Bill Lynch’s legacy remains the people he inspired and mentored
I met Bill Lynch — who passed away last week at 72 — in 1989, that remarkable year he guided David Dinkins through a pair of hard-fought battles to victory over two political giants, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.
At the time, I was a cog in the machine Lynch was building, one of the unpaid volunteers who would trudge to the campaign’s shabby midtown headquarters and spend hours handing out flyers, hanging posters, registering voters and the like.
The “rumpled genius,” as he was sometimes called for his work with Dinkins, was a hero, friend and mentor to an entire generation of up-and-coming political activists.
Those of us who’d walked picket lines and mounted protests in college immediately recognized a kindred spirit: You can find a photo of Lynch among the demonstrators who occupied Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1980 in an unsuccessful effort to keep it open. He was a veteran of labor battles who had the city’s top union leaders on speed dial, and would pick up the phone and start making calls if someone needed help. For our generation, Dinkins’ victory — and Lynch’s vision — was a dream come true.
In a shamefully segregated city, the campaign headquarters was truly a gorgeous mosaic. After a decade of budget-cutting austerity following the financial crisis, it offered labor unions a chance to flex their political muscles on behalf of the working class. And for idealistic young people trying to carve out a path in public life, the open door to his campaign office on then-seedy W. 43rd St. was a treasured place to get strategic advice, marching orders and a sympathetic ear. Many of his disciples went on to do great things for our city.
John Liu, while now struggling in the race for mayor, staged an unlikely victory for city controller four years ago by working with Lynch to reassemble the same kind of broad, diverse coalition that elected Dinkins.
And Lynch was a big brother to dozens of elected officials and community leaders, including Harlem activist April Tyler; Mark Griffith of the Brooklyn Movement Center; Luther Smith, Lynch’s right-hand aide, and the late Lisa Sullivan, an inspired and much-missed youth organizer.
The core Lynch values — connecting communities, building personal relationships and taking a chance on young talent — continued long after the Dinkins administration, which he served in as deputy mayor, was voted out of office. In the mid-1990s, when I was running a community credit union with Griffith, Lynch trekked out to our humble storefront in Bedford-Stuyvesant, purely out of curiosity and a desire to help.
A few years later, when I made my own run at elected office — a 1997 City Council bid against a longtime incumbent — Lynch offered advice and his personal endorsement, which limited the savageness of the attacks the Kings County Democratic machine administered.
After leaving City Hall, Lynch searched high and low to find space uptown because he wanted to be based in Harlem. If you needed his advice, you had to make the trek to 125th St. and climb a couple flights of stairs. It turned out to be a good way to weed out fools and fakers. People with sense made the journey to see Lynch; perhaps those who couldn’t be bothered didn’t realize he was a confidant of Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.
Bill Lynch was the best of the best — a savvy operator full of idealism and a truly humble public servant in a city full of egos, backstabbing and bad intentions. New York was lucky to have him.
The memorial service, open to the public, is at 10 Thursday morning at Riverside Church.
Louis is political anchor at NY1 News