New York's Dinkins Plows Ahead
With dollars scarce, he scrounges, surprises critics with tough cuts; more racial harmony cited. INTERVIEW: FIRST 100 DAYS
AS he ends his first 100 days in office today, Mayor David Dinkins is reaching out on New York City's behalf for every spare dollar he can tap. The hard fiscal realities of trying to close a current $1 billion budget gap and an expected $1.8 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year have forced New York City's first black mayor to put many of his fondest hopes and plans for city improvement on hold.
``We're in a lot of difficulty,'' he admits in a Monitor interview. ``But it's not just the city or the state - it's regional.''
Last month Mr. Dinkins flew to a Democratic National Committee meeting in Indianapolis to court those choosing a site for the party's 1992 convention, a meeting that could bring as much as $100 million. ``I think we have a fair-to-good chance,'' he says.
Dinkins wants more help from private business and volunteers. He also wants aid from Washington, arguing that any peace dividend should be spent on the nation's cities if the US is to remain a world leader.
In an effort to bite the bullet at home, Mayor Dinkins has called for more than $800 million in new or higher taxes and refinanced bonds. All city agencies are to cut budgets by 4 percent. Such moves from a man often described as soft-spoken, and less than decisive during his campaign, have disarmed skeptics.
``His performance has been a shock because no one thought he had the reservoir of authority to do the hard things,'' says Dr. Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center. ``He came in as Mr. Conciliation, but he's turning out to be much ... tougher than his persona before the election. He's become a hard-ball mayor on the budget.''
As Dinkins sees it, he has had little choice. ``Fiscal stability is absolutely essential,'' he says. ``We must achieve that in order to do anything else.''
He has just heard from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who phoned to tell him a bill (which Dinkins supports) to provide emergency relief for AIDS education in several needy areas has cleared the first hurdle of Senate committee approval. Dinkins lauds the Aaron Diamond Foundation for pledging $8 million, to be matched by $3 million from the city, for an AIDS research center in New York.
To address other city problems more effectively, Dinkins says he intends to press for more private initiatives. The city wants business volunteers, for instance, to help supplement the eight hours a year of drug education city students now get. He also wants more lawyers to offer pro-bono help to the city's Human Rights Commission, which has a backlog of discrimination complaints.
Beyond such efforts, Dinkins describes as ``frustrating'' his administration's inability to do more to resolve the city's many social problems. Dinkins comments on three central problems:
Homelessness. Dinkins says all welfare hotels in the city will be closed by the end of this year. He agrees in theory with a City Council bill calling for a similar shutdown of all barracks-type shelters. Yet he opposes any law to do so by a certain date because other space to house the city's estimated 70,000 homeless may not yet be available. ``I really don't need legislation to compel me to act,'' insists Mayor Dinkins. ``My record is consistent with a desire to get people out of shelters.''
Crime. More people were killed in the city last year - 1,905 - than in any previous year. For budget reasons, Dinkins delayed from January to April the starting date of a Police Academy class and reduced its size from 1,800 to 750 officers. Dinkins is, however, pleased at having recruited Dr. Lee Brown, former Houston police chief, as police commissioner. He also commends groups like the Central Park Conservancy, which recently issued 50 safety recommendations, for efforts and fund raising on the park's behalf.
Race. Though problems remain, Dinkins believes racial tensions have eased. For instance, after the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a local black clergyman, marched with a group across the Brooklyn Bridge on Martin Luther King's birthday, he told Dinkins he felt included rather than excluded from city government.
``I'm not suggesting that all is sweetness and light,'' Dinkins says. ``But overall things are far better than they once were.'' Having campaigned as the man to bring the city together, he continues to describe his city as a ``gorgeous mosaic'' of different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds.
``Together that makes us strong,'' Dinkins says. ``What's needed is for more of us to reach out to better understand each other. Hopefully we'll come to love one another. But, if not, we will at least respect each other. I contend that it's the absence of respect - often born out of ignorance - that leads to the disdain that some have for others.''
Top appointments in Dinkins's administration reflect the diversity he talks about. Nearly one-third are women. Many choices have drawn praise from the same newspapers that criticized the more than three months it has taken Dinkins to complete his cast. ``I'm not distressed by the suggestion that I'm deliberative,'' he says. ``We'd have fewer problems if more people thought first and then spoke.''
Dinkins, who is wearing a navy boxing jacket given him by his son, a TV sports producer, sits at a desk used by former Mayor John Lindsay. On his office walls are a signed photograph of Nelson Mandela and one of Paul Robeson. Joyce Dinkins, his wife, is busy as the city's First Lady, working at Fiorello La Guardia's desk back at Gracie Mansion.
A lawyer and former marine who has a mathematics degree from Howard University, Dinkins began his political career from Harlem as a New York Assemblyman in 1965. The road up has not been easy. His admitted failure to pay his income taxes over a four-year period (since paid up with penalties) led to his resignation in 1973 from an appointment as deputy mayor. He ran three times before winning his last post, as Manhattan Borough President.
Former Mayors Edward Koch, Abraham Beame, Robert Wagner, as well as Mr. Lindsay, all told him that the mayor's job is the best job in the world and that he would love it. He does.
``I feel like going to work in the morning, seven days a week,'' Dinkins says. An enthusiastic and competitive tennis player, he gets in a few games on weekend mornings. He also has a pile of books, including a La Guardia biography waiting if he gets the time.
Mayor Dinkins's overall financial message is that New York City cannot handle its social problems alone.
He moved to the front lines of mayors pressing Capitol Hill for more help. As a co-chairman of a US Conference of Mayors task force on the 1990 Census, Dinkins has criticized new Commerce Department guidelines he says virtually shut the door on federal willingness to adjust for an almost certain undercount of big-city minorities.