David Dinkin's election as Mayor of New York City in 1989 completed a political matrix of black-led administrations that covered most of the important cities in the nation. Coalitions of white liberals and multi-minority constituencies in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia, as well as in smaller cities like Seattle, Gary, Hartford and Newark, seized (or at least slipped into) municipal power, fundamentally changing the urban political landscape over the past two decades.
The Dinkins dot--in one of the biggest multiracial cities in the world--connected the remaining loose lines, at one filing in the pattern and making some sense of it. Race did matter in thenew politics; class coalition were crucial to electoral victory; the old parties were increasingly irrelevant. Dinkin's hard-won narrow victory over federal prosecutor Rudolph Guiliani four years ago seemed to confirm the practicability of what many in the Jesse Jackson camp called the Rainbow strategy, and what Dinkins himself rhapsodized as the Gorgeous Mosaic.
But almost at once the paradigm began to deconstruct. The sudden death of Harold Washington, Chicago's brilliant Rainbow mayor, created a dead zone where lesser lights extinguished one another while recessionary pressures made social improvement impossible, thus destroying the basis of the coalition. In many places the coalitions didn't even try to deliver the goods they promised to their expectant and needy constituents. And so, in Los Angeles, riots and recession led to the election of a conservative white businessman over a dazed and confused Asian-American City Councilman. Philadelphia met a similar fate. Dinkin's loss to Giuliani on November 2 was thus logical, if not inevitable.
Dinkins made a predictable number of blunders, all the while coping haplessly with corrosive economic conditions. Those who hoped he might be a kind of black American version of a European social democrat soon saw him fall victim to the same intractable fiscal dysfunction that have bedeviled the European models. Beyond that, Dinkins--like almost all the black mayors except Washington--tended to use the new coalition for his own ordinary Democratic political purposes rather than to reinvent a progressive program. Many of his most ardent supporters of 1989 voted for him this time only out of dread of Giuliani's crabbed prosecutorial style. …