David Dinkins’s election in 1989 as the first black mayor of New York City was treated by the media as a civil-rights story of the old sort—the story of a black candidate who won by overcoming lingering (if diminishing) pockets of white racism. Yet few New Yorkers who went through the campaign saw it quite that way.
For liberals, to be sure, the fact that Dinkins suffered a last-minute drop in the polls and finally won by only a hair in an overwhelmingly Democratic city required a racial explanation. One blunt assessment was offered by Manhattan Assemblyman Mark Alan Siegel: “Healing won out over bigotry by a narrow margin,” he said on a post-election television program. Professor Richard Wade of City College added that Dinkins’s margin had been held down by “brute race.” And at a Washington press conference three days after the vote, Dinkins himself blamed racism for the thinness of his margin of victory.
There was some truth in all these statements. “Healing” was the central theme of the Dinkins campaign; and race is, in one way or another, an often unpleasant fact of life in New York. But in this case, race did not necessarily work to the disadvantage of the black candidate. Race helped Dinkins most obviously in giving him a virtually unassailable base of black support. It also helped insofar as he benefited from the presumption that, as one of his well-heeled white supporters commented in reference to the bands of black teens that were rampaging around the city, he would “get them to cool out.” In other words, the healing theme itself was available to Dinkins primarily because he was black.
Healing could only work as a campaign theme if there was a widespread perception that racial wounds were at the heart of the issues facing the city. And while at the opening of the campaign no such perception existed, there was a coterie of black activists who, through violent rhetoric and occasionally violent actions, were doing what they could to foster it.
Calm and deliberate, always measured in his speech, Dinkins profited enormously in the public mind from the gap that separated him from these black radicals. On the other hand, as the campaign progressed, it became clear that Dinkins had ties with at least some of those who were at the forefront of the city’s racial agitation. He was thus presenting himself as a healer of wounds which parts of his coalition were doing everything in their power to keep festering.
This was definitely a high-wire act, which could succeed only so long as no one called much attention to it. No one did, at least in a public or sustained manner. By the time the final vote was taken, however, there may well have been the beginnings of an unarticulated protest against this side of the Dinkins effort. It was not a protest against “healing” and not a vote for “bigotry.” But it did reflect disillusionment with the process by which the city’s media and political elites had unanimously come to endorse David Dinkins as a healer of racial tensions that were not all that central to the city’s life before the beginning of his own mayoral campaign.
Before 1989, the key political question for New York’s liberals was not whether the city would elect a black mayor, but whether the reign of Edward I. Koch, who had been in office since 1977 and now was completing his third term, would go on forever. But Koch’s aura of invincibility began to be punctured during his third term. A number of major municipal corruption scandals involving Koch allies kept his administration off balance. The rise in homelessness and the crack explosion produced a feeling that, for the first time in the decade, conditions in the city were changing for the worse. And, starting in the mid-1980’s, there was enough of a rise in racial tension to give Koch’s opponents a chance to claim that he was polarizing the city along racial lines.
Many of the arguments between Koch and activists in the black community centered on the police. By any comparative standard, the record of New York’s police department was very good, far better (at least in terms of avoiding the use of deadly force in the line of duty) than that of other major American cities. Nevertheless, by the mid-1980’s a growing list of blacks had died in police custody or at the hands of police officers. Even though there were explanations for the deaths, and usually good ones, those intent on painting New York as a city under the thumb of a racist clique which systematically abused and murdered black people were armed with a list of names. And then the surge in crack use sharply raised the number of people pumped up out of their minds on drugs when they encountered the police, and the list grew longer.
But it was not until the Howard Beach attack, in December 1986, that the black radicals who had made themselves keepers of the list were able to gain a citywide audience for their charges. As with the other incidents, there were ambiguous aspects to the Howard Beach case (in which a group of blacks was set upon by a gang of whites, and in the ensuing chase one black was hit by a car and died), but it was universally interpreted as a straightforward lynching.
Leading the charge were two attorneys, Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, both born in the deep South, who had developed what seemed like a standard modus operandi for the political exploitation of racial incidents. They or their clients would make vigorous charges of police brutality or misconduct, or cover-up, and then refuse to cooperate with whatever office was investigating the allegations. This tactic kept the accusations alive while ensuring that they would never be resolved. In the Howard Beach case, the attorneys were able to persuade Governor Mario Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor, a concession which lent credibility to their charge that the city’s regular criminal-justice system was too permeated with racism to dispense justice when blacks were victimized.
Howard Beach seemed to crystallize a new mood, giving life to a black nationalist “Day of Outrage” coalition which carried out several highly disruptive demonstrations around the city—in one instance shutting down the Brooklyn subways during rush hour. A Daily News columnist, Earl Caldwell, dubbed New York “Johannesburg on the Hudson”—a comparison often utilized by the radicals. Some talked of demanding “economic and political sanctions” against the city. In the spring of 1987, Benjamin Ward, the city’s police commissioner and himself a black, said he thought there was a significant possibility of riots during the summer.
The first sign that the new mood could affect political power in the city came during the 1988 Democratic presidential primary. Mayor Koch, who was supporting the candidacy of Al Gore, took it upon himself to become the first prominent Democrat openly to criticize Jesse Jackson, saying that Jews would be crazy to vote for him, and describing Jackson as a dishonest opportunist for the way he had thrust himself into the limelight after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The attacks backfired, and Koch spent much of the remainder of the year apologizing for the “tone” of his remarks.
