Commentary Magazine


Topic: David Dinkins

The Dinkins Democrats

The competition for the Democratic nomination in New York’s mayoral race bears a surprising resemblance to the Republican presidential contest in 2012. There is the experienced but uninspiring frontrunner struggling to establish their ideological bona fides. There is the geographically underserved but critical base of voters putting up candidates who quickly falter. There is the somewhat lackluster group of candidates, with more high-profile personalities being implored to join the race to no avail.

And now there is the anybody-but-the-frontrunner theme that results in transitory poll boosts for underestimated candidates. After disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner jumped into the race, he quickly eliminated most of Christine Quinn’s putative lead in the polls, even becoming the technical “frontrunner” himself on occasion. But it turned out his sordid personal history wasn’t exactly history, and he has since faded in the polls. This has always helped not just Quinn but also Bill Thompson, since the race may very well go to a run-off where Thompson, a former comptroller and recent mayoral candidate, has a distinct advantage.

The polls showed Thompson winning in a run-off even with Weiner in the race. But Weiner’s drop in the polls has created room for another candidate bubble, and Quinnipiac says the new leader is Public Advocate Bill de Blasio:

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The competition for the Democratic nomination in New York’s mayoral race bears a surprising resemblance to the Republican presidential contest in 2012. There is the experienced but uninspiring frontrunner struggling to establish their ideological bona fides. There is the geographically underserved but critical base of voters putting up candidates who quickly falter. There is the somewhat lackluster group of candidates, with more high-profile personalities being implored to join the race to no avail.

And now there is the anybody-but-the-frontrunner theme that results in transitory poll boosts for underestimated candidates. After disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner jumped into the race, he quickly eliminated most of Christine Quinn’s putative lead in the polls, even becoming the technical “frontrunner” himself on occasion. But it turned out his sordid personal history wasn’t exactly history, and he has since faded in the polls. This has always helped not just Quinn but also Bill Thompson, since the race may very well go to a run-off where Thompson, a former comptroller and recent mayoral candidate, has a distinct advantage.

The polls showed Thompson winning in a run-off even with Weiner in the race. But Weiner’s drop in the polls has created room for another candidate bubble, and Quinnipiac says the new leader is Public Advocate Bill de Blasio:

With strong support from white Democratic likely primary voters and voters critical of the so-called stop-and-frisk police tactic, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio leads the Democratic race for New York City mayor with 30 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today.

With four weeks to go, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has 24 percent, with 22 percent for former Comptroller William Thompson, 10 percent for former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, 6 percent for Comptroller John Liu, 1 percent for former Council member Sal Albanese and 7 percent undecided, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University poll finds.

The mayoral race is devoid of candidates with high name recognition (except of course for Weiner, whose high name ID isn’t doing him any favors), so the fluctuating polls may be registering the voting public’s discovery and consideration, rather than approval, of the individual candidates. Additionally, though de Blasio will be understandably cheered to see his name in lights, the votes could not have come from a worse place, strategically, for him.

The poll essentially reapportioned Weiner’s support after he reminded voters why he is not currently serving in elected office. That reapportionment happened just as de Blasio was introducing himself to the voters. But if Weiner is truly washing out of contention, de Blasio’s first-place ranking may be just as temporary as the leads of those he displaced. That’s because of the reason for his sudden support as speculated by Quinnipiac:

Stop-and-frisk is excessive and harasses innocent people, 60 percent of likely Democratic primary voters say, while 31 percent say it is an acceptable way to make the city safer. Among those critical of stop-and-frisk, 34 percent back de Blasio, with 24 percent for Thompson and 22 percent for Quinn.

Democratic likely voters support 66 – 25 percent the creation of an inspector general to independently monitor the New York Police Department.

De Blasio does best among those who want to get rid of the police tactic that has been so effective against crime. Most Democratic candidates have shifted to the left on this issue, but Weiner has not shifted as far. That has thus far anchored the rest of the Democratic candidates in place, since they would have to try to compete for pro-NYPD votes in the primary. If Weiner is not going to be competitive, and Democratic opinion is moving away from support for the police, there is nothing to stop Quinn or Thompson from moving further to their left if that’s what it takes to outflank de Blasio. If de Blasio loses this issue, he probably loses his lead.

The real lesson, then, of the Democratic primary contest is that no one is running as the responsible, law and order candidate. De Blasio’s lead is tenuous because there is nothing substantive to differentiate him from the others, and both Thompson and Quinn have either reliable voting bases or more money than de Blasio. There is an opening for a Democratic candidate to run as somewhat tough on crime, but none of the candidates has any desire to do so.

That means there’s an opening for such a candidate on the GOP side, and both Joseph Lhota and John Catsimatidis will try to run as the “Giuliani” candidate with warnings about the Democrats taking the city back to its Dinkins-era dystopia. But neither Lhota nor Catsimatidis has Giuliani’s credibility on crime issues. And it’s important to remember that Giuliani lost to Dinkins his first time running, and only (narrowly) defeated Dinkins after what was a truly disastrous, riot-plagued term in office.

