I first met Dennis in 2001, when I was a very long-shot candidate for mayor and he was the president of the New York Urban League. He was wearing a pin on the lapel of his suit jacket that had the Big Apple with an equal sign at its center – the emblem of the NY Urban League. I told him how much I liked the pin, so he gave it to me. I wore it throughout my campaign, and throughout my time as mayor, because it symbolizes what makes New York City great: the promise of equal opportunity for all. No one has worked harder to help our city fulfill that promise than Dennis, and there is no one more deserving of the honor of being named Queens Tribune’s Person of the Year. (Especially since the Mets didn’t win the World Series.)
After the 2001 election, I hired Dennis as my Deputy Mayor for Education and Community De-velopment, and he served the city with distinction for 12 years, the last three as public schools chancellor. He’s an easy-going guy, but fearless and relentless when it comes to doing what’s right, no matter how tough the fight. We called our education reforms “Children First,” be-cause too often in the past, elected officials had put politics and patronage ahead of the needs of children. Dennis always put children first, in every decision we made and every policy we adopted.
As a father and grandfather, Dennis also understood the importance of family involvement in the school system. He enlisted parents, grandparents, and guardians in our work to hold schools accountable for delivering a first-rate education. Thanks in no small part to his leadership, and the work of so many teachers, principals, and parents, we ended social promotion and increased high school graduation rates by 42 percent. The percentage of students earning a Re-gents diploma more than doubled. The racial and ethnic achievement gap – which had been tolerated for far too long – shrunk by about a quarter. And when we started, not one of the top 25 elementary or middle schools in New York State was located in the five boroughs. When we left office, 22 of the top 25 schools in the state were city schools. Dennis played a central role in all of that work.
Today, so many young New Yorkers have brighter futures because of the work Dennis helped lead, and school systems around the country have learned from and adopted education reforms that he helped craft. That’s why, after we left City Hall, I asked Dennis to join the board of directors at Bloomberg Philanthropies, where education is one of our five main focus areas. No one brings more experience and passion to the issue than he does.
Serving as president and CEO of the Queens Public Library is a perfect fit for Dennis, because it combines his passion for education and his commitment to families and communities with his experience managing a large and diverse organization. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a lifelong Queens resident, and he knows the borough as well as anyone – something I know from the countless hours I spent with him in neighborhoods from Flushing to Far Rockaway and Bayside to Woodside.
I’m lucky to call Dennis, along with his wonderful wife, Denise, friends. I’ve benefitted from his wisdom and guidance for 15 years and counting. He has left an imprint on our city that will last for generations to come – and best of all, he’s still hard at work for the borough he calls home and the city he loves.