David Dinkins, who broke barriers as New York City’s first African-American 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 on Monday, the New York City Police Department said.
The department said that officers were called to the former mayor’s home in the evening. Initial indications were that he died of natural causes.
Dinkins’ 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 as New York City mayor, Ed Koch, and his successor, Rudolph Giuliani — two combative and often abrasive politicians in a city with a reputation for impatience and rudeness.
In his inaugural address, he spoke lovingly of New York City as a “gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation, of individuals whose families arrived yesterday and generations ago, coming through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport, or on buses bound for the Port Authority.”
However, the city he inherited had an ugly side, too.
AIDS, guns and crack cocaine killed thousands of people each year. Unemployment soared. Homelessness was rampant. The city faced a US$1.5 billion budget deficit.
Dinkins’ low-key, considered approach quickly came to be perceived as a flaw. Critics said that he was too soft and too slow.
Dinkins raised taxes to hire thousands of police officers. He spent billions of US dollars revitalizing neglected housing. His administration got Walt Disney Corp to invest in the cleanup of then-seedy Times Square.
In recent years, he has gotten more credit for those accomplishments, credit New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he should always have had.
De Blasio, who worked in Dinkins’ administration, named Manhattan’s Municipal Building after the former mayor in October 2015.
“The example mayor David Dinkins set for all of us shines brighter than the most powerful lighthouse imaginable,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, who herself shattered barriers as the state’s first black female elected to statewide office. “I was honored to have him hold the bible at my inaugurations because I, and others, stand on his shoulders.”
However, results from his accomplishments did not come quickly 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.
Political historians often trace the defeat to Dinkins’ 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 vehicle in the motorcade of an Orthodox Jewish religious leader.
During three days of anti-Jewish rioting by young black men that followed, a rabbinical student was fatally stabbed. Nearly 190 people were injured.
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 criticized him for not stepping up as a leader.
In a memoir in 2013, Dinkins accused the police department of letting the disturbance get out of hand, but also took a share of the blame, on the grounds that “the buck stopped with me.”
However, he bitterly blamed his election defeat on prejudice.
“I think it was just racism, pure and simple,” he wrote.
Dinkins is survived by his son, David Jr, daughter, Donna, and two grandchildren.
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