David Dinkins, who broke barriers as New York City’s first Black mayor, but was doomed to a single term by a soaring murder rate, stubborn unemployment and his mishandling of a riot in Brooklyn, has died. He was 93.
Dinkins died Monday, the New York City Police Department confirmed. The department said officers were called to the former mayor’s home in the evening. Initial indications were that he died of natural causes.
Dinkins’s death came just weeks after the death of his wife, Joyce, who died in October at the age of 89.
Dinkins, a calm and courtly figure with a penchant for tennis and formal wear, was a dramatic shift from both his predecessor, Ed Koch, and his successor, Rudolph Giuliani – two combative and often abrasive politicians in a city with a world-class reputation for impatience and rudeness.
AIDS, guns and crack cocaine killed thousands of people each year in New York. Unemployment soared. Homelessness was rampant. The city faced a $1.5bn budget deficit.
Dinkins’s low-key, considered approach quickly came to be perceived as a flaw. Critics said he was too soft and too slow.
Dinkins accomplished much at City Hall. He raised taxes to hire thousands of police officers. He spent billions of dollars revitalising neglected housing. His administration got the Walt Disney Corporation to invest in the clean-up of then-seedy Times Square.
In recent years, he has received more credit for those accomplishments, credit that Mayor Bill de Blasio said he should have always had.
Results from his accomplishments, however, did not come fast enough to earn Dinkins a second term.
After beating Giuliani by only 47,000 votes out of 1.75 million cast in 1989, Dinkins lost a rematch by roughly the same margin in 1993.
Giuliani, now President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, tweeted his condolences to the Dinkins family. “He gave a great deal of his life in service to our great City,” the former mayor said. “That service is respected and honored by all.”
I extend my deepest condolences to the family of Mayor David Dinkins, and to the many New Yorkers who loved and supported him.
He gave a great deal of his life in service to our great City.
That service is respected and honored by all.
— Rudy W. Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) November 24, 2020
Political historians often trace the defeat to Dinkins’s handling of the Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn in 1991.
The violence began after a Black seven-year-old boy was accidentally killed by a car in the motorcade of an Orthodox Jewish religious leader. During the three days of anti-Jewish rioting by young Black men that followed, a rabbinical student was fatally stabbed. Nearly 190 people were hurt.
A state report issued in 1993, an election year, cleared Dinkins of the persistently repeated charge that he intentionally held back police in the first days of the violence, but criticised him for not stepping up as a leader.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 10, 1927, Dinkins moved with his mother to Harlem when his parents divorced, but returned to his hometown to attend high school. There, he learned an early lesson in discrimination: Blacks were not allowed to use the school swimming pool.
During a hitch in the Marine Corps as a young man, a Southern bus driver barred him from boarding a segregated bus because the section for Blacks was filled.
“And I was in my country’s uniform!” Dinkins recounted years later.
Back in New York with a degree in mathematics, Dinkins married his college sweetheart, Joyce Burrows, in 1953.
Dinkins’s election as mayor in 1989 came after two racially charged cases that took place under Koch: the rape of a white jogger in Central Park and the murder of a Black teenager by a group of white youths in the Brooklyn neighbourhood, Bensonhurst.
Dinkins defeated Koch, 50 percent to 42 percent, in the Democratic primary. But in a city where party registration was 5-to-1 Democratic, Dinkins barely scraped by the Republican Giuliani in the general election, capturing only 30 percent of the white vote.
Meanwhile, the city’s murder toll soared to an all-time high, with a record 2,245 homicides during his first year as mayor. There were 8,340 New Yorkers killed during the Dinkins administration – the bloodiest four-year stretch since the New York Police Department began keeping statistics in 1963.
In the last years of his administration, record-high homicides began a decline that continued for decades. In the first year of the Giuliani administration, murders fell from 1,946 to 1,561.
After leaving office, Dinkins was a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Dinkins is survived by his son, David Jr, daughter, Donna and two grandchildren.