David N. Dinkins
August 25, 2009
Dinkins Advises Paterson: Stop Calling Your Critics Racist
By SAM ROBERTS
David N. Dinkins, New York City’s first black mayor, offered some blunt advice on Monday to David A. Paterson, New York State’s first black governor: Don’t accuse your critics of racism.
Mr. Dinkins was reacting to comments Mr. Paterson made in a radio interview on Friday that he was the victim of a racially motivated news media campaign to keep him from running for election next year.
“We’re not in the post-racial period,” Mr. Paterson said in the interview. “My feeling is it’s being orchestrated, it’s a game, and people who pay attention know that.”
Mr. Dinkins, who has been close to the Paterson family for decades, took issue with the governor’s comments.
“Definitely he should get off the racist thing,” Mr. Dinkins said. “Right or wrong, it’s a fight you sure can’t win.”
Mr. Dinkins also questioned whether Mr. Paterson really believed there was an orchestrated, biased campaign against him in the news media. “I don’t think he means they’re picking on him because he is black,” Mr. Dinkins said. “I suspect he more means, were he not black — and maybe it’s pretty hard to make the distinction — those kind of comments would not have been made.”
In explaining the distinction, Mr. Dinkins, who spoke to Mr. Paterson’s aides but not Mr. Paterson over the weekend, said: “One is a very positive effort to attack, to demean. The other is more an analysis after the fact.”
On Monday, a White House spokesman told reporters that President Obama disagreed with Governor Paterson’s suggestion in the radio interview that the president would also be subjected to racially tinged news media attacks.
The spokesman, Bill Burton, said that Mr. Obama realized that there would always be those in the news media who agreed and disagreed with him. “Whether or not race plays into that, I don’t think is the case,” Mr. Burton said. “The president doesn’t think it’s the case.”
On Friday, Patrick Gaspard, President Obama’s political director, telephoned the governor’s secretary, Larry S. Schwartz, to express displeasure at the remarks, said a person who insisted on anonymity because he did not want to be seen as breaking a confidence.
Though Mr. Paterson issued a statement after the radio interview that not all the attacks against him could be attributed to race, he raised the issue of bias again in an interview on Saturday with Gerson Borrero, a political commentator, that was posted on the Internet on Monday.
He said that he was particularly upset at being labeled an “accidental governor” after Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal, and that he believed he had never been given a fair chance by many New Yorkers.
“I have been quiet for 17 months on this issue,” he was quoted as saying. “I played by the rules. It was a very difficult position to find myself in, and I’ve given it my best. I’ve done the best I can under the very trying circumstances the state is facing.”
“The media is trying to control the politics,” he added. “There are some folks in the media who think that it’s all right to racially stereotype.”
Then, apparently referring to Mr. Obama, he added: “Part of what I feel is that one very successful minority is permissible, but when you see too many success stories, then some people get nervous.”
Mr. Dinkins, as a candidate and as mayor from 1990 through 1993, often bristled privately at slights that he attributed to race, but rarely complained publicly.
After criticism provoked by his passion for tennis, he once maintained that his detractors weren’t biased because of his race but were expressing another prejudice altogether. “If I had gone to a basketball game, it would be all right,” Mr. Dinkins said, straight-faced. “I think there’s a bias against tennis.”
But on Monday, he acknowledged that before the rise of black figures like Colin L. Powell and Mr. Obama, racism did play a role in his political career.
In 1989, he recalled, he handily won a Democratic primary, but then barely defeated Rudolph W. Giuliani that November.
“How does one figure?” Mr. Dinkins said, echoing, virtually word for word, a rhetorical question he has posed more often and publicly in recent years. “Whatever frailties, whatever shortcomings I had were certainly not evident at that point, and whatever greatness there was in Rudy had not yet been revealed. So how come 1.9 million votes, and I win by the skin of my teeth?”
“The press used to ask me, ‘Why?’ ” Mr. Dinkins recalled. “My response was, ‘Why ask?’ ”
The racial dynamics today are far different, Mr. Dinkins said.
“Circumstances have vastly improved in our country over time,” he said. “I have always said that there’s a legacy of slavery and we live in a racist society, but things are eminently superior to what they once were. I am very pleased with our country and the way things are.”
Mr. Dinkins suggested that Mr. Paterson was at a political disadvantage because he had never been toughened by a competitive statewide campaign of his own.
“I don’t know where it goes from here, except that it’s my hope that the most skillful and more fair-minded writers among our media in New York will give him the benefit of the doubt,” Mr. Dinkins said. “Time will tell what kind of governor he will be. It’s a little early. He’s been a as good a governor as he can be under the circumstances.”
As for whether Mr. Paterson should run next year, Mr. Dinkins said, “Absolutely, if he chooses to serve further.”
For Mr. Paterson’s supporters, one worrisome trend reflected in recent polls is the governor’s lack of popularity among black voters, a sentiment expressed by several black New Yorkers interviewed on Monday. Matthew Lenon, a 26-year-old mail carrier, interviewed in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, said: “He should focus on doing his job instead of using race as a cop-out. Albany’s looking horrible right now, and he’s not helping the situation.”
But Solomon Ben-Yahudah, a 50-year-old restaurateur in the same neighborhood, said Mr. Paterson had a point. “Those saying he is pulling the race card are not looking at the places they work,” he said. “The deck is a racist deck.”
Nicholas Confessore, Danny Hakim and Karen Zraick contributed reporting.