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‘Don't Lose Your Base’: As He Becomes New York City’s Second Black Mayor, Lessons for Eric Adams from David Dinkins’ Tenure


bkborohall dinkins adams

Mayor-elect Eric Adams, right, with former Mayor David Dinkins (photo: @BKBoroHall)


As Eric Adams exulted in his victory in the New York City mayoral election, he invoked the legacy of giants that preceded him. Speaking to his jubilant supporters at the Marriott Hotel in Downtown Brooklyn on the evening of November 2, he rattled off the names of elected officials and activists who paved his way, the “revolutionaries who won wars without firing one shot.”

They included Percy Sutton, who was, as Manhattan borough president, the highest-ranking Black elected official in the city at the time. U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the House of Representatives and first woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president. Dennis deLeon, a former New York City human rights commissioner, prominent Latino leader, and AIDS activist. Larry Kramer, playwright and AIDS activist. Peter Yew, a young Chinese-American architectural engineer whose 1975 arrest and beating in custody by police prompted widespread protests and a shutdown of Chinatown.

But perhaps the most notable inclusion in the list was the most obvious: David Dinkins, the first Black mayor of New York City, in whose footsteps Adams is now following to become only the second Black person to hold the top spot at City Hall.

Thirty-two years apart, the city that Adams will lead is a very different one than what Dinkins inherited but there are certain similarities between their victories and Adams may face some of the same challenges that dogged Dinkins in his single term in office, including racism. Allies of one or both men, and other experts, have certain advice and warnings for Adams as he ascends to what is typically described as the second toughest job in the country behind president.

Dinkins, who spoke in his 1990 inaugural address of the “gorgeous mosaic” of New York City’s diversity, was elected in hopes that he would usher in unity and heal a city divided by racial tension. Adams said in his victory speech, “We are so divided right now, and we’re missing the beauty of our diversity.” Dinkins was felled in part because of the faulty perception that he had let crime get out of control and in part because of his failure to control the 1991 Crown Heights riots. Adams was elected largely because he promised he would reign in the major increase in gun violence happening alongside the election. Both promised accountability for errant police officers.

Just as Dinkins was considered a steady hand that would bring the city’s growing fiscal deficits under control, Adams has pledged efficiency in governance and fiscal responsibility in the aftermath of the pandemic-era recession and a city budget that has ballooned. Both leaders are successors to Democrats but where Dinkins took over from Mayor Ed Koch, whose third term saw his administration in disarray from several corruption scandals and whom Dinkins defeated in the 1989 primary, Adams will take over from Mayor Bill de Blasio, an ally whose administration’s crises have been the result of his own ethical lapses, mismanagement, and distraction.

In the last three decades, the city has been transformed in many ways, and, even with the recent increases in gun violence, is exponentially safer than it was when Dinkins took over. But both Dinkins and Adams rose to power at a time of immense crisis in the city. For Dinkins, it was a crack epidemic, violent crime, rampant poverty and fiscal instability. For Adams, it is the aftermath of a global pandemic that has left the city with nearly 40,000 dead and down 500,000 jobs, along with various other crises including at public housing and public schools that house and educate hundreds of thousands of the city's less affluent Black and Latino residents.

“Mayor Dinkins was not just the first Black mayor; he was not just a symbol,” Adams wrote on Twitter, the day after Dinkins died at the age of 93 in November of 2020. “Through his actions on behalf of lower-income people, he was both our effective advocate and confirmation of a long-held hope that our lives mattered to our government.”

Adams himself has drawn parallels about the transitory periods that preceded Dinkins and that set the stage for his own mayoralty. In an interview with the Max & Murphy podcast last year, just one day after Dinkins’ death at the age of 93 and shortly after Adams had formally announced his own run for City Hall, Adams reflected on his relationship with the late mayor, whom he called a “generational mentor” both to him and his son.

“He was a real friend and a real mentor, and something that I saw was what the possibilities were as being just a gentle leader that made everyone feel comfortable, and I don't believe he received his just due,” Adams said. “He put in place a lot of the law enforcement, increase in policing, community policing, he set the stage that other people have benefited from and we are safer because of him. And I believe he was a great leader and this city was very fortunate to have him as the mayor.”

