In Memoriam

08.12.13

Bill Lynch, the Culminator

Bill Lynch died last week at 72, and if I give you the one-sentence thing—that he was the guy who masterminded the election of David Dinkins as mayor of New York City in 1989—you might well say either “that was awfully long ago” or something snarky like “so what, he wasn’t a good mayor.” But Lynch did more than just elect Dinkins; the story is richer and more interesting than that, and it’s a piece of American political history—specifically, the story of how blacks attained political power in the United States, a story to which Lynch was central—that you should know a little something about.

If you go back and see, say, a large group photograph of the New York County (i.e. Manhattan) Democratic Party Annual Dinner from the late 1940s, you will see a number of black faces in the picture. Kings County (Brooklyn) dinners, too. New York County was still run by Tammany Hall then, and Tammany Hall saw blacks in those days not so differently from the way it had seen the Irish 70 or 80 years earlier: maybe as inferiors, but chiefly as voters, and potentially loyal ones. So African Americans were included. But of course there were limits. There was to be, from the city, one black member of Congress only, from Harlem (one out of, in those days, 10 or more). In Brooklyn, they sliced Bed-Stuy into four or five different districts so that black voters couldn’t elect one of their own. The Manhattan borough presidency, by the early 1950s, was ceded as a “black” seat, but it was the only one of the eight prominent city elected offices that was so designated.

Harlem always had more political power than black Brooklyn; the Harlemites had deeper and older roots in America, while black Brooklyn was even then pretty strongly Caribbean. Brooklyn resented Harlem’s power, and the two factions were always at odds. Brooklyn was more militant—which is why, by the late ’60s, the infamous Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike happened there, and not in Manhattan. Harlem was more establishment, personified by J. Raymond Jones, the longtime Harlem political leader who cut the deals with “downtown,” and Adam Clayton Powell III, the flamboyant congressman.

What was going on in New York was, of course, going on in every major city. There were battles to desegregate unions. Deindustrialization and resultant poverty—life was no longer like the old days, when a high-school dropout could go down to the docks and get a decent job—sparked poor peoples’ campaigns. Ferocious debates over civilian complaint review boards tore the civic fabric to shreds. Riots. Crime. Dr. King trying to elevate things, black radicals rejecting his message.

Now it’s the 1970s. There is, in Harlem, a “gang of four”: Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson, Charlie Rangel, and Dinkins. Sutton was the Manhattan borough president, widely seen as possibly the city’s first black mayor (it was no longer silly to discuss such things). Paterson—the father of recent Governor David Paterson—was a high-octane lawyer who held a number of appointive positions. Rangel was a leading young reformer (!) in Congress. Dinkins was a state legislator, briefly, and then the City Clerk. He had trouble shaking that clerk thing for a long time.

Sutton was a formidable mayoral candidate in 1977. But Harlem and Brooklyn couldn’t unite behind him. Koch became mayor. The racial temperature rose. Dinkins won the old “black” slot, the Manhattan borough presidency, in 1985. That’s a launching pad to mayor, and so the talk started. People who’d known the gang of four back when couldn’t believe that of all the four of them, it might now be Dinkins who’d be the first black mayor.

But Dinkins had hired this guy Lynch, who had run local campaigns in Harlem going back to the 1970s. Lynch was a real under-the-hood guy. Themes and big ideas and so forth were other people’s departments. He reached into the neighborhoods and made sure people were knocking on doors. He introduced this person to that one, let them get to know each other, see that they could work together. He worked the endorsements. Dinkins got a lot of surprising ones that year. It was partly the zeitgeist. The air was thick was racial tension, and Koch, by the end of his third term and seeking a fourth, no longer bothered much to cloak his animosities. Then a young black man, Yusuf Hawkins, was killed by some white thugs out in Bensonhurst, and enough voters decided to try the candidate who made unity central to his platform.

But Dinkins could never have won without Harlem and Brooklyn uniting behind him, and it was Lynch who put all that together, made it happen for the first time in history. It was a culmination, that election, of two generations of political struggle, and Lynch was the culminator. New York wasn’t Washington D.C. or Cleveland—blacks were not and are not close to a majority. A broad coalition had to be assembled. There is no chance Dinkins could have been elected, no chance that Harlem and Brooklyn would have united, let alone the number of outer-borough Jews who wouldn’t normally have been Dinkins types, without Bill. He made people want to do things.

“Tomansky!” he used to bark at me. I don’t think he ever learned or knew that it wasn’t Tomansky. I was a young reporter. He was the first big shot political insider whom I spoke to regularly, whose home phone number I had, things like that. On Mother’s Day weekend in 1989, during the successful campaign, I was at the headquarters one Saturday afternoon, just hanging out, talking to him. I went with him to Macy’s, which was nearby, and helped him pick out a necklace for his wife, Mary, the mother of their two children. Delicate and tasteful. I egged him to spend more than he wanted to. We ate a lot at Frank’s, a West Village steak house, still there, very political place; Rudy likes it, or used to. You could see then that Bill wasn’t entirely well. The diabetes. Those steaks, I used to think, probably aren’t helping matters, but big-time politicos are supposed to eat steaks, it’s in the rulebook.

Dinkins was a better mayor than history gives him credit for. He hired all those cops who eventually drove the crime rate down, and crime actually started coming down on his watch, which few people remember today. And there were moments when he did rise to the symbolic occasion of asserting calming authority over that impossible, combustible, rat-fucking city. But Crown Heights really did him in, in the end. That was an occasion he did not rise to.

Bill didn’t fare too well in that one, either. I don’t remember exactly what the Girgenti report, the official review of events ordered up by Governor Cuomo, said about Lynch’s role, but it was bad. The 1993 campaign was a culture war redux between Dinkins and Rudy, and despite all of Dinkins’s troubles—and no doubt because of Lynch’s continued skill at getting people to do things—the Dinkins coalition held, mostly. About 40,000 votes shifted, out of around 3 million, but it was enough for Giuliani to win.

I wrote something harshly critical of Bill after the Girgenti report. Word got back to me that it stung him. Or maybe he told me that himself, I honestly don’t remember. In any case, our relationship was never quite the same. He’d be civil, and we’d joke a bit about the passing parade. But no more dinners. Maybe one or two. By the time Hillary hit town, in 1999 and 2000, we were back to being pretty friendly. Then we were on opposite sides one more time. Then I moved to Washington. But our relationship isn’t what’s important. He played a big role not just in New York politics, but as an important historical figure in the American story of the black attainment of political power.