Professor and Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins Looks Back...and Forward

November 17, 2013

In the 20 years since David Dinkins left office, the former New York City mayor has stayed busy as a professor of public affairs at Columbia, running his annual Leadership and Public Policy Forum on campus, and serving on philanthropic boards.

One thing he didn’t do was write a memoir of his decades in politics and government—something many politicians churn out as soon as they can. “Lots of folks have written about me, and I don’t always agree with what they say,” said Dinkins. “But I know what happened. They think they know what happened, and they’re not always right.”

Dinkins, now 86, has remedied that with the publication this fall of "A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic." The 408-page book chronicles how the Trenton, N.J.-born son of a barber and a domestic went to Howard University, became a U.S. marine at a time when the corps accepted few African-Americans, then put himself through Brooklyn Law School and got his start in Harlem politics.

“The purpose of doing a book is not to make money, it’s to set the record straight, and this I think we have done,” Dinkins said in his office at the School of International and Public Affairs, whose walls are plastered with pictures and awards from his decades in public service. “There will be those who disagree with my version of what happened, but I don’t think too many.”

The headlines about his memoir have centered on his two mayoral races, in which he ran against Republican Rudolph Giuliani. He narrowly beat the former prosecutor in 1989 and lost to him four years later. “I didn’t get to have a second term, we think we should have,” he said. “You know what they say in politics, if a sparrow falls in Central Park on your watch, it’s your fault.”

This fall, one of Dinkins’ protégés was elected to the city’s top job. He praises Bill DeBlasio, who got his political start—and met his future wife, Chirlane McCray—while working as a Dinkins aide in the early 1990s. But Dinkins, more than most, is aware of the challenges awaiting the next mayor. “He’s going to face 120 to 150 [labor] contracts that have expired, and these folks are going to want not only increases, but they’ll want them to be retroactive,” he said. “It’s going to be a hell of a job. But somehow or other the people that we elect rise to the occasion.”

That can-do spirit is something he tries to get across to his students at SIPA. Come spring, Dinkins is teaching a course titled “Practical Problems in Urban Politics.” He said he always tries to get his students to take an interest in public policy, even if they’re not particularly inclined to work for the government or run for public office. “I don’t care if it’s the Red Cross or the NAACP—do something,” he said. “I think there’s no better laboratory than the city of New York for the things that we teach here.”

It was a different city when Dinkins began his career. He set up a law practice in Harlem and became involved in Democratic politics, meeting other aspiring African-American office-holders like himself. He became so close to Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton and Charles Rangel that a political rival nicknamed them the Gang of Four, a name they liked and which stuck.

The gang represented Harlem for years, with Paterson serving as a state senator, the city’s deputy mayor and later as the state’s first black Secretary of State. Sutton became Manhattan’s longest-serving borough president and Rangel was elected to Congress in 1971, where he is now third in seniority in the House of Representatives.

Dinkins, of course, rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party, serving at different times as state assemblyman, City Clerk, head of the city Board of Elections and Manhattan borough president before serving as the city’s first black mayor.

Today, when Dinkins encounters people who say he must have more time now that he’s retired from politics, he’s quick to say, “First of all I changed occupations, and that wasn’t my idea. I have less time. However, I don’t go anywhere or do anything that I don’t want to do.”