David Dinkins: Leading New York Is The 'Greatest Job There Is' Dinkins served as New York City's first African-American mayor, but his rise through the political ranks came with hard lessons. He chronicles that period, and his political journey, in his new book, A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic.
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David Dinkins: Leading New York Is The 'Greatest Job There Is'

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David Dinkins: Leading New York Is The 'Greatest Job There Is'

David Dinkins: Leading New York Is The 'Greatest Job There Is'

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Quick, here's a quiz. How many mayors can you name off the top of your head without even thinking about it? Chances are, even if you don't live there, you can name the mayor of New York. New York City mayors often cast a national shadow, from Ed Koch to former presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, to media mogul turned politician Michael Bloomberg. Now, as New York City enters the final stretch of its latest mayoral campaign to succeed Mr. Bloomberg, we will hear from another New York mayor who made history in his own way, David Dinkins.

David Dinkins earned the glare of national attention, not just as the mayor of one of this country's most important cities, but also as that city's first black mayor, winning the office in 1989. But it was a difficult time for the city. Race relations were fractured, the economy was struggling and many neighborhoods were in the grip of a crack epidemic. He talks about all of this in his new book "A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic," and David Dinkins is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID DINKINS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, you served 20 years ago. Why now?

DINKINS: Well, others have written of me, and I thought it was high time that I told it my way.

MARTIN: You say in the book that you were actually reluctant, at first, to run. I mean, you loved being Manhattan Borough President. You had run three times for the job before you got it. You actually loved the job. So why did you finally decide?

DINKINS: Well, I always try to be careful for this not to sound like I was drafted because that's not quite the case. But some friends of mine, political folk and others, insisted that I should run. We had supported Ed Koch - by we, I mean Percy Ellis Sutton, one of my mentors, a great man - and he and others of us supported Ed Koch in a runoff in 1977 against Mario Cuomo, and Koch succeeded. He was a very liberal progressive mayor in those days, but Ed seemed to move to the right. So by the time it got to be his third term, he was not very popular. And we were displeased, and so I ran, and we won.

MARTIN: A lot of people remember Ed Koch as being this kind of avuncular figure, you know, his famous catch phrase, how am I doing? But he was also a very polarizing figure, and many people believed that he'd kind of gotten to a place of being particularly abrasive and confrontational with minorities. So that was, you know, part of the story. When you won the mayor's race 1989, you thanked your supporters and - paraphrasing here - you thanked them for voting their hopes and not their fears. How long do you think that that lasted?

DINKINS: Well, it lasted, I suppose, as long as one could hope, initially, but we did have problems. I suppose foremost among them was Crown Heights. That's a community that contains many Orthodox Jews and some Caribbean blacks, and there'd been difficult times. And there came an occasion when the traditional motorcade to the rabbi's burial site - the last car in that motorcade fell behind, and in an attempt to catch up, he lost control and hopped the curve and struck two little black children. Gavin Cato was killed. His cousin, severely injured. And following that, rumors spread that the ambulances had come and taken away the white driver and left the black children to die. Now that was not true, but that's the word that spread. And as a result of that, a divinity student from Australia named Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed and later died.

So anyway, that resulted in a little, mini-riot, as it were. And the New York City police, who are the best in the world at controlling riot situations, did not do a sufficiently good job on that occasion. And it wasn't until after a couple of days, I said, whatever the hell you're doing, it ain't working. And I insisted that they do better, and they were able to quell things. But in the meantime, it was said by some, that I or others in our administration had given orders for the police to not stop the blacks from attacking Jews. That just wasn't true. It's a lie. It never happened that way. But we had to suffer, and it was particularly harmful to me because I considered myself a friend of the Jewish community and the state of Israel. I could cite many instances where I had shown that concern prior to this occasion before I took office.

MARTIN: And all that goodwill evaporated with this.

DINKINS: Didn't mean a thing.