The Dinkins era was twenty years ago. It’s a blessing that New Yorkers could forget what it was like. It is alarming that a new crop of Democrats threatens to remind them.

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Civil Rights Cases and Racism

In a week in which accusations of racism have become the hottest topic in the public square, it was probably smart for the publishers of David Dinkins’s forthcoming memoir to trot out the former mayor of New York City for an interview with the New York Times in which he could air his personal grievances. According to the Times, the Dinkins autobiography due out in September will highlight his belief that the only reason why his 1989 victory over Rudy Giuliani was won by a narrow margin was racism. Not surprisingly, Dinkins credits the same factor for his defeat at the hands of Giuliani four years later. While nobody should expect Dinkins to accept the general assessment of his single term at Gracie Mansion as an unmitigated disaster, his inability to understand that it was his performance rather than prejudice that soured many New Yorkers on him shows that he is just as out of touch with public opinion today as he was then.

But the irony here is that his attempt to smear the slightly less than a million voters who voted against him in both elections as racists is that the most memorable event of his term in office was a riot motivated by bias. Even Dinkins has to admit that the 1991 Crown Heights pogrom against Jews in Brooklyn was a disaster for which he had to accept responsibility. It is also of particular relevance today because it spawned exactly what protesters against the acquittal of George Zimmerman want: a successful federal civil rights prosecution of a man who was judged not guilty of murder by a state court. However, the differences between that case and the death of Trayvon Martin go a long way toward helping us understand Dinkins’s defeat as well as why a civil rights prosecution of Zimmerman would make a farce of the concept.

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In a week in which accusations of racism have become the hottest topic in the public square, it was probably smart for the publishers of David Dinkins’s forthcoming memoir to trot out the former mayor of New York City for an interview with the New York Times in which he could air his personal grievances. According to the Times, the Dinkins autobiography due out in September will highlight his belief that the only reason why his 1989 victory over Rudy Giuliani was won by a narrow margin was racism. Not surprisingly, Dinkins credits the same factor for his defeat at the hands of Giuliani four years later. While nobody should expect Dinkins to accept the general assessment of his single term at Gracie Mansion as an unmitigated disaster, his inability to understand that it was his performance rather than prejudice that soured many New Yorkers on him shows that he is just as out of touch with public opinion today as he was then.

But the irony here is that his attempt to smear the slightly less than a million voters who voted against him in both elections as racists is that the most memorable event of his term in office was a riot motivated by bias. Even Dinkins has to admit that the 1991 Crown Heights pogrom against Jews in Brooklyn was a disaster for which he had to accept responsibility. It is also of particular relevance today because it spawned exactly what protesters against the acquittal of George Zimmerman want: a successful federal civil rights prosecution of a man who was judged not guilty of murder by a state court. However, the differences between that case and the death of Trayvon Martin go a long way toward helping us understand Dinkins’s defeat as well as why a civil rights prosecution of Zimmerman would make a farce of the concept.

Dinkins’s attempt to resurrect his old grudge against his successor isn’t of much interest. But the idea that the refusal of New Yorkers to embrace his political ambition with unanimity was rooted in their prejudices is an absurd distortion of the facts. As the Times notes, Dinkins was an urbane, well-dressed and well-spoken man. But he was also a political hack who inspired little affection or confidence. Many New Yorkers may have thought that after three exhausting terms of Ed Koch, they needed a man lacking dynamism. But once Dinkins took office, many repented of this sentiment as the impression of a dysfunctional, ungovernable city took hold.

The Crown Heights riot was not the only instance in which Dinkins’s lack of leadership was telling—a black boycott of Korean storekeepers was just as toxic and also illustrated the mayor’s indecisive nature. But it was the most notorious. It started when a Jewish driver ran over a black child in a car accident. An angry mob formed and violence soon brook out as racial hucksters encouraged attacks on Jews in an area in which Hasidic Jews lived near a predominantly black neighborhood. For three days, black rioters ran amuck as the police failed to act to stop the violence that was directed against Jews that has since been widely and accurately described as a pogrom—the only such instance in American history.

Many Jews were injured as homes and businesses were attacked and looted. During the course of this riot, 20 young black men surrounded a 29-year-old Australian Jewish student living in the area. They taunted him with anti-Semitic epithets and then beat and stabbed him. Before he died, he identified Lemrick Nelson Jr. as his murderer.

Eventually, Dinkins ordered in enough police to stop the violence after earlier attempts to restore order were overwhelmed by the rioters.

It should be remembered that this was an era in which leadership of the black community seemed more the function of racial hucksters such as the young Al Sharpton than figures such as Dinkins. The future MSNBC host distinguished himself during this incident by invoking anti-Semitic stereotypes about “diamond merchants” while speaking at the funeral of the child killed in the original accident and referring to a Jewish ambulance service as a function of “apartheid.”

In this inflamed circumstance, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that Nelson was acquitted of the murder by a predominantly minority jury despite the fact that he had been identified by the victim and arrested while carrying the blood-stained knife used to kill Rosenblum.

