Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch Dies at 88
FILE - In this March 23, 2010 file photo, former New York Mayor Ed Koch speaks during a publicity event in New York. A spokesman says Ed Koch, outspoken 3-term mayor who became brash symbol of NYC, died Friday morning Feb. 1, 2013 at age 88.(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
In this Sept. 11, 1985 file photo, New York Mayor Ed Koch raises his arms in victory at the Sheraton Centre in New York after winning the Democratic primary in his bid for a third four-year term. Koch died Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 from congestive heart failure, spokesman George Arzt said. He was 88. (AP Photo/Mario Suriani, file)
Edward I. Koch, the former U.S. congressman and New York mayor whose wisecracks and pugnacity embodied the city he led back from the edge of bankruptcy in the 1970s, died yesterday of congestive heart failure at a hospital in New York, a spokesman said. He was 88.
In three terms as New York’s Democratic chief executive from 1978 through 1989, Koch’s touchstone achievement was to help revive a city that had defined urban dysfunction.
Yet it was Koch’s quote-machine of a persona — his unbridled candor and unyielding chutzpah — that made him a dominant character in a city packed with them.
“How’m I doing?” the mayor liked to bellow as he gallivanted up and down city streets, arms raised above his lanky frame, bald pate bobbing. His signature greeting was delivered in a whiny, nasal voice that was as recognizably New York as the screech of an A train.
In recent years, Koch was shadowed by bouts of ill health, including anemia. He had had a stroke, a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery.
“Earlier today, New York City lost an irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I, said in a statement yesterday. “Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback.”
After losing in a mayoral primary in 1973, while serving in Congress, Koch ran again four years later. He sought the Democratic nomination in a crowded field that included incumbent Abraham Beame, the loquacious congresswoman Bella Abzug and the largely unknown Mario Cuomo, who later served three terms as governor.
The race was defined by a murder spree by serial killer known as Son of Sam, and a mid-summer blackout that triggered wide-spread looting and made New York an international symbol of urban ills.
Against this bleak backdrop, Koch campaigned with the slogan, “A Liberal With Sanity.” He embraced the death penalty as a way of cultivating the political center and was elected in 1977. He rode a city bus to his swearing-in ceremony.
As mayor, Koch inherited a city deficit estimated as high as $1 billion. Incurring the wrath of some union groups, he trimmed the city’s payrolls and, with the help of federal loan guarantees, eventually returned the city to financial health. By 1983, New York had a surplus of $500 million.
For his first two terms, Koch expanded public housing, encouraged real estate development, balanced the city’s books, restored services that had deteriorated and rebuilt civic pride.
During a 1980 subway strike, the mayor made himself a daily presence on the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges during morning and evening rush hours, cheering on legions of commuters forced to hoof it to work.
“We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!” Koch later recalled telling the crowds, referring to the striking transit workers. “And people began to applaud. I knew I was onto something.”
As his first term ended, Koch was so popular that both the Democratic and Republican parties endorsed him for re-election, and Time magazine put him on the cover, floating above the city’s skyline.
Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at New York’s Baruch College, called Koch the “quintessential New Yorker. He was bigger than life, and had the personality and ego to prove it.”
Riding his popularity, Koch ran for governor in 1982, but his campaign floundered after Playboy magazine published an interview in which the mayor opined on what it was like to reside outside a great metropolis: “Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It’s sterile. It’s wasting your life. ... Rural America? This is a joke.”
Over the course of his three terms as mayor, Koch faced the emergence of three issues that threatened the social fabric of New York and other large cities: homelessness, AIDS and the crack epidemic.
While AIDS activists at the time chided the mayor for being ineffectual, Koch cited the more than $400 million in government spending he had directed towards the crisis, the housing he ordered built for AIDS patients, and his opposition to AIDS discrimination.