MARTIN: You write about that quite a bit in the book. You write about Crown Heights extensively, but it's interesting. You point out three things that people tease you about. One is, you are very careful about your grammar. As you say, you love the King's English, you love tennis and you don't mind dressing up.


MARTIN: Do you think that the reason these particular interests of yours - preferences - particularly for, you know, careful diction, perfect grammar and so forth, is it because you're African-American, you think people just don't believe that you should carry yourself in that way?

DINKINS: Well, no, it's really because of Alice Jackson Houston, who taught freshman English at Howard University. And she wouldn't tolerate grammatical errors, and she was insistent that we speak correctly, and I learned from her. As a matter of fact, a few years ago - I teach at Columbia University - I had one of my students Google her. I said, I wonder how she is and where she is, and it developed that she had died in 2001 or '02. But she had a son who is a judge in the Washington, D.C. area, and I got him on the phone - and these were not his words - but it was sort of like, well, why are you calling me? And I said, I just want you to know what your mother did for me. And in every office that I have had where we had speechwriters and whatnot, I could envision little three by five cards that would say, don't you dare ever say between he and I, or other such. But we learned that from Alice Jackson Houston.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the former mayor of New York City, David Dinkins. He's just written a new memoir. It's called "A Mayor's Life." With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently as mayor?

DINKINS: Oh, absolutely. I'm sure that, as we say, God's not finished with me yet. So I'm by no means perfect, and I'm confident that we made many mistakes. Certainly, I would have insisted sooner in Crown Heights that the police did a better job. I would not have tolerated that as long as I did. We once had a Korean boycott situation, and I was criticized there for not walking across the picket line and destroying the effort that some blacks had to ill-treat this Korean merchant. I finally did, but I wish I had done it sooner.

MARTIN: Why do you think you didn't?

DINKINS: Because I had faith in our staff that had a similar problem that they solved in a matter of a couple of days. But there were those who didn't want that particular one solved, and so they did all they could to defeat us.

MARTIN: That's kind of the through line of the criticism of your administration, by those who criticize it, that they say that you're a very well-meaning man. You certainly care about the city, you certainly love the city, but the through line for your critics is that you just took too long to respond to these kinds of toxic situations. What's your take on that?

DINKINS: Well, I would say that in some instances, they're probably right, but in a whole lot of other instances, they're wrong. And some of those same people never seem to notice how crime decreased on our watch, how homelessness - which today, in 2013, we have more homeless in New York than we have ever had since we started keeping records - but it decreased during our time. So I'm confident that when people look back - I won't say 100 years from today - but maybe 20, 30 years, they might say, oh, gee, you know, those guys did a pretty good job. I like New York. I think it's - with all due respect to those of you who live elsewhere - I think it's the greatest town in the world. And being mayor of New York is the greatest job there is, save the one that President Obama has.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit about him and ways in which you may feel you've paved kind of the way from him. But I do want to talk a little bit about this whole issue of crime and race in New York. When you were mayor, as you recall, there were some of these searing racial incidents, Crown Heights being just one of them. I mean, there was Yusuf Hawkins, the young black boy who was beaten by a group of white kids in Bensonhurst. That was - so there were these really sort of painful, explosive kind of racial incidents.

These days, the thing that people talk about more, in terms of kind of the racial climate in New York, is stop-and-frisk. And a federal judge has just said that that policy is unconstitutional, and the city government is appealing. But this is where police, as a crime-fighting policy, have stopped and frisked people on the street that they believe may be suspicious of carrying drugs or weapons or something of that sort. It's been overwhelmingly black and Latino youth who've been stopped and frisked. Activists from all over the country say that this policy is racist and is destructive to the social fabric. The irony is that the commissioner, Ray Kelly, you first appointed.

DINKINS: That's true.

MARTIN: And I'd like to ask how you feel about the policy, and if you think the critics are right?

DINKINS: Well, you'll have to suffer one of my long responses.

MARTIN: OK, I'm ready.