“Mayor Dinkins was the mayor that was needed. We needed him,” Adams added in the interview. “During a time when the city was divided. There was so much tension in the city and Mayor Koch had reached a point of where the division was just really bad for the city of New York and [Dinkins] was the perfect man for the time to bring us together and say he was a unifier.”

During the primary campaign, Adams defined his ideal model for a mayor. “The best New York City mayor in my lifetime is a combination of Mayor David Dinkins and Michael Bloomberg,” he said.

What he chiefly learned from Dinkins tenure was that public safety was the prerequisite for governing and broader prosperity, a lesson that informed Adams’ chief mayoral campaign motto.

“We relinquished our ability to be safe. We said we can’t be safe so let's build our lives around that, that dysfunctionality of the police department...You can have safety and justice. But safety is crucial for us to have a stabilized city and that is at the forefront of my mind every day,” Adams told the podcast hosts, Ben Max of Gotham Gazette and Jarrett Murphy of City Limits.

When Dinkins lost his reelection bid to Rudy Guiliani in 1993, Adams was a police officer and leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, an advocacy group of police officers. He was speaking out against police brutality from within the department at a time when Dinkins was attempting to tackle it from within City Hall. Notably, Adams switched his party registration to become a Republican in 1995 until switching back to the Democratic Party in 2002. He told a City Limits reporter in 2013 that he had made the switch because he was “concerned that city Democrats were too soft on crime.” He said he never voted for a Republican and later came to regret his decision. 

It was those concerns over crime that undid Dinkins, Adams noted in the podcast. “And I think that is really current day of what we're going through right now. And it's very interesting. We are at that time again,” Adams said, at a point when shootings and homicides had increased dramatically, though nowhere near the raw numbers seen in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, “when there are a series of things in the city that I believe is going to have an impact on how voters are going to decide who's going to be the next mayor.”

And that is what happened in the campaign that unfolded over the course of the following months, where Adams -- a former NYPD captain and state senator -- won a highly-competitive primary then coasted in the general election in a campaign that was largely focused on public safety. Like Dinkins, Adams will go from a borough presidency to the city’s chief executive.

While he will inherit a very different city on January 1, 2022 than Dinkins did 32 years prior, Adams will come into office amid crisis, as gun violence rates remain far higher than they were two years ago and the city is still trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic in many other ways as well.

Those who closely observed Dinkins’ time in office say Adams can take away several crucial lessons from his tenure, to follow through on his campaign promises, and win the second term that Dinkins was denied.

“I think they're coming out of the gate about the same in terms of diversity and hope,” said Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry, a Dinkins ally who founded the African People’s Christian Organization and the National Black United Front. Daughtry and Adams have both said Daughtry was among the people who suggested to Adams that he should join the police force when he was a teenager who had been beaten by NYPD officers.

“The major lesson that Adams can take is don't lose your base,” Daughtry said in a phone interview. “I don't compare one against the other, even in sports, because of timing, resources, obstacles and all of that. But some things Eric, I think there's no question, can learn from Dinkins is to continue the building of diversity, and in particular, pay attention to your base, to the people of African ancestry, to people who are at the bottom of the social ladder.”

Adams’ base, of course, is much wider now since Democratic enrollment in the city has only grown, with registered Democrats eclipsing Republicans seven to one. Moderate and conservative white voters now make up a far smaller percentage of the electorate, though he has assiduously sought to win over that constituency. The mayor-elect has also won the loyalty of working New Yorkers, including Black, Hispanic and white voters, but has also ingratiated himself with the wealthier segments of society. He has been feted by labor unions, small business owners, hedge fund managers, and real estate moguls. He rallies with the everyman protesting the city’s lack of affordable housing or crisis of low wages while also hobnobbing with the rich and famous at posh clubs.

Bertha Lewis, founder and president of The Black Institute, echoed Daughtry’s advice. “When you are serving, you must make sure that you have constant contact with the base that put you in there,” she said. “You cannot assume that people are with you. You must give them a reason to come out for you.”

She noted that Adams won the Democratic primary by a thin margin over second-place finisher Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner who is white. “Not everyone is going to be your friend in the gorgeous mosaic that Dinkins always talked about,” Lewis said. “A mosaic has many colors, and many cultures, and many opinions. And so, in the gorgeous mosaic, don't assume that everybody fits together. Not every group is on the same page. People are individuals, they never take anything for granted. You must still connect. You have to put as much time into the average working person as you would into the elite in this town.”