Of even greater importance, Jackson, while losing New York to Michael Dukakis, actually won New York City. His campaign accomplished what no local candidacy had ever done: it gained the unified support of virtually all the city’s black and Puerto Rican elected officials. More, it demonstrated how much the city’s electorate had changed: in the 1977 mayoral race, the last city primary to bring out as many as 900,000 voters, the combined totals for Percy Sutton (the black Manhattan borough president) and Bella Abzug (the left-most figure in the field) amounted to 31 percent. Jackson in 1988 got 45 percent, and the black share of the Democratic primary vote reached 32 percent—nearly double what it had been eleven years before. The political landscape stood transformed; a challenge to Koch from the Left, viewed as futile as late as 1987, suddenly looked entirely plausible.
The new weight of the black vote within a potential left-wing coalition and the role played by Jesse Jackson in mobilizing previously unregistered black voters planted the nearly irrefutable presumption that a black would have the first call at leading an anti-Koch effort. That pointed to David Dinkins, who had served as co-chairman of Jackson’s state-primary effort, and who, as Manhattan borough president, held the highest city office among black elected officials.
Dinkins was a genuinely ambiguous figure. A lawyer and a former Marine, he had married into a political family and joined the well-known Harlem club, the Carver Democrats, home to such prominent figures as Percy Sutton and the psychologist Kenneth Clark. He had served one term in the State Assembly, lost his seat through redistricting, and was about to be appointed deputy mayor by Abraham Beame in 1973 when it emerged that he had not filed city, state, and federal tax returns for the previous four years. Although he never offered a convincing explanation for this fiscal forgetfulness, he was nonetheless appointed to the patronage job of city clerk. He then ran three times for Manhattan borough president, finally winning the post in 1985.
During those races, his opponents (Andrew Stein and Jerry Nadler) called attention to his general lack of significant accomplishment, and Nadler in 1985 raised the “character” question as well—not only Dinkins’s tax problems, but also fundraising irregularities in his campaign, Urban Development Corporation contracts given to his associates while he was a UDC board member, and the failure of his campaign to deduct or report on tax and Social Security payments made to campaign workers. In phrasing that would appear nearly verbatim in commercials produced by Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign against Dinkins in the mayoral election of 1989, Nadler charged that Dinkins “doesn’t seem to be able to resist the temptation to cut corners until he’s caught.”
What Dinkins’s white opponents seemed to underestimate was the political credit he gained from being a genuinely personable man. One Democratic activist who had known him for years pointed out that Dinkins led a more racially integrated personal and social life than anyone else in New York politics—not a small asset in a time when there was nostalgia across the political spectrum for the color-blind integrationist dream of the early civil-rights movement. Yet while comfortable with and fully accepted by the city’s “permanent establishment” of mostly white lawyers and political fixers, Dinkins was at the same time highly receptive to the more ideological perspectives of the city’s Left.
And indeed it was this receptivity which was very much in evidence during Dinkins’s term as Manhattan borough president, when he regularly took positions that were well to the left of anyone else on the Board of Estimate. As one of his advisers put it, he conducted his office as a sort of “tribune for the underclass,” regularly adopting stands that were identical in all but rhetoric to those both of the city’s white Left and of the emerging black-nationalist coalition.
When, for example, allegations of systematic racism in the criminal-justice system became the calling card of the city’s black radicals, Dinkins hit the headlines by describing one police action as a “summary execution” and organized a hotline for citizens to make allegations about police brutality. Again, weeks after it became clear that the fifteen-year-old Tawana Brawley and her “advisers” (Alton Maddox, C. Vernon Mason, and the Reverend Al Sharpton) were lying about her alleged rape by whites in upstate New York, Dinkins was still talking about a “brutal racially motivated attack” against the girl, “under circumstances which point to an organized conspiracy.” (Dinkins later distanced himself from the Mason-Maddox-Sharpton effort, and a grand jury ultimately found Brawley’s charges to be fabricated.) He adopted the extreme activist position on the homeless, arguing against the “prevalent myth” that many of the homeless were mentally ill and socially dysfunctional, and claiming that they were “like other people in every respect except that they have no homes.” And he consistently asserted that every social problem facing the city was the fruit of a society in which “inequality and discrimination not only exist but are institutionalized”—a condition best combatted by reasserting the city’s commitment to affirmative action.
Dinkins’s emergence as one of the city’s more ideological politicians was certified in a highly laudatory profile in the Village Voice in 1987. The Voice took pains to note that on the walls of Dinkins’s office, next to photographs of everyone from Gloria Steinem to Stanley Steingut, hung one picture larger than all the others—that of the black entertainer Paul Robeson, whose tragic life singularly embodied the willingness of part of an earlier generation of America’s black leaders to embrace Stalinism as the vehicle for their own liberation. By comparison with such stands and loyalties, Dinkins’s membership in Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America seemed reassuringly mainstream.
By late 1988, the city’s black politicians were united in urging Dinkins to run for mayor. This unity was no small matter: divisions between the black politicians of Harlem and those of Brooklyn had long been an impediment to black political clout in the city. There were considerable differences in style between the two groups: the Harlem politicians tended to have middle-class credentials and professions, something to fall back upon besides the pursuit of political power. Brooklyn was a tougher arena. Many of the leaders there had gotten their start in the confrontational politics of the 1968 New York teachers’ strike. Among the Brooklyn activists, anti-Semitic agitation was rarely frowned upon, and a criminal record was not a disqualifying credential. Thus it was highly significant when two black Congressmen and two black Assemblymen from Brooklyn made a November “symbolic river crossing” to Dinkins’s office—one of them observing after the fact that Dinkins had credibility not only with the “black establishment” but with the “activist community” as well.
