Monday, April 21, 2014


In the previous post of Ethics Ain't Pretty, I discussed the parallels between the Dinkins and de Blasio administrations regarding their difficulties with communications and messaging. In fact, it was recently announced that the current mayor would be expanding his press office, though this was recently published. (My first suggestion: David Neustadt!)

This entry and the next will analyze the similarities again between the two mayoral tenures, but in terms of appointments and job selections---essentially another case of deja vu all over again. However, that parallel only goes so far. To the dismay of many, Mayor de Blasio is managing not only to disappoint much of his base by some of his selections; His inability or refusal to break from Mayor Bloomberg on some very significant issues and in the way government does business could turn out to be the key to his downfall.

To adequately appreciate this, we must delve a bit into the personal history of David Dinkins. Dinkins came from a 'regular' political background, known at the time as Manhattan's Tammany machine lead by the late Carmine DeSapio. DeSapio was widely credited for reviving Tammany in the 1950s into the 1960s, before a burgeoning 'reform' movement, changing demographics and a corruption conviction essentially ended his political career.

As with every ethnic group in the city before, the political machine was the best way to work one's way up the proverbial ladder. It provided jobs and other benefits to the community at large in exchange for loyalty to the local party. In Harlem, Dinkins and his closest political allies became so strong that they were eventually referred to as Harlem's Gang of Four; Dinkins held numerous political positions, including Assembly Member and City Clerk.

When Dinkins successfully ran for Manhattan Borough President in 1985 after two previous runs, there was a general consensus among politically active democrats that it was his turn. When he ran against Ed Koch in 1989 for mayor, some of that sentiment existed, coupled with other factors like enormous Koch fatigue after three terms, and a genuine concern about race relations following several high-profile travesties--incidents towards which Koch either appeared to be tone deaf or handled very badly. Koch also ushered in the first real wave of uber-development and gentrification, and can be credited as being the first modern mayor to literally hand over the city to the real estate industry.

This contextual background is one explanation for the kind of people Dinkins appointed as senior officials. Overall, the appointments seemed a bit schizophrenic: on the one hand, the ranks boasted an array of ethnically diverse highly-competent liberals, who in their own way represented the 'best and the brightest. That list includes people like Nancy Wackstein, Mark Green, Richard Murphy, Margaret Hamburg, Richard Shrader, Cesar Perales, Ron Johnston and Gladys Carrion. Dinkins also appointed women to some high-ranking non-traditional posts, including as commissioners of Corrections, Health, Finance and Sanitation. (Unfortunately, some of these 'best and brightest' have subsequently morphed into perennial fixtures of the city's permanent government.)

I have always maintained had Dinkins been afforded a second term, the administration would have been teaming with such public servants.

As with most other mayors, Dinkins appointed his fair share of patronage jobs. Many came from within the ranks of either African-American affiliations, from the democratic party, or both. These appointments didn't always work out in the mayor's favor: Prime examples are NAACP New York State chair, Hazel Dukes, or its pro bono counsel, former Judge Laura Blackburn, appointed to head OTB and NYCHA, respectively. Both ultimately embarrassed Dinkins by demonstrating poor judgement and/or committing illegal acts.

The Dinkins administration also included certain high-profile Koch holdovers, most acutely personified in the naming of Norman Steisel as First Deputy Mayor, but that wasn't without controversy.  In his book David Dinkins and New York City Politics: Race, Images and the Media, Wilbur Rich writes, "Was Dinkins' appointment of Norman Steisel a reassurance for party regulars? Some pundits perceived Steisel as a white knight in the administration.... Many minority activists considered the Steisels of the administration an alien bloc." Rich also quotes from a 1991 New York Amsterdam editorial that sums up that frustration, "We do not wish to believe that a 'shadow government' is being built within your administration."

Furthermore, it would be irresponsible to ignore the hive of lobbyists--many doing business with the city--who swarmed around City Hall, which did nothing to contradict the perception (and reality) of government corruption after the myriad of scandals during Koch's tenure. Sid Davidoff, in particular, held a very privileged position of access, as both high paid lobbyist and as a Dinkins tennis partners.

By relying on so many for advice who had questionable motives, and by the perceived continuation of Koch's way of doing business, Dinkins managed to sour progressives and members of his base almost from the beginning. But according to Rich, "It was unrealistic to expect Dinkins, a quintessential regular Democrat, to refuse to appoint members of his staff who had worked for former Mayor Koch. People such as Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel  are a part of the so-called permanent government of NYC. These individuals are recyclable in any Democrat administration. Failure to appoint these individuals would have been seen as a plan to change the way the city is run." 

The mayor also alienated many of his 1989 voters who weren't necessarily interested in the nitty-gritty details of how government functions, but who gleaned bits and pieces of negative reporting from a press corps predisposed towards that negative narrative, as discussed in my last post. 

My best personal anecdote demonstrating this phenomenon is from when I was working at the venerable punk club, CBGB from 1989-1990. Surrounded for the most part by eclectic artists and musicians with open-minds, my work on the Dinkins campaign was common knowledge, and when he won, there was much enthusiasm for his success. I tried to temper that enthusiasm with some realities, about the mayor and about the state of the city he was about to inherit, but I didn't really get through to most of my colleagues. Within a year, even I was surprised to hear how so many creative, liberal types had turned against Dinkins, and with such vehemence.

The significance of this history is that one could successfully argue the same pattern is emerging as Mayor de Blasio continues making his own appointments. As they become public, I'm hearing some of the very same surprise and disappointment from activists and good government types--even from Dinkins administration veterans. There's already talk about de Blasio being a one-term mayor. 

In the end, the division within the Dinkins administration was usually (but not always) less about policy and more about style. The philosophical difference between Koch and Dinkins on many issues didn't represent a huge ideological chasm. The theoretical separation between de Blasio's ideology and his predecessor's should be practically insurmountable, and yet.... Based on some of the new mayor's appointments, this is clearly not the case. What could possibly be the common thread that unites the two disparate philosophies of government?