WORLD

A BREAKTHROUGH

DINKINS NARROWLY DEFEATS GIULIANI TO BECOME THE FIRST BLACK MAYOR OF AMERICA’S LARGEST CITY

HILARY MACKENZIE November 20 1989
WORLD

A BREAKTHROUGH

DINKINS NARROWLY DEFEATS GIULIANI TO BECOME THE FIRST BLACK MAYOR OF AMERICA’S LARGEST CITY

HILARY MACKENZIE November 20 1989

A BREAKTHROUGH

WORLD

DINKINS NARROWLY DEFEATS GIULIANI TO BECOME THE FIRST BLACK MAYOR OF AMERICA’S LARGEST CITY

In the ornate Blue Room of New York’s city hall, the white faces of the city’s past mayors gaze out from gilt frames that line the wall. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, flanked by current Mayor Edward Koch, David Dinkins—quiet, black and proud—stood at a podium under those portraits on the morning after he had made history. The 62-year-old Democrat’s narrow election victory over Republican Rudolph Giuliani, climaxing a bitterly divisive contest that captured worldwide attention, will make him the 106th mayor of America’s largest city and the first black ever to hold the job. Dinkins, the Manhattan borough president, will be sworn in as mayor on Jan. 1, and as he told the assembled reporters about his plans for the transition, even his trademark mild manner could not conceal his delight in his own accomplishment. “As an African-American,” he said, “I will have the leadership of the most important and greatest urban centre in the world.”

Dinkins’s triumph was the most celebrated

of a series of breakthroughs by black U.S. politicians last week. In Virginia, Democrat Douglas Wilder narrowly defeated Republican Marshall Coleman—subject to a recount—to become America’s first elected black governor (page 41). In Seattle, Democratic city Councilman Norman Rice edged Republican Douglas Jewett to become the city’s first black mayor,

and in Detroit, four-term incumbent Coleman Young won an unprecedented fifth term. The victors were not strident black activists but moderate, pragmatic politicians. And although racial prejudice was readily apparent among voters in several of the contests, black political leaders were clearly encouraged. “We’re getting closer to the day when race no longer will be a political issue,” said Ronald Brown, the black Democratic National Committee chairman. “And when that day comes, we’ll be a much better nation.”

In New York, Dinkins captured 50 per cent of the 1.8 million votes cast, compared with Giuliani’s 48 per cent, making it the city’s tightest mayoralty race since 1905. (Minor candidates won the remainder of the ballots.) Dinkins triumphed by sweeping 90 per cent of the black vote and, in a city where blacks comprise 25 per cent of the electorate, by picking up a crucial 35 per cent of the white vote.

But Dinkins’s margin of victory was far

narrower than expected after his heady defeat of the flamboyant, three-term Mayor Koch in the Democratic primary last September. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 5 to 1 in New York, and at the start of the campaign, Dinkins enjoyed a seemingly insurmountable 19-point lead in the polls. But in the closing days, Giuliani, a 45-year-old former federal prosecutor, pounded away successfully at Dinkins’s personal financial troubles, including his failure to pay personal income taxes from 1969 to 1972, and nearly scored an upset. Some analysts argued that Dinkins’s diminished margin was a reflection of latent racial bias among the electorate. “Whites tell pollsters that they’re voting for the black candidate,” said University of Virginia political scientist Lawrence Sabato. “Then they go into the voting booth and can’t quite pull down that lever.” Dinkins’s beginnings were decidedly modest. The son of a barbershop owner and a manicurist, he spent most of his childhood in Harlem. After graduating from Brooklyn Law School and practising law for 18 years, he

entered politics and worked his way up in the New York Democratic hierarchy. He served as city clerk for 10 years and, after twice losing elections for Manhattan borough president, was finally elected in 1985.

Last November, four black Brooklyn politicians marched into his office and, over coffee, persuaded Dinkins to challenge Koch for mayor. The city showed serious racial divisions after more than a decade of Koch’s abrasive, sharp-tongued leadership. And Dinkins, using his earnest, low-key style to portray himself as a healer, scored a resounding primary victory. That brought him head-to-head with Giuliani, who had achieved prominence by successfully prosecuting crooked politicians, Mafia leaders and Wall Street insider-trader Ivan Boesky. In his first foray into electoral politics, Giuliani overwhelmed Ronald Lauder, son of the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, in the Republican primary in September.