After much hesitation, Dinkins announced his candidacy in February 1989. He inherited all of Jesse Jackson’s left-wing and labor support, which immediately gave his campaign more weight and resources than could be commanded by other Koch challengers, the veteran city comptroller Harrison Goldin and the businessman Richard Ravitch. By June it was clear that Dinkins was leading the Democratic field; he was ahead in the polls, and he had the most endorsements (including a nice glitter of celebrity support), the most money, and far and away the strongest backing from the city’s unions. This last was a particularly strong point in the wake of the city’s newly enacted campaign-finance law, which limited contributions from individuals to $3,000, but placed no restrictions on such “in-kind” contributions as phone banks, polling services, and “education” of a union’s membership by its leaders.
Ravitch and Goldin meanwhile seemed to cancel each other out: their respective candidacies, each plausible on its merits, prevented either one of them from emerging as a credible alternative to Koch and Dinkins. Moreover, both devoted practically all their rhetorical energies to attacking Koch. By early summer the mayor was hovering below 30 percent in the polls.
For his part, Dinkins passed the early tests, confounding those who had expected him to stumble once the televised debates started. His television demeanor (described by one columnist as “like Babar, proud and slow and kind”) was clearly an asset; no politician in the field could bring greater gravitas to an indecisive answer. He handled the inevitable tax questions well enough, always thanking the questioner for the opportunity to clear the matter up, repeating in the most sincere of tones that he had been forgetful, had broken no law, would never do it again—and managing to leave viewers with the impression that only the incorrigibly nasty would want to make something out of a minor lapse that had occurred in the distant past.
There was next to no ideological content to the Democratic primary: all the candidates were against crime and drugs; all wanted to help people with AIDS and provide shelter to the homeless; none wanted to raise taxes. None of the candidates, least of all Dinkins, was inclined to discuss any of the more extreme stands once taken by the Manhattan borough president. Jesse Jackson kept a safe distance for most of the summer; so long as Dinkins was comfortably ahead, there was no need for him.
As the summer wore on, however, Dinkins ceased to wear so well. His public willingness to “take a look at” getting rid of the Taylor law (the statute which provides stiff penalties for strikes by public employees) gave his rivals their first opportunity to question his qualifications as a prudent potential guardian of the city’s public money. A similar opportunity came with Dinkins’s assertion that he was opposed even to asking an unwed teenage mother the name of her child’s father. And Dinkins did not help his cause by appearing consistently unable to answer how he would pay for the many new social programs he favored.
Koch, in the meantime, began finally to revive. The very act of campaigning seemed to rouse him from the torpor which had shrouded his third term. Although he remained’ a reviled figure for the city’s liberal columnists and cartoonists, the campaign process itself provided him with something like equal time, and when measured against his rivals, he seemed all the stronger.
The argument for Koch went something like this: most of the city’s most visible problems—crime, drugs, AIDS, and homelessness—were national ills; under Koch, New York was doing more than any other city to fight them; and he was a tried and true hand who understood how the city government worked. The clincher was that if the city was not to slide once more into bankruptcy, the next mayor would have to take many unpopular stands, and since this would be Koch’s final term it would be easier for him to say “no” to the unions at contract time and “no” to the various advocacy groups.
Before the campaign began it had been commonly held that Koch could beat Dinkins only by calling attention to Dinkins’s tax problems, or to the widening perception that, as one rival put it, “David Dinkins just isn’t up to the job,” or to the equally relevant issue of whether Dinkins was, as Koch himself had once described him, a “captive of the Manhattan Left.” It was never clear which deterred Koch the more from pursuing such a strategy—the fear of alienating black voters whom he might need in the general election against the Republican-Liberal “fusion” candidate, Rudolph Giuliani, or the scars he still bore from his encounters with Jesse Jackson. In any case, Koch came out gently. His television ads featured man-in-the-street-type interviews with people who described the mayor’s accomplishments in strikingly modest terms.
As the primary battle neared its end, this gentle strategy seemed vindicated: Ravitch and Goldin were dead in the water while Dinkins’s lead steadily declined. With three weeks to go it appeared better than even money that Koch would win his party’s nomination and go on to become the first four-term mayor in the city’s history.
Then came Bensonhurst.
By August 1989, over two-and-one-half years had passed since the Howard Beach incident, which continued to serve black radicals as the most flagrant and very nearly the only example of white criminal violence against blacks. Indeed, most of the city’s crime, racially motivated or (in most instances) not, was committed by young blacks. This was a widely understood but rarely acknowledged truth about New York life—Benjamin Ward, the city’s first black police commissioner, being one of the few public officials who dared to address the issue in public. (“We provide the victims, and we provide the perpetrators. Our little secret is out.”)
Thus, the murder of Yusuf Hawkins was a crime of unusual character. The victim, a sixteen-year-old black, was walking with three friends through Bensonhurst, a lower-middle-class, predominantly Italian, Brooklyn neighborhood. The group was set upon by a large gang of white teens wielding baseball bats. The whites were apparently lying in wait for some blacks who they thought were attending a party of a neighborhood girl who had jilted one of the gang. One of the whites, a seventeen-year-old school dropout named Joey Fama, allegedly pulled out a gun and shot Yusuf Hawkins twice in the chest, killing him.