DINKINS: I contend that in any segment of our society - schoolteachers, priests, rabbis, police officers, firefighters - there's a certain percentage who do not follow the rules, who will misbehave, who will behave improperly. And so if you've got 30 - 35,000 cops, it stands to reason that some of these police officers are not going to behave as they should. Now one of the things that we believed in and practiced was what we call community policing.

And we had police officers get out of the patrol cars and walk the beat. And therefore, you would not have a situation as we had a year or two ago when Calvin Butts - and Dr. Butts is a senior minister at the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street - when he was stopped by a couple of police officers. Now, if these cops had known who he was, they never, ever would have stopped him. That's precisely the point. Community policing says that the police should know the community, the community should know the cops 'cause, as you doubtless know, much crime is abated because the community trusts the police officers.

MARTIN: So is your argument that this a matter of a few bad apples, or...

DINKINS: Well, this is...

MARTIN: ...'Cause that was not the judge's finding. The judge's finding was that this policy, as it's been implemented, is unconstitutional, that it's a policy problem.

DINKINS: That's true, and I think that it is unconstitutional if you stop someone purely on the basis of race, and that was the finding.

MARTIN: Have you talked to Ray Kelly about this?

DINKINS: No, no.

MARTIN: Well, clearly, you had confidence in him since you first appointed him. So what's gone wrong here?

DINKINS: Well, you'd have to put that question to him. I'm confident that he would respond that those who have misbehaved did not do so with his sanction.

MARTIN: Is there something in particular - I think it's important to note that you weren't the first African-American mayor of a major American city, but you're certainly the first African-American - you're the first African-American mayor of New York City. And as we've discussed, this is an outsized job. You're not just a national figure, but an international figure. I mean, one of the highlights of your - well, it's true. I mean, world leaders come through New York to, you know, meet at the United Nations. You're host to leaders from all around the world. One of the highlights of your administration, as you recount, was when you welcomed Nelson Mandela to the city. You actually - you tell a very funny story about that, that the owner of the Yankees was reluctant to have the event at Yankee Stadium, initially, to welcome Mr. Mandela. But then you put a Yankee hat on him and a Yankee jacket...

DINKINS: Well, Billy Joel...

MARTIN: ...And that went over well.

DINKINS: Well, Billy Joel gave us one of his days. He had concerts for several days, and he gave us one of those days. And on that occasion, Madiba spoke to the crowd, and I draped a jacket around him and put a cap on him. And he says, I am a Yankee. You know who I am, I am a Yankee. And the place erupted.

MARTIN: Well, as a Mets fan, I'm not so happy about that, but I'll just leave that to the side.

DINKINS: Well, you see, I was a...

MARTIN: I'll leave that to the side. But I did want to ask if you feel there's something that political leaders who succeeded you learned or should learn from your career and your stint as mayor of New York.

DINKINS: Well, I would hope that all public officials would adopt a philosophy of, we serve the people, and we serve at their pleasure. And too many of us who hold public office think that the world is there for us, that the sun rises and sets on us because we have been privileged to serve, and that's just not the case. The attitude should be the reverse. Those of us who have been privileged to serve should receive it that way and say, I owe you. You permitted me to serve you, and I owe you.

MARTIN: Is there any wisdom that you would want to pass on to people listening to our conversation who perhaps aspire to the kind of career that you had, particularly African-American politicians or public figures who are following in your footsteps...

DINKINS: Well, I...

MARTIN: ...Who would like to?

DINKINS: Well, I'll tell you what I say to young people who come to me seeking advice about - they'll say such things as, I want to get in politics, what should I do, where do I start? And I tell them all that you need to be appropriately motivated. If you want to be mayor or some other high office because you want to see your name in lights, that's an improper motivation. If you want to be mayor or whatever because you want to serve people and make the lives of others better, then you will succeed if it's in you.

MARTIN: David Dinkins is the former mayor of New York City. His new book "A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic" is available now. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DINKINS: Thank you.

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