The eight-week race turned into one of the dirtiest fights the Big Apple had ever seen. The

Republicans hired Roger Ailes, the bearded media consultant who, one year ago, had helped toughen then-Vice-President George Bush’s image while savaging his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis. In a city that has not elected a Republican mayor since John Lindsay in 1965, Ailes employed his harsh tactics to batter the favored Dinkins, who inadvertently provided plenty of ammunition. Giuliani revealed that the Dinkins campaign had paid $11,100 to one Robert (Sonny) Carson to help get out the vote in the primaries. Carson is a convicted kidnapper; he is also a strident black activist who, when accused of anti-Semitism, replied that he was just “antiwhite.” The Republicans also made the most of the fact that the millionaire Dinkins had sold stock to his son David Jr. for $67,800 after having valued it at $1.2 million.

In addition, Giuliani’s television commercials reminded all-important Jewish voters of Dinkins’s close friendship with perennial presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom many suspect of being anti-Israel and who once re-

ferred to New York as “Hymietown.” Some observers maintained that such attacks amounted to thinly disguised racism, which gave white voters an excuse to switch their allegiance to Giuliani. Said Rabbi Morris Shmidman, executive director of the Council of Jewish Organizations in Brooklyn: “I think there were a lot of people supporting Dinkins because they didn’t want to be accused of being anti-black. With some of the things that have come out, it gives them a chance to shift.” But Giuliani’s open play for the Jewish vote backfired when he campaigned with the comedian Jackie Mason, who made racially charged remarks about blacks and Jews. He even called Dinkins “a fancy schwartzemth a moustache.” {Schwartze is a Yiddish word for black and is often used derogatorily.) And Dinkins, even as he promised to salve the city’s wounds, lashed back at Giuliani in his own advertising campaign. Dinkins’s commercials portrayed Giuliani as a ruthless crime-buster and as a political opportunist who had flip-flopped from favoring

abortion as an option to opposing abortion altogether. As well, the racy New York tabloids delighted in undermining Giuliani’s image as a devout Roman Catholic after they learned that, in 1982, he had quietly had his 14-year first marriage annulled—on the dubious grounds that he had just learned his wife was a distant cousin. Declared Giuliani: “I really think the campaign has gotten into the kind of gutter it doesn’t belong in.”

On the eve of the election, the pressure was plainly showing on Giuliani. At 11 p.m., he

arrived at Republican headquarters on Staten Island. Red lipstick on his cheek marked an earlier visit to a senior citizens’ home in Little Italy, where he had kissed the women and danced to the strains of New York, New York. But the reception that night was different. Gritting his teeth in fury, Giuliani protested the unfairness of a local TV interview that gave the last word to Dinkins during a live hookup with both candidates. Stamping his foot, Giuliani twice asked the cameraman: “Don’t I get a chance to respond? It’s really God damned unfair.” While supporters chanted “Dunk the Dink,” aides hustled Giuliani into a private room, where he angrily demanded more airtime—but without success.

Dinkins, meanwhile, made a last-day appeal to the Democratic mainstream. Appearing at the Imperial Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel, where he would later celebrate his victory, Dinkins surrounded himself with such Democratic party stalwarts as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Koch. And for his final campaign stop, Dinkins went to the heart of the city’s famous financial district. Standing beneath a bronze

statue of America’s first president, George Washington, Dinkins made an urgent appeal to the undecided voters. Asked what a Dinkins victory would mean, he replied, “It will symbolize the rejection of negative campaigning and demonstrate that one of humble beginnings can succeed if you persevere.”

In the end, Dinkins succeeded because, among other reasons, he clearly proved just unthreatening enough to woo wavering white voters. “David Dinkins is not really a black politician,” said Donald Menzi, a white Dinkins

phone-bank co-ordinator. “He’s a coalition politician. For people who are white and for whom race is an important factor, Dinkins is not scary. They have nothing to fear.”

What Dinkins has to fear now is New York’s overwhelming array of intractable problems, which he addressed only in the most general terms during the campaign. Out of a population of eight million, the city has an estimated two million residents below the poverty line, 90,000 homeless and 700,000 heroin, cocaine and amphetamine addicts. Experts say that fewer than half of the children now in city schools will graduate with a diploma. Many children, born with AIDS or addicted to cocaine while still in the womb, will die before they even reach school. Whether Dinkins can tackle those problems effectively—and heal the city’s racial and ethnic wounds—will be the true test of his mayorship. Only that will determine whether, when future generations look at his portrait in city hall, they will remember David Dinkins as a fine mayor, or merely the first black one.

HILARY MACKENZIE in New York