The crime would have shocked the city in any event, but because it took place twenty days before the Democratic primary, Bensonhurst became more than a horrible murder. It was turned into a symbolic event, standing for black victimization at the hands of white New York and, by extension, at the hands of Mayor Koch.
In a somewhat subtle statement David Dinkins said, “I don’t want to accuse the mayor or anyone else of causing this. But let me say that the tone and climate of this city does get set at City Hall.” Many of Dinkins’s allies would not be nearly so ambiguous.
Thus, three days after the shooting, the Reverend Al Sharpton led a march of 250 blacks through the streets of Bensonhurst, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “No justice, no peace!” Sharpton had a considerable reputation as a buffoon, due primarily to his antics in the Tawana Brawley case, and his group got a hostile reception. Spectators held watermelons aloft, chanted “Where’s Tawana?” and “Central Park, Central Park!”—a reference to the woman jogger who had been raped and beaten by a gang of black teens four months earlier. The next day a similar march, led by C. Vernon Mason and several black activist clergymen, got the same kind of reception.
The killing knocked the Koch campaign completely off stride. For weeks the mayor had endeavored to turn the primary into a referendum on competence—stressing his success with the city’s budget, the growth in jobs, the number of apartments rehabilitated for the homeless. None of this could compete for public attention with a racial murder. And on the murder, Koch stumbled. His first comment was that the crime was not racially motivated, an observation transparently grounded in political wishful thinking.
The following Monday, at City Hall, Koch compounded his difficulties. At a news conference he condemned the murder in the strongest terms, and characterized as “vileness” the taunts leveled at the marchers by Bensonhurst residents. But he also made the obvious point that marching through Bensonhurst raised racial tensions in the city, saying it would have been equally wrong for whites to march up into Harlem after the rape of the jogger the previous spring. (While there was a certain abstract logic to this point, in the real city there was no way in the world several hundred whites could have been persuaded to stage that kind of militant demonstration in a black neighborhood.) Be that as it may, Koch was roundly jeered for reproaching the marchers, not only by those who led them—the Reverend Timothy Mitchell replied, “I’m sure Bull Connor had a similar attitude”—but by Dinkins and the New York Times editorial page.
Yusuf Hawkins was buried on August 30, six days after his murder. The funeral was apparently organized by Louis Farrakhan, who arrived with a coterie of bodyguards from the Nation of Islam. Jesse Jackson had also flown into town the day before, to attend the wake. While there, he offended the dead youth’s father by gesturing toward the coffin and remarking, “That boy lying in there could make David Dinkins the next mayor.”
Although Jesse Jackson was not present at the next day’s funeral, everyone else was—Governor Mario Cuomo, David Dinkins, and numerous other political dignitaries. Koch came too, braving the taunts of the crowd outside the church. At the service, Farrakhan spoke the longest, and received the most applause: addressing Koch and Cuomo he said, “There is a day coming when power won’t be in your hands. Power will be in the hands of the righteous.” The Reverend Timothy Mitchell evoked the list of blacks who had died at the hands of the police, adding, “When black children keep getting buried and white children keep feeling justified, then we are doing something wrong.” Sharpton said, “The system loaded the gun” and “They’re going to pay this time.” (Earlier in the week, the film-maker Spike Lee had been more direct, charging that Koch’s “finger was on the trigger.”) Koch departed from the service early, leaving by a side door and squeezing down a fire escape to avoid the hostile crowd. As the funeral procession, a thousand strong, left the church for its mile-long march to the cemetery, leaflets were circulated calling for another demonstration the next day. Images of anger and mourning were broadcast all over the city, and Jesse Jackson took to the airwaves of WLIB, the black-owned radio station, to declare that “Koch has played the role in New York that George Wallace played in Alabama. . . . Wallace set a climate in which people got hurt and Koch is setting a climate in which people are getting hurt.”
Thursday, eight days after the shooting and twelve days before the primary, the hard-core Brooklyn activists took over the issue. Carried at the head of the so-called “Day of Outrage and Mourning” march were mock coffins of Yusuf Hawkins and the Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who had just been killed in Oakland in a drug-related incident apparently having nothing to do with race.
The demonstration wove a serpentine path from Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza down toward the Brooklyn Bridge, gathering followers along the way until some 7,500 people were in the procession. As with the earlier “Day of Outrage” demonstrations called after Howard Beach and after the alleged rape of Tawana Brawley, the organizers refused to inform police of their line of march. Chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “What’s coming, war!,” the marchers moved down Flatbush Avenue, shouting to onlookers: “If you’re not marching with us, you’re with the pigs and against us.” Skirting police barricades and turning toward the Brooklyn Bridge, they were met by a cordon of police who, in an effort to avoid provocation, were not wearing riot gear. As the marchers approached, picking up bricks and bottles that were strewn along the road, one cop muttered to a reporter, “Now I know what a sacrificial lamb feels like.”
By the time it was over, forty-four cops had been injured by the barrage of bricks and bottles, sustaining everything from cuts to broken bones. Afterward the marchers repaired to a park in Fort Greene where one Viola Plummer told them: “From this day forward, for every black child that we bury, we are going to bury five of theirs.”
