Or that today’s crop of Harlem politicians doesn’t measure up to Dinkins and fellow members of the so-called “Gang of Four” that long dominated Harlem politics.“I’m not going to suggest that we were superior to the fellows coming along today,” Dinkins said during a chat in his small office at Columbia University, where he teaches Urban and Public Affairs. “It was a different time.”
Photos of the foursome have special prominence among the mementoes on the wall facing his tidy desk. Besides Dinkins, now 83, there’s Charles Rangel, 80, in his 41st year as Harlem’s congressman, though diminished by his ethics censure. There’s the late Percy Sutton, who died in 2009 at 89, the entrepreneur of the bunch who was Manhattan borough president (1966-77) and made a failed bid for mayor in 1977.
And there’s lawyer Basil Paterson, 85, who served as a New York secretary of state and a deputy mayor, and is now best known as father of former Gov. David Paterson, the first African-American to hold that office.
Ever the optimist, Dinkins insists “there are a lot of bright people coming along” on the Harlem political scene. He named Assemblyman and Manhattan Democratic leader Keith Wright, Councilman Robert Jackson of Washington Heights, Councilwoman Inez Dickens and state Sen. Bill Perkins. All should be included “if one were to name the young black leaders,” said Dinkins, who has a generous definition of young.
Wright is 56, Jackson is 60, Dickens is 61 and Perkins is 62; and while they might all go further in politics it’s unlikely they’ll outshine the old Gang of Four.
Dinkins made history by being the first African-American to become mayor of New York City (1990-93). He was preceded by 105 white men and succeeded by two more.
“I think that being mayor of New York is the best job in the world,” he reflected. “And being mayor of New York is better than being mayor anywhere else. It’s better than being governor of any state, including New York.”
Dinkins’ turbulent (aren’t they all?) tenure lasted one term. He had deposed incumbent Ed Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary and narrowly beaten Republican Rudy Giuliani in the general election. But he just as narrowly lost a bare-fisted rematch with Giuliani four years later.
Looking ahead, Dinkins said former city Controller Bill Thompson has “an excellent chance” of becoming mayor in the open-seat race shaping up for 2013. Thompson lost to Mayor Bloomberg two years ago by a smaller-than-predicted margin of 4.4%, despite Bloomberg spending $108.4 million to Thompson’s $9.4 million.
“He hasn’t told me he’s running, but I told him that if he does, I’d support him,” Dinkins said.
Thompson, a Brooklynite, moved to Harlem in 2008. Dinkins has lived on the upper East Side since leaving Gracie Mansion.
Though a bit vague about how “The Gang of Four” tag came about, Dinkins said, “It started out as a pejorative.”
He attributed it to the late Jack Newfield, a Village Voice journalist. (Wayne Barrett, a Newfield colleague, wrote last year that it was Newfield who first gave “them that title.”)
According to Dinkins, Newfield felt Harlem leaders had sabotaged Herman Badillo’s bid for the 1985 Democratic mayoral nomination by endorsing one of their own, Herman (Denny) Farrell.
Though incumbent Koch won the nomination and a third term that year, the gang’s machinations worked out well for Dinkins. That term was so marred by corruption scandals that it helped Dinkins depose Koch and go on to become mayor.
No wonder he keeps the gang’s pictures on his wall.
Editorial note: Harlem’s future rest on vision, building on the foundation of the past for the present, for an inclusive vision of the future.