Remembering David Dinkins, 1199’s Staunch Ally

January 19, 2021

NYC’s first Black mayor was champion of what he called our “gorgeous mosaic.”


Our Union mourns the death of one of its greatest friends, David Dinkins. New York City’s only African American mayor passed away Nov. 23 at his Manhattan home. He was 93. His wife of 67 years, Joyce Dinkins, a celebrated children’s advocate, died only six weeks before him, on Oct. 11.

“David Dinkins made New York City better and was truly an example of the potential he believed in for us all,” said 1199 President George Gresham.

The son of a barber and a domestic worker, Dinkins was raised in Trenton, NJ, and in Harlem. His rise to New York City’s highest office in 1989, was intimately tied to 1199’s resurgence and political maturation in the second half of the 1980s. Over the years, Dinkins never wavered in his support for poor and working people.

Dinkins graduated from the historically Black Howard University in Washington, DC, where he met his wife Joyce. He also served in the military before returning to New York City with his wife. He then worked his way through Brooklyn Law School, and eventually developed a law practice in business and real estate in Harlem, while also becoming a low-key, but well-known political mover.

He was appointed City Clerk by Mayor Abe Beame, a job he held for many years, until he made his own political breakthrough.

Finally, in 1986, Dinkins won the office of Manhattan Borough President on his third try. Then, at the urging of 1199, Borough President Dinkins held public hearings in which NYC homecare workers described their abject working conditions and poverty wages. These hearings helped the workers—largely women of color, and many immigrants—eventually win major wage increases and benefits.

Within 1199 back then, the reformist Save Our Union (SOU) slate won a union-wide election against an inept leadership that had deeply divided the membership by exploiting racial and skills divisions and calling a disastrous strike in 1984. By 1989 David Dinkins ran for mayor on a platform of bringing a deeply divided city together. He challenged then Mayor Edward I. Koch, who had become a polarizing figure among communities of color. New Yorkers who believed in the “gorgeous mosaic” that Dinkins often referred to rallied around him.

The ranks of labor provided resources that a weakened Democratic Party at the time was unable to provide.

So 1199 was in the front lines of the successful Dinkins campaign for Mayor, defeating Koch in the primary, and Rudolph Giuliani in the general election.

More than 2,000 members took part in the 1989 New York City primaries and general election, although those campaigns coincided with one of 1199’s most crucial contract fights. That battle with the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes was a crucial test of 1199’s ability to unite a previously divided and fearful membership. Many had been demoralized and disillusioned by the failed 1984 strike. Early in the 1989 campaign, members indicated their willingness to trust the new Union leadership by participating in one-day strikes. The League, with the exception of the Catholic hospitals, refused to budge.

When 1199 momentarily suspended contract mobilizations to devote its full resources to the Dinkins’ campaign, one hospital CEO was quoted as saying, “We’ll kill two birds with one stone— 1199 and David Dinkins.” He was woefully mistaken on both counts.

Dinkins won the September primary and 1199 also won an historic groundbreaking contract the next month.

Quoted in The New York Times, one 1199er declared: “We stood behind [Dinkins] and we got our man in. I’m happy for that—not because I’m Black, but for my Union and the whole city.”

Dinkins had endorsed the 1199 contract campaign. His chief strategist, Bill Lynch, a former union organizer, had previously worked closely with the 1199 SOU activists on various campaigns, especially for Jesse Jackson’s U.S. presidential campaign in the New York State primary—in which then 1199 President Dennis Rivera had led registration and GOTV drives. And Jackson’s primary win in NYC was instrumental in convincing Dinkins to run for mayor.

When in November 1989, Dinkins defeated his Republican opponent, federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani, and became the city’s first African American mayor, he inherited a deepening crisis. The city’s budget deficit stood at $1.8 billion, the result of the worst local recession since the Great Depression. Murders and other serious crime, homelessness, and the heroin and crack epidemic had all reached frightening levels. Perhaps the mayor’s biggest challenge was trying to heal the city’s deep racial divisions.

And during the Dinkins administration crime in the city decreased more dramatically than at any time in the city’s history. The mayor also decreased the size of the city’s homeless population. And he rehabilitated more housing in a single term than his successor, Mayor Giuliani, did in two terms. Mayor Dinkins cleaned up Times Square. He established Beacon centers—afterschool programs for poor students—and placed healthcare centers in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

But in 1993 Mayor Dinkins was narrowly defeated by race monger Giuliani with much help from the city’s Policemen Benevolent Association (PBA). Mayor Dinkins, always the gentleman, rarely complained, but his biography provides a fitting post-mortem to his loss.

“I think it was just racism, pure and simple,” he wrote in A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic, written with Peter Knobler.

His legacy includes helping to inspire younger activist legislators and public servants, among them NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, both of whom worked in the Dinkins administration. Another leader who worked for Mayor Dinkins is Patrick Gaspard, former 1199 exec VP and President Barack Obama’s political director. Gaspard now heads the progressive Open Society, and he recognized Mayor Dinkins as “a political Jackie Robinson.”

1199 Magazine | November & December 2020