While there would be another march through Bensonhurt that weekend, the battle for the bridge set David Dinkins’s theme for the remaining eleven days of the primary campaign. He issued a vague statement to the effect that if some marchers had thrown things at the police, that was probably uncalled for; for his part, he would endeavor to heal the city. At the Labor Day parade the next weekend, Mario Cuomo declared that the next mayor would be the one who said, “I will bring you together.” In the final week, Dinkins’s allies on the stump and in the press drummed in the message incessantly. Pete Hamill of the New York Post wrote: “We don’t need more Koch-style confrontation” and Jimmy Breslin of Newsday added: “As long as [Koch] is here, surely the city will know no peace.” Jack Newfield of the Daily News pitched in, distinguishing Dinkins from Koch: “One is a healer, the other is a divider.” Even the New York Times, in an editorial which endorsed Koch, said that “Dinkins has the temperament to soothe the city,” praised him for “refusing to be divisive,” and advised Koch to “reach out.” Jesse Jackson, who returned to campaign in the city during the last weekend before the vote, summed up the argument: “It’s time to end the degradation and hysteria, the hurt and degradation; it’s time to bring in a man of hope and healing.” The theme was contagious—even Koch, whose reputation over years of public life had rested on his candor, was caught up, and used his last valuable television spots before the primary to apologize for having offended anybody.
During the days between the murder and the primary, the city was incessantly portrayed as a place in which blacks lived in constant fear of white violence. It was remarkable, this construction of an imaginary city in which blacks could not walk the streets for fear of being attacked by whites—remarkable because everyone knew, in his mind if not in his heart, that it was a diametric inversion of New York’s social realities. But in a city famous for its cynics, even skepticism was suspended, and for a time New Yorkers experienced that dissonance between what is publicly affirmed and what is privately known which is so familiar to those who live in totalitarian societies.
There were two routes out of the imaginary city—healing and retribution. The battle on the Brooklyn Bridge left everyone with a good idea of what retribution would be like; healing seemed that much more desirable.
On “Resurrection Day,” as Jesse Jackson had been referring to primary day, turnout was large, and Dinkins’s victory decisive. He got 587,887 votes—more than 50 percent of the total. (Koch got 42 percent; Ravitch and Goldin split the rest.) Dinkins received 125,000 more votes than Jackson had in the 1988 presidential primary. He carried black districts like Central Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant, and Ocean Hill-Brownsville by margins of 15-1 or 20-1, pulling more voters from those districts than Jackson had done. But in addition to winning blacks and (by lesser margins) Hispanics, Dinkins scored well with whites; he narrowly carried both the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Greenwich Village—districts which Jackson had lost by nearly two to one.
Rhetoric about “Resurrection Day” aside, the inclination was widespread to hail Dinkins’s win as a providential event. Pete Hamill set the standard for descriptions of a city morally transformed: “Whites and blacks actually said ‘excuse me’ on the bus . . . citizens stopped to help AIDS victims . . . even pity seemed to have been reborn.”
There were solid reasons to consider Dinkins’s primary victory as tantamount to election. For all intents and purposes, there was no Republican party in the city of New York: Republicans held one out of 35 seats in the City Council, and had no other presence in city government; 70 percent of New York’s voters were registered Democrats. While a case could be made that New York voters, though Democratic, were not necessarily liberal, it was also true that Michael Dukakis had carried the city by 2-1 against George Bush, and Walter Mondale had won it by better than 3-2 against Ronald Reagan.
Moreover, the Republican candidate, the former federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani, no longer appeared nearly so formidable as he once had done. At the beginning of the year, Giuliani had led Koch and Dinkins and all other comers in the polls. But the ensuing months had not been kind to Giuliani. In the Republican primary he had faced a peculiar multimillion-dollar negative campaign waged by cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, devoted almost entirely to besmirching his reputation. He had shortcomings as a campaigner—he was wooden as a speaker, and possessed no notable abilities to forge an emotional bond with voters.
Perhaps most importantly, Giuliani seemed to lack any sense of the ideological nuances of political issues in the city. Early in his campaign, he had been given to saying that there was no “Democratic” or “Republican” way to pick up the garbage—which seemed to suggest that no questions of principle were involved at all in the coming contest. Then in his first post-primary comments he charged that Dinkins was no more than a “clubhouse politician” who was simply part of the same corrupt system as the mayor—a charge which could well have come from someone who had spent the summer in another country.
Because of the huge Democratic edge in registration, it made sense for the Dinkins camp to present their candidate as no more and no less than the sort of mainstream Democrat whom the city’s voters had supported many times in the past. The idea that Dinkins was a “black Abe Beame”—a reference to the unmemorable mayor who occupied City Hall between the Lindsay and Koch eras—was put forward by some Dinkins supporters after the primary, as a term of reassurance rather than derision. To win, Giuliani would have to convince a considerable number of Democratic voters that the differences between Dinkins and Koch, Dinkins and Beame, Dinkins and Dukakis, and just as importantly, between Dinkins and Giuliani, were major ones. This was hardly an easy task for a man who eschewed ideological politics, and it was made no easier by the fact that Giuliani had adopted essentially liberal stands on issues like commercial rent control and the nature of the city’s responsibility for the homeless.
This left Giuliani exposed to the supposition that the only card he had to play was somehow or other related to race—and in a city which had just crowned the Democratic nominee because of his “healing” properties, it was clearly a losing card. From the outset, Giuliani was on the defensive, his campaign’s every utterance monitored in the expectation (the hope?) that it would be construed as racially divisive.