After that verdict, pressure was put on the federal government to prosecute the murderer for depriving Rosenblum of his civil rights. It was, like any second prosecution of Zimmerman would be, a form of double jeopardy. But the legal justification for the second trial was solid. The attack on Rosenblum was clearly based on anti-Semitism as it was carried out by a crowd that had been yelling, “kill the Jew” at their victim and during the course of a riot specifically directed at inflicting violence at Hasidic Jews.

The problem for those who would like to manufacture a civil rights case against the Hispanic killer of Martin is that there is no evidence that he said anything racial to the teenager. Nor, despite the attempt to interpret his repeated complaints about those who had committed thefts and acts of violence in his community, is there any evidence of racism on his part, a point that has already been made by the FBI’s failure to procure any such evidence during its initial investigation of the incident.

As legal commentators have rightly noted, the bar for a civil rights prosecution is very high. It was met in the Crown Heights case, but that was a case of mass violence rooted in bias, not a confused confrontation without witnesses.

The proof of Dinkins’s general incompetence was clearly illustrated not so much by the anger of the city about what happened from 1989 to 1993 but by the widespread and correct perception of a radical improvement under Giuliani. His successful mayoralty consigned Dinkins to the dustbin of history from which he can only hope to extricate himself via accusations that are as untrue as they are pathetic.

However, those eager to beat the drum for the Department of Justice to take on Zimmerman should find the history of Dinkins’s mayoralty to be instructive. Crown Heights provides an actual example of what happens when prejudice runs riot and how true jury nullification can lead to a successful civil rights prosecution.

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The Dinkins Effect in the Presidential Race

Andrew Malcolm at Investors Business Daily has an interesting column on whether those who are telling pollsters they intend to vote for the president really are going to do so. The vast majority of them surely will, of course. But politics, like baseball, is a game of inches. If only two percent of those saying they will vote for Obama go into the voting booth and vote for Romney instead, that’s a four-percent shift, turning a comfortable 52-48 win into a 48-52 loss. If they simply stay home, that turns 52-48 into 50-50.

There are numerous signs the Obama campaign is very, very worried. His fundraising has not been the money machine it was in 2008, despite Obama’s burning out the engines of Air Force One going, hat in hand, from one group of fat cats to another. He is running through the money he does raise at a furious pace, mostly running negative ads in toss-up states. He is trying to shore up his base rather than reaching out to the center as he would if his base were secure. That doesn’t bear much resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” campaign of 1984, does it? There are even those who say Wall Street’s recent climb, despite very gloomy economic news, is due to a growing conviction on the Street that Obama is toast.

And yet pollsters all have the race tight as a tick, as Karl Rove terms it. What’s going on?

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Andrew Malcolm at Investors Business Daily has an interesting column on whether those who are telling pollsters they intend to vote for the president really are going to do so. The vast majority of them surely will, of course. But politics, like baseball, is a game of inches. If only two percent of those saying they will vote for Obama go into the voting booth and vote for Romney instead, that’s a four-percent shift, turning a comfortable 52-48 win into a 48-52 loss. If they simply stay home, that turns 52-48 into 50-50.

There are numerous signs the Obama campaign is very, very worried. His fundraising has not been the money machine it was in 2008, despite Obama’s burning out the engines of Air Force One going, hat in hand, from one group of fat cats to another. He is running through the money he does raise at a furious pace, mostly running negative ads in toss-up states. He is trying to shore up his base rather than reaching out to the center as he would if his base were secure. That doesn’t bear much resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” campaign of 1984, does it? There are even those who say Wall Street’s recent climb, despite very gloomy economic news, is due to a growing conviction on the Street that Obama is toast.

And yet pollsters all have the race tight as a tick, as Karl Rove terms it. What’s going on?

I think what I call the Dinkins effect is in operation. David Dinkins was the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York in 1989, having defeated three-term incumbent Ed Koch in the primary. His Republican opponent was Rudy Giuliani. The polls all showed Dinkins well ahead, but he won the race only narrowly. In 1993, there was the same match-up. The polls all showed Dinkins (who had a lousy record as mayor) as narrowly ahead. Giuliani won in a walk. The reason the polls were so wrong, I think, was because Dinkins is black and some people were simply unwilling to say, even to a pollster, they were voting against the black guy. Racism is nearly extinct in this country, but the fear of being thought racist is pervasive, and the willingness of some people on the left to play the race card apparent.

Could that be why President Obama has high ratings in polls asking about his “likeability”? My dislike of his politics probably clouds my judgment somewhat, but I don’t find him likeable at all. He’s arrogant, often mean-spirited, sometimes downright nasty. He avoids taking responsibility for failure but takes all the credit for success. He doesn’t have much of a sense of humor that I can see. He’s, well, chilly. I don’t like Bill Clinton’s politics much either, but I’m sure I’d have a great time having dinner with him some night. He may be left-of-center and more than a bit of a scoundrel in his personal life, but likeable he most certainly is. Obama, simply, is not.

Also, of course, a lot of people might be unwilling to admit they think they were sold a bills of goods in 2008 by a political flim-flam man. No one likes to admit they were cheated. So they say they’re voting for Obama but then won’t.

I’d certainly advise the Romney campaign to ignore all this speculation. No one ever lost a political race because they assumed they were ten points behind and acted accordingly.

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