Mayor David Dinkins Of New York

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Former Mayor David N. Dinkins has the attention of fellow Democrats as well as a place in city business, courtesy of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican

May 16, 2005
Spotlight Returns to Former Mayor, and He Isn’t Running From It

David N. Dinkins left office stunned and frustrated, secure in history as the city’s first black mayor but narrowly defeated for a second term by a man who used the racial violence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as an example of a city mismanaged. He was shunned by his successor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and kept a low political profile for several years.

Now, 11 years after leaving City Hall, Mr. Dinkins finds himself courted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, sought after by the four major Democrats running to oust him, and the subject of bemusement even among close friends, who find themselves once again trying to figure him out.

He is a regular presence at Gracie Mansion. He and his wife, Joyce, have dined at Mr. Bloomberg’s town house. Next month, he will travel with the mayor to Africa to promote New York City’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. And he finds himself pulled by Democratic power brokers seeking to get him to back their preferred candidate in advance of the Sept. 13 primary.

Unlike the two other living former mayors, Mr. Giuliani and Edward I. Koch, who have endorsed Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Dinkins is not saying which candidate he will back, or even if he will make a primary endorsement.

As the last candidate to build a multiracial coalition that led to victory in a New York City mayoral race, he maintains a reservoir of good will in a city where ethnic and racial politics continue to shape campaigns for City Hall.

Perhaps delighting in his new status, he is as elliptical as ever about his plans.

"I’ve never endorsed a candidate who was not a Democrat other than John Lindsay," Mr. Dinkins, 77, says over and over, resisting entreaties to further assess the candidates or even hint if he is leaning toward one or another.

"I have no reason to be in that big of a hurry, and things happen," Mr. Dinkins said in his office at Columbia University, where he is a professor of public affairs. "Something may occur that alters my judgment. Who knows? I don’t mean to suggest I’m waiting for that. I’m just not in a hurry to make a decision."

Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers believe they have a fair shot at getting Mr. Dinkins’s endorsement, which would be a coup as the mayor tries to attract Democratic support and draw black support. But Democratic strategists are more confident he will remain in the camp, and at least back the party’s nominee.

Their courting comes as Mr. Dinkins seeks to shore up his legacy, hopeful that historians will play up things like the drop in crime that began toward the end of his term after a period of abundant and sometimes sensational violence. He concedes blemishes like his handling of the Crown Heights racial violence, where he now says he dropped the ball. It is, he said, his biggest regret that he did not take action sooner to quell the violence among blacks and Jews there.

Columbia will soon announce an endowed chair in his name. He is planning a book, eager to pay homage to his political mentors and troubled by inaccuracies he said he has seen in the news media, from the sequence of events in Crown Heights to who was a deputy mayor and who wasn’t.

But the parlor game over which candidate he may pick in the mayor’s race – and yes, it matters in some circles, particularly among black voters who still hold him in high regard – has piqued curiosity in political circles partly because of some unexpected elements.

The relationship most intriguing to Democrats has been the one with Mr. Bloomberg, who has given Mr. Dinkins in retirement something that Mr. Giuliani denied him, a place in city business.

They have given each other warm introductions at events. They have traveled to the Little League World Series together. They have attended the United States Open tennis tournament together (an event Mr. Giuliani largely ignored). And next month, Mr. Dinkins, whom Mr. Bloomberg appointed to the city’s sports commission and sports development corporation, plans to travel to Africa with Mr. Bloomberg.

Mr. Dinkins has promised Mr. Bloomberg to stay neutral on whether a stadium should be built on the West Side for the Jets and the Olympics, a contrast with the Democratic candidates, who all oppose it.

"I’m just neutral, I’m taking no stand," he said, adding that he had promised Mr. Bloomberg not to campaign against it but refusing to elaborate on his reasons or position.

Over all, Mr. Dinkins said, "I have a good relationship with" Mr. Bloomberg, giving him credit for his philanthropic activities even before he ran for office.

"I like him," Mr. Dinkins added.

Edward Skyler, Mr. Bloomberg’s spokesman, said the mayor "has great respect for Mayor Dinkins and is proud to call him a friend, regardless of their political differences."

The conventional wisdom held that Mr. Dinkins would surely back C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, who has lined up the support of two of Mr. Dinkins’s closest friends and political allies, Representative Charles B. Rangel and Percy E. Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president and broadcasting entrepreneur.

Mr. Dinkins appeared at a fund-raiser for Ms. Fields this month, soaking in applause from the crowd but not speaking, and insisting afterward that his presence was no signal of his intentions.

But then again, his former top political aide and close friend, Bill Lynch, is working for Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, and Mr. Lynch said he was arguing Mr. Ferrer’s case.

Some of Mr. Dinkins’s associates say they do not understand why he has not taken a position. Some close friends even thought he had, figuring that like them he was with Ms. Fields.

"I thought he really had endorsed her, but he reminded me that he did not," said Mr. Rangel, who has known Mr. Dinkins for more than 40 years. "I don’t know why you go to the dinner without endorsing her."

Mr. Sutton, though, has cut him slack.

"He has a wider range of things to consider than I do," Mr. Sutton said. "He has to add in the thinking his past status, present status and what kind of relationship he has had with people."

Mr. Dinkins, noticeably heavier than in his mayoral days but still impeccably dressed in a blue blazer and matching silver dotted tie and handkerchief, spoke optimistically in recent days about his legacy: that some of the school programs he started still exist; that despite economic hard times, he kept libraries open six days a week; that he negotiated the expansion of the National Tennis Center in Queens, including a stadium named after Arthur Ashe.

But for all the regret he said he harbors over not acting soon enough to quell the violence in Crown Heights, he grows annoyed that it has come to symbolize disorder of the day.

"I wish that I had sooner said to Lee Brown, who was the police commissioner at the time, as I did ultimately, what you guys are doing isn’t working in Crown Heights," Mr. Dinkins said. "But the public and press can be – I’m trying to get the right descriptive language – interesting, odd, different."

And perceptions linger that Mr. Dinkins underperformed as mayor.

Thomas Kessner, a history professor at City University of New York’s graduate school who wrote a book about Fiorello H. La Guardia, said that although it is too soon to judge, Mr. Dinkins appeared to fall into the "caretaker" category of mayors rather than those recalled for grand achievements or forceful personalities.

"I don’t think he left much of a mark," Dr. Kessner said. "People consider him a gentleman with tremendous grace, but his thumbprint on the city is not so large."

Mr. Dinkins said he took heart in what he called the usual warm reception he receives at public appearances. But he is conscious enough of mixed perceptions of him to allow a joke when asked what his endorsement might do for a candidate.

"It might harm them," he said with a laugh.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company Home Privacy Policy Search Corrections RSS Help Contact Us Back to Top


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