The first skirmish of the fall came over the Jewish comedian Jackie Mason, and the Republican was very nearly dealt a first-round knockout blow. Giuliani had taken to going around the city with Mason, perceiving, accurately enough, that New Yorkers found the comedian more entertaining than they did him. But Mason, who had made a career out of ethnic humor, was clearly headed for trouble in a city still basking in self-congratulation for having chosen Dinkins over Koch. In mid-September, Mason made what he had thought were off-the-record remarks to a Village Voice writer at a lunch. They were a typical Mason mixture of exaggeration and observations which a great many people would acknowledge (at least in private) as ringing pretty true. He said that Jews would vote for Dinkins out of guilt, or as he put it, “All you have to do is to be black and don’t curse the Jews directly and the Jew will vote for a black in a second. Jews are sick with complexes.” Mason added that Dinkins “looked like a black model without a job,” and one or two other barbs along these lines. The Village Voice thought these remarks significant enough to provide a special advance copy of the story to city newspapers, which gave them extensive coverage.
The public response to Mason’s remarks, in the press and from the major Jewish organizations, could not have been too different if Mason had issued a call for the firebombing of black churches. Mayor Koch, who had endorsed Dinkins after the primary, accused Mason of engaging in a “vile vicious racism directed at black citizens”—and more language of this sort rained down on the comedian in countless public statements throughout the city. Giuliani waited less than a day before disavowing the remarks and severing Mason from his campaign. Yet CONDUCT (the Committee on Decent Unbiased Campaign Tactics), a self-appointed watchdog group, still denounced Giuliani for not repudiating Mason’s remarks forcefully enough.
Scarcely had the Mason affair cooled when Giuliani was once again under fire. In this case the transgression was a campaign ad in the Algemeiner Journal, a Yiddish-language newspaper, which displayed adjoining photographs of Giuliani with President Bush and Dinkins with Jesse Jackson—a none too subtle reminder that Jackson was a strong Dinkins supporter, and that Dinkins had been his New York campaign co-chairman.
Once again there arose a chorus of denunciation from organizations and prominent individuals: “racial code words” (Teamsters leader Barry Feinstein); “playing on hatred and fear” (Rabbi Balfour Brickner). Koch joined in as well, explaining that “When you single out Jackson and Dinkins, it’s no longer subliminal, it’s liminal. His [Giuliani’s] message is they’re clones, that to elect Dinkins is to elect Jackson. . . . I don’t believe that.” In an editorial entitled “Tough Politics or Race Baiting?” the New York Times weighed the matter and decided that while the ad was not out of bounds in its “narrow context” (Dinkins had, after all, been deriding Giuliani as a right-wing Reagan Republican for months), in view of New York’s racial tensions it was “unwise” and “disappointing.”
There were few public voices in the city to note that the double standard was being rather thickly applied. Dinkins supporters had made highly inflammatory racial appeals during the last weeks of the campaign against Koch—Jackson’s likening the mayor to Alabama’s George Wallace, and the claim by Spike Lee that Koch’s finger was on the trigger of the gun that murdered Yusuf Hawkins, being but two of the more egregious examples. Yet none of these had brought down warning flags from the moral referees of city politics. No one had called on Dinkins to “disavow” them.
In part the double standard could be explained by simple partisanship: most condemnations of Giuliani came from professional Democrats or committed liberals, who out of party loyalty or ideological conviction said whatever they felt would help their favored candidate win election. But there was more to it than that. Behind the charges against Giuliani lay the uneasy question of whether a level playing field was actually desirable in a political contest between white and black candidates. If (as most of the city’s liberal spokesmen felt) there were all sorts of complicated reasons why a single standard was not appropriate in judging, say, black candidates competing with whites for admission to Columbia Law School, why then should one be applied to the mayoral race?
Giuliani defended his ad in the Algemeiner Journal, and asserted that he would not be intimidated from campaigning against David Dinkins. But he was woefully short of funds for television advertising, and by early October he seemed to lapse into a defensive silence. Dinkins, miles ahead in the polls, embarked on a leisurely crosscountry fundraising tour—what one columnist described as probably his last vacation before assuming mayoral duties.
The first cloud to appear over Dinkins’s march to City Hall came in the form of a person who had been more or less out of the public eye for twenty years. This was Jitu Weusi, a Brooklyn radical activist serving as chairman of African Americans United for David Dinkins, and thus the campaign’s coordinator for the various black “grass-roots” constituency groups around the city.
Weusi had previously been named Leslie Campbell, and in 1968 as a leader of the Afro-American Teachers’ Association he had put himself at the center of one of the most explosive episodes of the school-decentralization controversy. On a radio program Campbell had read a poem composed, he claimed, by a fifteen-year-old girl, which began with the words: “Hey Jewboy, with that yarmulke on your head/ You palefaced Jewboy I wish you were dead.”
There was, on the part of most of the city’s newspapers, considerable reluctance to publish anything about Weusi’s role in the Dinkins campaign; reporters from at least one daily had the story over the summer, and avoided it. But after Raymond Harding, the leader of the city’s tiny Liberal party (which had also endorsed Giuliani), called a press conference to demand Weusi’s ouster, the issue became difficult to ignore.