Rev. Daughtry had another warning for Adams. “Your base isn't always the political operatives,” he said. “You have political operatives, no matter who’s mayor, they’re gonna be inside. They have already determined what they want...Your base may not be political operatives who know how to maneuver the system. And unless you pay careful attention to them, you're going to lose them.”

Adams has made sweeping promises to his base that he will need to follow through on. He has pledged to make the city safer and policing fairer, to make it easier to run a business, improve access to city services and government efficiency, improve schools, build more affordable housing, transform public health, and more. He’s pledged to be a close friend to labor, welcome big business, and demand and deliver much more for the millions of New Yorkers he has said are failed by government.

Daughtry witnessed the acrimonious relationship that Dinkins had with the NYPD, as he created the modern version of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police oversight agency, and was rewarded with a massive riot of mostly off-duty police officers egged on by Giuliani, who would go on to defeat and succeed Dinkins. Adams, Daughtry said, could make major strides if he improved relationships between the police and communities, which the mayor-elect has promised to do. “If he can achieve that, then that would be a major, major contribution that he'll make, and maybe a model for the country,” he said.

It’s on policing and public safety that Adams centered his campaign message, striking a balancing act of being tough-on-crime while also promising accountability for police abuses. Dinkins did succeed in reducing crime by hiring thousands of more officers and implementing a community policing model, for which he gets little credit. But he had his back against the wall when the police protested his attempt to hold them to account, just one year after the Crown Heights riots. Adams, who had a 22-year career as a police officer and rose to the rank of captain, has long been a critic of police abuse of authority from within the department and outside of it and reforming it may be his greatest test as well. He has already said he will follow Dinkins’ model on community policing, something de Blasio has already pursued, and has made a series of pledges to improve policing through strategies, tactics, community input, and accountability.

“I don’t think he’s going to have much of a honeymoon,” said David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit anti-poverty group, and an MTA Board member.

“I think he's going to have to be on his guard as he makes his decisions. He's going to come under intense pressure,” Jones added. “He’s gonna have to be as unflappable as David was, and stick to his guns on this,” he said of police reform. 

Jones said Adams must learn from both Dinkins and from Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, a reformer and progressive who was in 1983 the first Black man elected to lead his city. Taking their lead, Jones said, Adams must center working class New Yorkers from Black and brown communities that suffer both from the worst violent crime and from abusive policing. He believes Adams has found the middle ground.

“He is going to have to work with a police force which has real issues, with the PBA which obviously supported Trump and has some deeply racist problems,” Jones said of the Police Benevolent Association, the largest officers union. “Being able to balance the call for adequate policing at the same time, making sure that his police force respects communities of color is going to be one of the key issues that will perhaps define much of his administration.”

In some crucial ways, Adams has advantages that Dinkins did not. There are far more Black, Latino, and Asian elected officials in prominent seats of power in the city and state that can act as a strong firewall for him. That includes dozens of members of color in the City Council and the state Legislature. Both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins are Black, as are New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, State Attorney General Letitia James, and several members of the House of Representatives from New York, including Brooklyn’s Hakeem Jeffries, a top contender to be the next Speaker of the House.

“It's a changed environment, there's no question,” said Jones. “This is not the city that David took over, either in terms of the presence of Black and Latino political power or just in the attitude and stomach for change...I think on certain issues, they will come to his defense. Even the more progressives, who will understand the dynamic of what's going on.”

That doesn’t mean that the rest of the political establishment, New Yorkers at large, or even the press will judge him by the same standard as they would a white mayor. “It’s not gonna be fair,” said Jones. “We're not in an America where people are going to come and look at a Black man or woman and give them the same benefit of the doubt. And I think he's tough enough to understand that immediately. They didn't give him a break in the police department. They didn't give him a break while he was growing up. I think it would be Pollyannaish to expect that suddenly everyone's going to be a delight.”

Veteran reporter Tom Robbins covered the Dinkins administration for the New York Daily News and considers him his “favorite mayor.” Dinkins, he said, “was really, to a large part, the victim of his own failure to be able to toot his own horn. And I don't think Eric Adams needs any lessons in that.”

