Senator Perkins Responds To Governor Choide For Newly Formed Higher Education Commission.

Bill Perkins

June 01, 2007

ALBANY — Governor Spitzer is facing criticism from African-American leaders questioning his decision to appoint a former top Giuliani aide once accused of making a racist remark to a newly formed state higher education commission.

Among the 28 members of the commission is John Dyson, a wealthy businessman and a creator of the "I Love NY" ad campaign who served as deputy mayor for finance and economic development from 1994–96.

In 1994, Mr. Dyson came under fire for comments he made to a trade publication about a disagreement he had with a city comptroller, Alan Hevesi, concerning Mr. Hevesi's desire to hire two financial advice firms as bond counsels.

Mr. Dyson opposed retaining one of the firms, which was owned by an African-American woman, and said the comptroller "ought to know a bid from a watermelon," referring to the bid placed by the firm.

The remark drew condemnations from several politicians and African-American civil rights leaders, who said his use of the word "watermelon" was racially motivated and offensive. Several City Council members, including C. Virginia Fields, wrote a letter to Mr. Giuliani urging him to fire Mr. Dyson.

Mr. Dyson, now the CEO of a winery, strongly denied that he comments had anything to do with race and reportedly said at the time that he had employed "an expression we happen to use in upstate New York."

Responding to Mr. Spitzer's choice of Mr. Dyson to take part in the commission, African-American politicians interviewed said they questioned the governor's judgment.

"I'm wondering whether the governor took a good look at his history to make sure his offensive ways would not undermine the integrity of his commitment to make our state university system competitive," a state senator, Bill Perkins, a Democrat of Harlem said. "You can't have someone who is this controversial. Higher education calls for higher levels of sensitivity."

City Council Member Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who represents a district in Brooklyn, said Mr. Dyson's "famous watermelon comment is stereotypical and racist, and certainly the governor should not have someone on the committee that has made a racist statement like that. I have problems with that."

A spokesman for Mr. Spitzer' did not return calls for comment.

Mr. Dyson is one of the few members of the commission who is not currently running a college or university. The governor said the purpose of the commission is to make the State University of New York more competitive.