Of course there was a presumption that no person should be punished for what he said or did in 1968; besides, many people had changed dramatically since then. But not, it appeared, Weusi. During the early 1970’s he had engaged in various forms of racial agitation around the schools, much of it heavily tinged with anti-Semitism. In the late 1970’s he had discovered the Arab cause, and had availed himself of various travel and speaking opportunities paid for by the government of Iraq. In 1985 he had written a piece welcoming the notoriously anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan to the city.
Dinkins was fundraising in California when the Weusi story broke; Weusi resigned shortly after his return. But what was most telling about the incident were the extraordinary efforts the Dinkins campaign made to keep Weusi on staff. The morning after the New York Post ran an editorial entitled “Jitu Weusi, Past, Present, and Future”—which said it was troubling that Weusi seemed headed toward a post in the next city government—the paper’s editorial offices were flooded with telephone calls from Jewish supporters of Dinkins testifying to Weusi’s virtue; one caller, a prominent member of New York’s Jewish community, disclaimed personal knowledge of Weusi but said the Dinkins campaign had urged him to call and wondered whether the Post would accept an op-ed piece from Weusi.
The fact that Weusi was worth such an effort brought into relief a feature of the Dinkins campaign over which both the press and Dinkins’s rivals had pulled a blanket of silence: there seemed to be no internal braking mechanism by which individuals from the far Left would be kept out of the orbit of the campaign. Indeed, Weusi was far from an isolated case. Another Dinkins aide, for example, was Leslie Cagan, a Jewish woman who, along with Weusi himself and the PLO’s UN observer Zehdi Terzi, had been one of the speakers at a June 1988 demonstration staged by the Palestine Solidarity Committee. And most of all there was Sonny Carson.
Shortly after the battle of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Dinkins campaign wrote a $9,500 check to a group with no address called “The Committee to Honor Black Heroes” which Carson headed; the alleged purpose was to finance a “get-out-the-vote” operation on primary day. Like Weusi, Carson had been one of the leaders of the violent demonstration at the bridge, and like Weusi, Carson had a past that went back to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school battles of 1967-68. Unlike Weusi, he also had a criminal record, having been tried for attempted murder, and convicted and imprisoned on a kidnapping charge. And also unlike Weusi, who had insisted in his resignation statement that he held no anti-Semitic views, either now or in the past, Carson would have nothing to do with such pieties. In the midst of the controversy he held a press conference, surrounded by young men dressed in what looked like street combat gear, and proclaimed that he was not so much anti-Jewish as “anti-white.”
Dinkins, needless to say, rushed to assert that Carson’s remarks went against everything he had stood for throughout his entire public career. But damage had been done, and it was compounded by the simultaneous emergence of reports concerning a curious Dinkins financial transaction.
In 1972, Dinkins had bought a block of stock in a privately held company, Inner City Broadcasting, chaired by his friend and political mentor Percy Sutton. By the 1980’s the company had acquired some lucrative cable-television franchises, and Dinkins’s stock had gained value—on a confidential state form in 1983, he had estimated its worth at $1 million. Then, on the eve of assuming the office of Manhattan borough president, in a transaction recorded on a handwritten note, Dinkins had sold the stock to his son for $58,000.
In a city which had become extremely preoccupied with ethical violations by public officials during the last Koch administration, all this looked a bit irregular, and served to remind people that Dinkins had failed to file tax returns for four years in the early 1970’s. In addition, it emerged that as borough president, Dinkins had twice voted on matters affecting franchises of the company in which his son now owned shares; this was a direct violation of the city’s ethics laws. For several days, Dinkins tried to avoid reporters’ questions about the matter, finally holding a marathon Friday afternoon news conference which, if it failed to clear the matter up, at least exhausted the interest of the press.
Fortunately for Dinkins, both the Carson flap and the stock transaction hit the news at exactly the same time, and both were pushed off the front pages by the San Francisco earthquake. Still, they exacted a political toll. Within a week, the polls shifted, and with about three weeks to go before the election, Dinkins’s lead had shrunk to somewhere between four and twelve percentage points.
The slippage was evident among all blocs of white voters. To counter it, Dinkins played his strongest card in a city habituated to voting Democratic: he wrapped himself in a cloak of white Democratic politicians. During the last weeks of the campaign hardly a day went by when Dinkins failed to campaign in the company of Mayor Koch, or Teddy Kennedy, or Michael Dukakis, or Bill Bradley, or Senator Carl Levin of Michigan. All this time Dinkins virtually ignored the black community, and Jesse Jackson made himself scarce.
By virtue of their high number of undecided voters, Jews had emerged as the key swing vote in the election. Day after day, Dinkins stumped in Forest Hills, Pelham Parkway, Borough Park, and other predominantly Jewish districts. The effort was not without its drawbacks for the Jewish community. Along with all the attention, Jewish voters were being given a clear message: if they did not vote for Dinkins, and Dinkins were to lose, the loss would be attributed to Jewish racism.
Time after time in Jewish forums, Dinkins was asked about his associations with Jesse Jackson. Usually he responded in calm tones: he, not Jesse Jackson, was running for mayor. But occasionally he grew testy. Once, refusing to denounce Jackson, he snapped: “Should he get life in prison or what?” When there were cries of “Hymietown” (a term used in 1984 by Jackson about New York) Dinkins reminded his audience that he had denounced Louis Farrakhan and long supported Jewish causes, and continued: “Am I okay? Am I alright? . . . And I say to you with the deepest respect, if I’m not alright, who is?” While Jesse Jackson complained from the sidelines that Dinkins was “facing a kind of protracted crucifixion every day” at the hands of Jewish voters, Queens Democratic Assemblyman Alan Hevesi spelled it out, telling one audience: “If as a Jew you cannot vote for this man, you can never vote for a black.”
