Edward I. Koch (1924 - 2013)
Mayor Koch left us last month at the age of 88 after a long and productive life. He served twelve years (1978 – 1989) as the 105th Mayor of the City of New York, bringing the city from the brink of bankruptcy to fiscal stability. During his tenure New York reversed a significant population decline since the 1970s, when hundreds of thousands of people fled the persistently increasing crime rate and deficit financing. After falling more than ten percent in that decade, the city’s population made a turn-around in the 1980s that has continued since.
Ed Koch first came to public attention in the early 1960s, during three races against Carmine DeSapio for the unpaid position of Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village. DeSapio was at the time the most powerful Democrat in New York State. He exercised great influence over the selection of personnel in city government and the decisions they made in contested cases of the awarding of city contracts for goods and services and the appointment and reappointment of judges law secretaries and other judicial officers.
Koch’s outstanding political decision during those years was his endorsement of John Lindsay, a Republican congressman running for mayor on the Republican and Liberal lines. At that time (1965) a cross-party political endorsement was practically unheard of. For that daring move, which he made two days before Election Day, he received national attention including a front page headline in the Daily News. It also gained him the admiration and respect of the Liberal Party, a relationship which lasted for years and gave him indispensable Liberal support for his races for the City Council in 1966 and Congress in 1968. The relationship lasted until 1977 when, on the recommendation of Governor Carey, they supported Mario Cuomo for Mayor. For that deviation, Cuomo was forgiven, the Liberal Party was not.
Koch’s stewardship of the city as mayor was as an honest and competent professional. For the first time, judges were selected by nonpartisan panels on the merits, not by county leaders. Koch ran against Cuomo for governor in 1982, an office that he had previously publicly disdained. He lost to Cuomo in the Democratic primary and in 1989, seeking an unprecedented fourth term, he lost the Democratic Mayoral nomination to City Clerk, David Dinkins, who in turn was replaced after one term by Rudy Giuliani.
After leaving office Koch enjoyed an unusually active career as a public citizen. He wrote numerous books and newspaper articles, became a movie critic for weekly newspapers and endorsed candidates for public office who pledged to support reform. His popularity increased greatly during the out years because he no longer had to make decisions which distressed people and he could not be blamed for the actions or inaction of city government.
Koch spoke jocularly. When asked if would run for mayor again he would invariably reply, “No. The people threw me out, and now the people must be punished.” As the years flew by, more people came to agree with that. He was increasingly regarded as a local sage. He was frequently asked by the press to comment on public issues, which he did with candor and wit. Koch stood somewhere between Yogi Berra and Woody Allen. He lectured for a fee at colleges and universities. Honors accrued, particularly, the renaming of the century old Queensboro Bridge which Koch described as a workhorse like himself. He liked to say that he held nine jobs at once, referring specifically to his extra-curricular activities.
His day job was as a lawyer in private practice. For 23 years he was a partner in the firm of Bryan Cave until his last weeks, when he succumbed to congestive heart failure. His funeral on February 4th, attended by 2,000 people and addressed by President Clinton, was held at Temple Emanu-el. Interment was at the non-denominational Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan. Koch said that he did not want to leave the borough, even in death.
Besides rescuing the city from financial and social decline and laying the foundation for fiscal responsibility on which subsequent mayors were able to build, his most enduring political legacy may be his achievements as a reformer which continue to shape government to this day.
In his last years, he became a vocal advocate for creating an independent and non-partisan redistricting process, strengthening ethical standards and instituting responsible budgeting practices in New York State. He formed New York Uprising, a coalition of good government groups, to pursue these goals in Albany.
Currently in New York City, the Campaign Finance Board, which he established in 1988, is under attack by candidates who are challenging its legal authority. They claim that the city cannot have tighter campaign donation and spending regulations than the state. An alliance which includes several of the groups which took part in New York Uprising, is now pushing for the state to adopt standards for fairness in campaign finance which would help non-career politicians to be able to compete, while empowering those who make modest contributions to local candidates.
In the next part of this essay, I will try to describe the political activism that took place in Manhattan during the 1960s. I first met Ed Koch while working as Secretary of the Borough of Manhattan, a grandiose title for a staff member to a minor official.
I would like to recall what we did together at that time.
A month has passed since we lost Mayor Koch. And I am still coming to terms with his passing. On a personal basis, it is the loss of a very good friend, companion and mentor; someone I knew for 50 years. He supported me even when I was unable to stand with him publicly for reasons of self-preservation. He was godfather to my first son Jared and held him at his bris. He was a rare figure in City government. He grew wiser and deeper with the passing years. He will long be remembered and hopefully his good works will endure for generations.
When we met, he had been a candidate for the lowest office on the ballot, state Assemblyman. He had been defeated by a substantial margin. Some people suggested that he was the wrong candidate for a sophisticated neighborhood like Greenwich Village. As the son of poor Polish immigrant Jews, how could he compete with the more polished Fifth Avenue Jews who went to reform temples? How could a kid from City College and NYU Law School compete with Ivy Leaguers at prestigious firms?
