David Dinkins, “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic”

On October 21, 2013, Jonathan provided introductory remarks for former New York City Mayor David Dinkins who spoke about his life and his new autobiography.  The two then sat down for a discussion about the book and about the future of New York City politics. Video of the event can be viewed here.

David Dinkins

October 21, 2013

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.  It is my pleasure to welcome you to an evening with Mayor David Dinkins, who will talk about his just- published memoir, A Mayor’s Life:  Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic.  We are grateful to Peter Osnos, a member of our Board and publisher of A Mayor’s Life for making this evening possible.

Roosevelt House is sponsoring a series of programs on New York City as we prepare to elect a new Mayor.  This Wednesday, Brookings Scholar Bruce Katz will talk about his new book The Metropolitan Revolution which features New York City as an example of how cities will lead economic growth. And in December, we will hear from Bob Steel, New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development, about the state of the city’s economy and its fiscal future.

Tonight is a special pleasure for me because I have known David Dinkins for thirty years through The New School, where in the 1980s he taught courses such as “Black Leadership in New York City” and “The City Politic: An Inside View.”  He now teaches at Columbia School of Public Affairs, Chairs the Earth Institute New York City Sustainable Development Initiative and hosts the annual Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum.

After service in The Marine Corps he earned his B.S. in Math from Howard University and his law degree from Brooklyn Law School.  He practiced law for twenty years as he entered political life in 1966 as a member of the New York State Assembly, he then served as President of New York City’s Board of Elections and was City Clerk for a decade before his election as President of the Borough of Manhattan in 1985 and Mayor in 1989.  Somehow he finds time to serve on non-profit boards like The Association to Benefit Children, The Children’s Health Fund, and the Coalition for the Homeless, to name just a few.

A Mayor’s Life is a memoir that chronicles the journey of an extraordinary life from modest beginnings to national leadership that has opened opportunity by example and good works for people of all backgrounds.  It is one of the best memoirs I have read:  honest, humane, humble, but forceful and inspiring.  David Dinkins brilliantly analyzes the complex reality a leader faces, describes the larger context of historical forces, challenges and opportunities that shape our destiny, and draws us into the story with a deeply personal narrative that includes New York personalities we all grew up with.

Enough time has passed so we can put David Dinkins’ enormous contribution to our city in perspective. We became a more just and humane place with his leadership, with better social services for the poor, attention to the challenges faced by the disabled and people with AIDS, more affordable housing opportunities, more programs for children and safer streets. I saw these improvements first-hand in the Union Square neighborhood when I was President of the New School and co-chair of the Union Square Local Development Corporation. A Mayor’s Life is a must read for the next Mayor, indeed for anyone aspiring to leadership of our city.

It is appropriate that we gather in the home of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and Franklin’s mother Sara.  Both Sara and Eleanor were champions of racial justice and opportunity.

When you walk around after the program, go into the second floor parlor and look at the photo on the mantel of Sara with Mary McLeod(McCLOUD) Bethune(BethOON). A frequent visitor to this house, Mary Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt became close friends when Franklin appointed her to serve as director of the National Youth Administration. Eleanor counted Mary among her closest friends and said she was “proud that our country could produce a Mrs. Bethune,” that her work for social justice and civil rights was “a tribute to our nation.”

FDR would have approved of the phrase “gorgeous mosaic” to describe the people of New York City.  Listen to the similarities, first, David Dinkins:

“New York is not a melting pot, but a gorgeous mosaic.  We have almost as many separate ethnic identities in the city as the United Nations has member nations.   Our religious and cultural institutions are multitudinous.  I did not feel the need to scrub the unique qualities from each.  I celebrated the beautiful work of economic, political, and social art, created by the millions of daily interactions that came to define the look, feel, taste, and sense of the city.”

And now hear FDR describe the nation in 1940:

“Men and women of courage,” he said, “of enterprise, of vision… form a new human reservoir, and into it has poured the blood, the culture, the traditions of all the races of peoples of the earth. [Here] they came—the “masses yearning to be free”—…cherishing common aspirations, not for economic betterment alone, but for the personal freedoms and liberties which had been denied to them[.]”

Eleanor and Franklin and Sara would be proud to host David Dinkins in their home.   And they would be proud of the life he has led.

After Mayor Dinkins speaks, he and I will converse for a few minutes and then open to your questions.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mayor David Dinkins.

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