us (that) the objective was not to just confront people, but to get things done,” Sharpton said. “At the end of the day you have to make change, not just make noise.” Rev Al Sharpton

After “rolling out the red carpet” for Nelson Mandela

“We admired him for … bringing his city to a standstill in honor of the visiting Mandelas after Madiba was released from jail,” wrote Makhosini Mgitywa, a Johannesburg railroad executive.

Mayor Dinkins made many of us feel whole, and gave us a sense that like it or not, we were all in “it” together. I remember when he came to SIPA, and thought “Wow, Columbia’s SIPA actually got the “Quiet-Lion of Gracie Mansion” to come download his epic, living. institutional database of real first-hand experience administrating one of the most difficult cities in the world to administrate. He brought to the “academy” a view of the real world from the socio-econ-political view of the Mayoralty of the largest city in the world. And this, a man who sought to reconstruct, and reorganize the loins of the City’s industries and markets by ameliorating the friction between government, its constituencies, and the industries their services: i.e., reliable trains and transportation systems, harmony and corporation in industrial relations with no strikes or shut downs, a feel good handle motto for NY’ers i.e., “I Love NY”; a tax structure that invites and encourage industry to build in NY confident in a business friendly environment.). The Honorable Mayor Dinkins meticulously and delicately laid the moorings and groundwork for the long term stable future of the City he loved and gave his life too. It is reassuring to read your grasp of the significance of oftentimes little noticed, but critical contributors to the health and wealth of what for many of us, is the greatest city in the world.
“Sometimes people ask me what I want to be remembered for. And I always say, I want to be remembered as somebody who cared about people, especially children.” —from a 2019 interview with The Honorable Mayor Dinkins by the Gotham Gazette.

As an afterword, the impact of Mayor Dinkins, on a kid who grew up variously in “Hell’s Kitchen”, and “The Killing Fields of NY, the ejection of Mayor Dinkins was a breath of fresh alpine air. Watching SIPA facilitating the “download” of fresh memory, current institutional knowledge, and the epic resume of Mayor Dinkins for the benefit of those courageous enough to answer the “call” to public service was deeply received as further providential assurance, that institutional memory, knowledge and experience would be preserved, communicated and broadcast from the hallowed halls of “The Academy.”
Thank you for your tribute to a quiet and unassuming man, who did more than tinker with the machinery of government, he brought a quiet, beating heart to the often harried city employees of the mayoralty and it’s instruments of executive administration.
Forever grateful,
G. Lewis. SIPA ‘87, ‘88.