His mayoralty also was defined by several racially-charged crimes, including one in 1984 in which Bernhard Goetz, a white man who became known in the headlines as the “Subway Vigilante,” shot four black men he believed were about to mug him aboard a No. 2 Express train. Five years later, five black and Hispanic teenagers were accused of raping and beating a woman jogging in Central Park, an attack that Koch branded at the time as “the crime of the century.”
The convictions of the men were later overturned, a saga that became the subject of a Ken Burns documentary, Central Park Five.
Four months after the jogger case dominated the headlines, Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American, was shot to death after he and three friends were attacked in the white neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. Hawkins’ death prompted the civil rights activist Al Sharpton to lead protest marches through the neighborhood, at which white onlookers mocked the marchers by holding up watermelons.
The worst personal crisis Koch would face came in his third term, after he won re-election in 1985 with 78 percent of the vote.
Corruption scandals impaled many of his appointees and political allies, one of whom, Donald Manes, the Queens borough president, committed suicide with a kitchen knife in 1986 as federal investigators focused their probe on allegations that he took bribes and steered government contracts.
Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, led the prosecution into the scandal, a role that helped him launch his political career.
Although he was never implicated himself, Koch said in a 2009 Washington Post interview that the scandals were among the most difficult days of his mayoralty.
“I said to myself, ‘Is this how I’m going to be remembered?’ ” he said. “I went into a state of depression that no one was aware of.”
New Yorkers grew tired of the mayor’s apparently unceasing need to share his opinions on everything from life in the Soviet Union (“The pits,” he said) to an assessment of his own physique (“I’m a Greek god”).
During the 1988 presidential campaign, he caused a kerfuffle when he said Jews would be “crazy” to vote for Jesse Jackson because the civil rights activist had voiced support for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The mayor’s remark became fodder for critics who derided him as racially polarizing.
The following year, Koch lost the chance to serve a fourth term when he was defeated in the Democratic primary by David Dinkins, who then beat Giuliani during the general election and became New York’s first African-American mayor.
Koch, in the 2009 Post interview, said his most significant achievement was burnishing the city’s image at time a when New York, with its graffiti-splattered subways, rampant crime and rat-infested streets, was a national punchline.
“When I came in, people would say they were from Long Island because they were too ashamed to say they were from the city,” Koch said. “I gave them back their morale.”
Edward Irving Koch was born Dec. 12, 1924, in the Bronx.
His father, a Jewish immigrant furrier, moved the family to Newark during the Depression. Koch attended City College of New York, leaving when he was drafted into the Army during World War II.
He was a combat infantryman and served in the postwar occupation army in Germany. After his discharge, he received a law degree from New York University in 1948.
While practicing law in Manhattan, Koch volunteered for the 1952 and 1956 campaigns of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. He also became active in a reform group that sought to end the old machine politics in New York.
He scored his first significant political victory in 1963, ousting Carmine DeSapio, a long entrenched Tammany pol, as district leader in Greenwich Village. Koch served on the city council before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968.
He was re-elected four times and was known for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his support of urban and social issues. He once opposed an increase in the budget of NASA, saying, “I cannot justify approving monies to find out whether or not there is some microbe on Mars, when in fact I know there are rats in Harlem apartments.”
He resigned his congressional seat in 1977, just before taking office as mayor.
Koch never married and, throughout his life, deflected questions about his sexuality. While mayor, he was often accompanied to official events by Bess Myerson, a TV personality who had been the first Jewish Miss America.
Still flexing his political musical more than 20 years after leaving City Hall, Koch crossed party lines in 2011 to support a Republican running to fill the Brooklyn congressional seat vacated by Anthony Weiner, D, who resigned after admitting to lewd behavior online. The Republican, Robert Turner, won.
Koch rarely liked to venture far from New York. In 2008, he announced that he had bought a burial plot at the Trinity Church Cemetery in Lower Manhattan and planned to spend eternity in the city of his birth.
“The idea of leaving Manhattan permanently irritates me,” he said.