We became friendly because we were in similar lines of work and had similar ideas for reform. As Secretary of the Borough, I attended every community board meeting in twelve community districts. This was the best way I knew to learn about the neighborhoods and the people. That is where the civic action was.
Politics is a business of people and the villagers considered the community board to be a town meeting where they could express their views. The board met monthly, on a Tuesday evening. After work downtown and before the meeting I went straight to dinner. The place we went most often was the Limelight, located at 7th Ave across from Christopher Park. They sold a complete dinner for $1.80. (That was, of course, the price in 1962.)
In October 1962, when Koch was 38 and I was 27, I recommended him to Borough President Dudley for appointment to community board number 2, which was the first public office he held. Some local politicians questioned whether he was sufficiently mature to serve on such a distinguished board. Nonetheless, the Borough President appointed him and he became a valuable member of the board because he reached out to all of the neighborhoods in the Village, not just the one in which he lived.
Koch and I would see each other at community meetings, which were most often held to complain about city services, and I heard him speak to various groups in the neighborhood. He reached out to everyone he met, hoping to build relationships for his next campaign which he lacked in race for Assemblyman.
In those days in Greenwich Village a person who wanted to speak in public would take a stepladder and plant it on a sidewalk at a street corner, displaying an American flag to show that the speaker was exercising his first amendment right to public speech and could not be silenced by the arbitrary denial of a permit by local officials. But without a sound permit for amplification, the speaker had to rely on the strength of his voice, his vigor and his cleverness in argument to hold the attention of the ever-shifting street crowd that half-listened to the man who stood at the top of the stepladder. Hostile hecklers, some from rival clubs, would at times seek to destabilize the meeting and seize the attention of the crowd for themselves.
This variety of improv turned out to be an area in which the young Koch was unusually gifted. His loud and forceful voice, somewhat high pitched at the time, could not be shouted down as he discussed his topic. His positions were progressive: opposition to the war in Vietnam, support for women's rights to abortions and the repeal of drug laws he believed to be arbitrary, overly punitive and discriminatory against poor people.
Local issues in the Village were overshadowed, however, by the struggle between Mayor Wagner and Tammany Hall for control of the citywide Democratic Party. Carmine DeSapio, leader of an Italian American Democratic Club in the South Village, was under attack by liberal reform elements of the party based loosely on Adlai Stevenson’s Presidential campaign of 1956. In general Stevenson supporters were not welcomed by the regular Democratic organization (Tammany) which often supported Irish and Italian incumbents with more conservative views.
To his credit, a reform that DeSapio initiated provided for the direct election of district leaders. Formerly they were elected by members of the county committee, an obscure group of over a thousand county committee members of whom most of the public were unaware. In 1962, Koch became the V.I.D. candidate for State Assembly and lost an uphill battle against a DeSapio ally, William Passannante. Village Independent Democrats ran him against DeSapio in 1963. Koch led by 41 votes out of 9,000. The race was so close that the courts ordered a new election to be held on primary day the next year (1964). This time Koch and the Village Independent Democrats won by the small but defensible margin of 164 votes.
The Greenwich Village race attracted substantial attention in city press because it was a challenge by an insurgent against well-known incumbent who had served for many years and had influence far beyond the district. DeSapio was also a Democratic national committeeman for New York State and served as New York’s Secretary of State in Governor Harriman’s cabinet. He used his state offices for his private interests which ultimately led to his conviction and imprisonment. As district leaders, Koch and Carol Greitzer fought the Lower Manhattan Expressway, demanded more services and new schools and opposed traffic changes they considered anti-pedestrian. They supported the landmarking of older buildings to prevent displacement of their existing tenants. They did not participate in patronage; they did not seek for themselves or ask for others positions in government. By 1965 gentrification had displaced many Italian-Americans and replaced them with younger newcomers of mixed heritage, many with professional backgrounds. After an eight year struggle, 1957 -1965, the beachhead of reform had been established, secured and had defended against the old politics.
Koch took a giant step forward in 1965, when on the day before the Democratic primary he endorsed John V. Lindsay, Republican-Liberal candidate for mayor. This came about at the suggestion of old friends who felt that the election would determine the future of reform in New York City politics for a generation. By accidental timing and the breadth of the challenge, a story made part of a page one headline in The Daily News. The Democratic county organization tried to expel Koch as District Leader on grounds of disloyalty but that effort foundered.
An unexpected dividend from that decision was that Alex Rose and the Liberal party so appreciated Koch’s decision, that they not only supported him, but said that they would accept no other Democrat except Koch in forthcoming races for vacated City Council and Congressional seats. Koch won handily against prestigious Republicans and set off for a new life in Washington in January 1969.