New York's Soft-Spoken Mayor Riding Tidal Wave of Good News

After two years of turmoil, peace and prosperity return

NEW York City's mayoral election is still more than a year away, but Mayor David Dinkins may well wish it were tomorrow.

He has been riding the crest of an unprecedented wave of good news over the last two weeks. That upturn follows almost two years of unrelenting economic, labor, and racial turmoil in the city which has hit his administration hard.

The mayor is getting particularly high marks at the moment for his role in the relative calm that has prevailed here since last week's California jury verdict.

As rumors flew and many workers fled the city, police set up a special hot line, and Mayor Dinkins appeared widely on local TV news programs to urge restraint. He swiftly got on the phone to clergy and community leaders and met with a large group of them at Gracie Mansion. He walked along Harlem's 125th Street to thank young blacks for containing their anger.

The other bit of recent good news for Dinkins has been economic. New Yorkers, used to a steady stream of budget cuts, suddenly heard their mayor say he would reinstate five-day-a-week library service, set up 20 new neighborhood health clinics, and nudge long-stalled public works projects.

The money will come in part from tucks taken elsewhere in the budget. Yet Dinkins also disclosed that tight cost controls and better-than-expected tax revenues would produce a $455 million surplus for the current fiscal year. Stunned labor leaders insisted they had been misled and that their unions deserved wage hikes. Albany lawmakers said they doubted the mayor really needed the $115 million tax package he was lobbying them for.

The mayor says the surplus will be rolled into the fiscal 1993 budget and used to replace lost federal aid and money the city planned to borrow.

Though arguing that too much is being made of the surplus, the mayor told the 1,000 friends who came to his April 27 fund-raising dinner: "We have taken a city about to go bust and transformed it into a city that works."

In sum, Dinkins is currently enjoying a few moments of the kind of political capital every mayor longs for. His pledge to be a conciliator, so important to his 1989 win, is facing a new test.

"Dinkins was elected because of his perceived ability to calm racial tensions, and now we are seeing that that capacity has turned out to be pretty good," says Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center. "He mobilized community resources and public agencies both to prevent outbursts and to be explicitly geared to respond to them."

"In the last week Dinkins has shown his ability to get out in front of a very dangerous, combustible situation and hold it together," agrees Sidney Plotkin, an associate professor of political science at Vassar College.

"In a sense the agenda has moved his way: The kinds of issues that are back on it are the kinds of things for which people look to him for leadership," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

Yet Dr. Miringoff stresses that political advantages have a way of going up and down "like a roller coaster" as the days go by. No one knows how lasting any carry-over effect will be.

The recent good budget news is considered less likely to help the mayor politically, though, than his handling of urban unrest. He and his aides concede that more deficits and spending cuts lie ahead. Yet the mayor's strong plea for more federal aid to cities and his open invitation to everyone to join him in the May 16 mayors' march on Washington are widely viewed as positive political moves.

Urban quality-of-life issues such as security and racial division are as likely to be the centerpiece of the next mayoral campaign as they were in the last, suggests Vassar's Professor Plotkin. The ability to keep things under control now is seen as a standard of urban leadership, he says.

Dinkins may well be out spent in the Democratic primary fight by City Council President Andrew Stein, who raised $2 million at a birthday bash in January attended by Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Mr. Stein has opted to pass up matching funds tied by city law to a $6,500 restriction on individual contributions.

However, most political analysts say the tougher challenge for Dinkins lies in beating Republican Rudolph Giuliani. The former US district attorney lost to Dinkins by a narrow margin in the last election. A Marist Institute poll in January showed Mr. Giuliani with an 11-point lead over Mr. Dinkins. A March survey taken by the Gallup organization for New York Newsday gave Giuliani a 15-point lead.

Though Dinkins and labor leaders here have had their tiffs, political analysts agree that labor once again must be solidly aboard any Dinkins effort for a 1993 victory.

"He won by so little a margin that he can't really afford to lose any constituency," says Demetrios Caraley, a political scientist at Barnard College.

Still, New York University's Dr. Moss says that only if the situation at election time is perceived as "bad and getting worse," and the incumbent made to look weak and ineffective, is Dinkins likely to lose.

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