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Mr. Dinkins and his wife settled in Harlem, where her father, Daniel L. Burrows, was a real estate and insurance broker with political connections. He had served two terms in the State Assembly and was one of the first blacks to join the inner circle of Tammany Hall, the Manhattan Democratic machine. A godfather to a generation of Harlem politicians, he took Mr. Dinkins under his wing.

Mr. Dinkins attended Brooklyn Law School, working nights at his father-in-law’s liquor store, and graduated in 1956. He joined a firm that became Dyett, Alexander & Dinkins, establishing a modest practice in banking, probate and real estate. He joined the Carver Democratic Club, run by J. Raymond Jones, a.k.a. the Harlem Fox, who mentored many of the district’s business and political leaders.

Mr. Dinkins’s political apprenticeship was a long, slow passage in obscurity. With Mr. Jones’s support, he was elected to the Assembly in 1965. But his district was redrawn, and he did not seek re-election. He would not win another election for almost 20 years.

In Harlem, he was a perpetual fourth in the group called the Gang of Four — Charles B. Rangel, who would become a senior member of Congress; Percy E. Sutton, a future Manhattan borough president; and Basil A. Paterson, a state senator who would be deputy mayor under Mr. Koch and whose son, David A. Paterson, was governor of New York from March 2008 through 2010.

As president of the city’s appointive Board of Elections in 1972-73, Mr. Dinkins widened voter rolls. In 1973, he was nominated by Mayor Abraham D. Beame to be the city’s first Black deputy mayor, but he withdrew after admitting that he had not filed income tax returns from 1969 to 1972. He called it an oversight and paid the taxes and penalties, but it was a severe setback.

In 1975, Mayor Beame appointed Mr. Dinkins city clerk, a post he held for a decade. It was not political downtime. Almost every night, Mr. Dinkins attended dinners and made contacts. He lost races for the Manhattan borough presidency in 1977 and 1981 but finally won the post in 1985. Over the next four years, he enhanced his reputation as a friend of the poor, the homeless and people with AIDS.

As Mr. Dinkins ran for mayor in 1989, two crimes set the campaign’s dominant racial themes. In April, the woman who became known as the Central Park jogger was raped, beaten and left for dead. In August, just weeks before the primary, Yusuf K. Hawkins, 16, was killed after being taunted by bat-wielding white youths in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

Mr. Dinkins, cool in his double-breasted suit, became the calm voice of reason in the tense city.

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