Dinkins’s question, “If I’m not alright, who is?” was not necessarily an unfair one, and it resonated as an implicit charge of racism only because it was allowed to hang in the air, unanswered, for the duration of the campaign. Yet a straightforward answer was available, valid not only for Jews but for all registered Democrats uneasy about Dinkins. A black mayoral candidate who had not been Jesse Jackson’s campaign manager would have gone down more easily than Dinkins, and so would one who did not have such a glaring record of irresponsibility with his personal finances. Even more pertinently, a black candidate to whom it would never occur to hire Jitu Weusi and Sonny Carson for campaign roles, and whose campaign staff was not honeycombed with leftwing activists, would also have been clearly “alright.” Finally, many Democratic voters would have been more comfortable voting for a black candidate who had not used his previous political post to give credibility to the more lurid charges of institutionalized racism and systematic police brutality which black extremists had leveled at the city’s leadership.
As Dinkins’s lead diminished, there developed a strong undercurrent of belief in the black community that the white media, by reporting his financial affairs and paying fuller attention to the Carson-Weusi matter, had embarked on a last-minute conspiracy to “take it away” from Dinkins—to deny him the prize that was rightfully his. While it was hard to maintain that Dinkins was being more “nitpicked” than Giuliani, the fact that both the press and all of his Democratic opponents had very nearly given Dinkins a free ride on these issues during the primary helped sustain theories of an eleventh-hour cabal.
By the end, the most compelling argument left for Dinkins’s candidacy was that blacks in the city would be angry if he lost. This was stated in dozens of private conversations and bluntly by at least one candidate for city office who remarked, as Dinkins began to totter, “I’d hate to imagine what might happen if Dinkins loses.” It was also alluded to in the endorsements Dinkins received from three of the city’s four major daily papers, which mentioned race or “personal presence” or healing abilities as his principal qualification for office. But the argument received its most candid elucidation in a pair of columns written by Ken Auletta of the Daily News, published on the two Sundays preceding election day.
Auletta balanced the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates (Giuliani had more executive ability and competence; Dinkins had a smoother and more likeable public persona). But the decisive question for him, the one which could not be avoided, was racial harmony. “Reject Dinkins,” Auletta wrote.
and 98 percent of black New Yorkers who polls say are for Dinkins will blame racism. They will know that the 29 percent of the voters whom Dinkins attracted in the primary was a mirage—that in the general election his white support fled. . . . They will believe, as the Reverend Herbert Daughtry said last week, “If David Dinkins is not acceptable, it means no black leader is acceptable.” . . . Reject Dinkins and we license haters like Sonny Carson. . . . Reject Dinkins and the racial polarization attributed to Mayor Koch will appear as a minor irritant. . . . Racial harmony and peace are a prerequisite for the other things the next mayor must do, including balancing the budget. The nation—no the whole world—is watching. David Dinkins has become a symbol.
The following week Auletta spelled out the argument once again, addressing in particular Jewish voters. It was clear, he began, that Jewish guilt would be a factor at the polls—but this was by no means a terrible thing: guilt was one of the most civilized of emotions. And far from being masochistic, a guilt-driven vote was actually in the Jewish self-interest. This was particularly true because so many Jewish voters continued to show up in the polls as “undecided.” That meant that Jews were the election’s swing vote, and “should Dinkins lose it is likely many blacks will whisper. ‘The Jews killed Dinkins.’” Auletta went on to say that while “there are sound reasons to reject Dinkins, I believe, it doesn’t matter what I believe. . . If a quarter of New York’s population is convinced New Yorkers voted against Dinkins for the wrong, not the right reasons, this is a factor we need to consider.”
Auletta’s column was the nearest anyone came to acknowledging that there was an element of racial blackmail—what used to be called “maumauing”—hanging over the campaign; he was constructing the case for paying up. By letting on that a Dinkins defeat would make the racial tension that existed under Koch appear like a “minor irritant,” Auletta quietly turned the “healing” theme on its head. The Dinkins candidacy had not soothed racial tensions but, at least in a latent sense, had raised them. The city, which had gone along for years with relatively few racial incidents, was suddenly hostage to a campaign around which had grown the message, “Let him heal—or else.”
As Eric Breindel noted in a column in the New York Post, some uncomfortable implications could be drawn from Auletta’s argument. Would it be appropriate, Breindel wondered, to take such strictures under consideration in any election in which a black had a good chance of winning? While Auletta had claimed that he was arguing for “facing reality” and was not “pandering to fear,” it was not at all clear where the distinction lay between the two.
The final result was close, closer than the tracking polls, closer even than the exit polls, had led everyone to expect. Dinkins won by about 47,000 votes out of an electorate of nearly two million. In the end, he got about a third of the Jewish vote—roughly twice the percentage he received from Irish and Italian Catholics, and several points more than he got from white Protestants. While enough to put Dinkins over the top, it was not enough to deter the city’s black media from embarking on lengthy ruminations about why the Jews had failed to “repay” Dinkins for all the attention he had lavished on them during the campaign.
So much, then, for the victory of “healing” over “bigotry.” Whether, as mayor, Dinkins will be able to redress the racial tensions his own campaign provoked, let alone deal successfully with the other urgent problems of New York, remains to be seen.