It was fifteen years ago, the birth year of The Network Journal, that voters in New York City approved term limits. If they hadn’t, a lot of the popular politicians would still be in office.
Voters believed two four-year terms were enough for a mayor. Unfortunately, that decision didn’t affect the outcome of the race between Rudy Giuliani and the incumbent David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor.
Even more compelling than the showdown between Giuliani and Dinkins was the political sideshow that included Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. Dinkins had handily won the three-way primary against Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality and Eric Ruano-Melendez; but the contest with Giuliani was fierce, with each side unloading a barrage of negative ads.
The Farrakhan factor emerged in October, when the city consented to allow the Nation of Islam leader to hold a rally at Yankee Stadium three days before the election. A Farrakhan-led rally, with his name linked inseparably with anti-Semitism, was the last thing Dinkins wanted since he needed the Jewish vote. Farrakhan, perhaps realizing the possible damage, postponed the rally. Dinkins also had to constrain the militant exuberance of the late Brooklyn activist Sonny Carson, whom the media portrayed as anti-Semitic.
Farrakhan’s rally never happened and Carson’s ideas of mobilizing rappers in the campaign were stifled. But the mere controversy surrounding them was of no benefit to Dinkins and probably helped Giuliani immensely, who narrowly defeated Dinkins.
“Giuliani’s victory,” wrote journalist Peter Noel in his book Why Blacks Fear ‘America’s Mayor:’ Reporting Police Brutality and Black Activist Politics Under Rudy Giuliani, “…damaged any hope that a new political party — Black and proud — would emerge from rapprochement between dissenting Black activist organizations.”
Another factor that may have helped Giuliani was a report released by Governor Mario Cuomo on the riot in Crown Heights in 1991. The report concluded that the police were held back on the first night with a strong implication that Dinkins was the culprit. The Rev. Al Sharpton waded into the fray demanding to meet with Cuomo, but the governor refused. Cuomo also refused to meet with the father of the victim who set off the riot, later claiming that the father had refused to meet them.
“So my conclusion has to be that Cuomo was playing games with Dinkins, trying to help Giuliani,” Sharpton wrote in his autobiography, Go and Tell Pharaoh. “And I think this ultimately did lead to Dinkins’ defeat.”
Besides the report, there was the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, which was the source of white guilt and anxiety and marches led by Sharpton. All of this fed into a turbulent political climate.
After losing the election to Giuliani, Dinkins was disconsolate. Even so, he wiped away the tears and told Sharpton: “Don’t worry, Al…I’m going to Puerto Rico to play some golf and tennis and start the next phase of my life.”
Since that campaign setback, Dinkins is ensconced at Columbia University, where he is a professor in the Professional Practice of Public Affairs. Meanwhile, Sharpton, after losing a senatorial bid in 1992, continued in the forefront of community activism and made a presidential bid in 2004.