“The man knows how to get out in front of a crowd and proclaim his abilities and his ability to do everything like ride a bike across the borough of Brooklyn to change his diet to beat diabetes to know what to do with the cops,” he added.

Dinkins was a “fairly shy person,” Robbins said, in stark contrast to his predecessor Koch, “whose favorite letter of the alphabet was I.” “Edward I. Koch used to spend half his time proclaiming his accomplishments and how great he was and people bought a lot of that,” Robbins noted.

Adams often refers to himself in the third person, a habit he said he picked up from writing in his personal journal. And, as Robbins reiterated, he may not suffer the same tendency for failing to promote his achievements in office or otherwise shape the narratives around him.

“David Dinkins went down allegedly because of a rise in crime,” Robbins said. “But the greatest secret still in New York City history is the fact that crime began to fall midway through his term, and they did that because of the fact that he actually affirmatively responded to a public outrage in demand after a series of really outrageous murders, including a white out-of-towner killed right in the middle of Times Square. If David Dinkins, I think, had been able to just let people know, in a more dramatic way, I think that at least he would have had a fairer shot.”

Adams, of course, is no shrinking violet. He was a media fixture while in the police department, regularly clashing with the NYPD commissioner or the mayor, whether Giuliani or Bloomberg. Soon after his win in the crowded Democratic mayoral primary earlier this year, he declared himself the “future of the Democratic Party.”

“I think he would do well to look at how David Dinkins governed other than that,” Robbins also said. “David Dinkins’ love for the city and his passion for people who were on the lower end of the scale was legendary and I think his policies played that out on a level, again, which was mostly not heralded adequately by his administration.”

Robbins said Adams would also face the same headwinds Dinkins did in being unfairly judged because he is Black. Before Dinkins, the crime rate had never been used as a metric for electing, or refusing to reelect, a mayor, Robbins said. “I don't think any of us have to lecture Adams about what racism means. He's probably suffered from it throughout his life, and he understands it,” Robbins said. “But he's got to know that the New York Post, which has been championing him almost from day one of his candidacy ain't going to be on his side once things start to turn sour.”

“This guy is on the verge of taking office, he's already been elected, and yet, he's such a puzzle,” Robbins said. “This is a man...I call him like a walking human Rorschach test. People have seen in him what they want to see. And that goes across the business community, it goes across labor, it goes across every segment of people who make up the city. But, at the end of the day, he's a Black guy and this is a city which, even though it's majority-minority...regardless of the fact, he's still a Black man who's going to be judged by that, seen in the perspective that the white establishment still judges people.”

Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, drew parallels and distinctions between Dinkins and Adams, and put them into the larger context of Black mayors.

"We know that Black mayors tend to have different difficult relationships with [police departments],” Greer said during a recent post-election analysis show, discussing the path ahead for the mayor-elect. “But realistically, very few Black mayors have ever been police officers. Most have been more of the Dinkins vein, very sort-of academically elite, part of those Black elite upper-middle-class characterization, how they work with white power structures within the city. We've seen it all up and down the East Coast and throughout the entire country. Eric Adams is not cut from that same cloth. He's much more of a hardscrabble, ‘I've done it on my own. I've built my own coalitions and you guys get in where you fit in.’”

Greer said that given Adams’ resume and profile are in important ways different from Dinkins’, it will likely affect how he is received by some other political players as well as the press. “They're not used to, I think, someone who's possibly as direct as Eric Adams will be,” she said.

“I'm not convinced that our press corps right now, many of whom are not New Yorkers, many of whom do not have a strong...understanding of race and class, will understand some of the nuances of how and why it is that Eric Adams would be successful at certain times or some of the ire that he will receive from New Yorkers,” Greer said.

“There needs to be a clear conversation that yes, he is still a Black mayor. He may not be a Black mayor that many people are accustomed to, the type of Black mayor, but there's something different about being an African-American who's an executive in a city that is not majority Black especially, calling the shots,” Greer continued. “And so there will be times where I think that there will be coverage that is quite honestly racist that Eric Adams will call out and say as such, but we also have to be careful where Eric Adams might also lean on that labeling at times when he needs to be called out and doesn't want to be called out. And so this is where the nuance has to come in, because there will be times that the coverage is unfair. And then there's going to be times where the coverage is very fair, and we can't hide behind a racist narrative when it's not there.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated. 



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