I had the privilege of calling Ed Koch my friend for a quarter of a century. He was a great mayor; a liberal with sanity who could see both sides of an issue and who did not fear violating his party’s ideological taboos.
When I was the 1993 Conservative Party candidate for mayor of New York, Koch found the time to discuss with me public policy issues and had me as a guest on his television show. Although he did not support me, we discovered we agreed on many issues concerning the city’s fiscal plight.
When I was nominated to be executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in December 1994 — a move that gravely upset Manhattan’s liberal establishment — Ed Koch was the first public official to endorse me. During my tenure in office, Koch was always available when I sought his counsel.
Ed Koch was truly a product of the old neighborhood. Born to Polish immigrants who escaped religious persecution, Mr. Koch summed up his Bronx youth with these words: “As a boy . . . everyone in the neighborhood was Jewish. The section of the park where we played was entirely Jewish . . . it was more than a religion, it was a way of looking at the world. It invested me with an unshakable sense of who I was.”
This world view was similar to that of most neighborhood kids who endured monetary poverty, but thanks to their surroundings, never acquired the behavioral traits that are evident in New York’s underclass.
Koch’s education at the “poor man’s Harvard”— City College of New York — was interrupted by World War II. After seeing combat in Europe, Sergeant Koch entered New York University Law School, passed the bar exam on the second try, and took a $15-a-week job with a small firm on Park Row in Manhattan.
Bored with legal research and anxious to be a trial lawyer, Koch decided to fend for himself. He put up a shingle, moved into Manhattan, and became what urbanologist James Q. Wilson called an “Amateur Democrat”— an active member of New York’s reform movement.
In 1962 he took on the last tiger of Tammany Hall — Carmine DeSapio. Boss DeSapio, whose home political base encompassed Little Italy and Greenwich Village, was in the 1950s romanced by respectable political leaders that included Adlai Stevenson, Averell Harriman, and Robert Wagner. By the early 1960s, however, the machine’s power was fading and Koch took the plunge.
His 41-vote victory was short-lived — it was tossed out by the counts. In the rematch, Mr. Koch beat Mr. DeSapio by 164 votes. And in their third match, the old Tammany sachem finally threw in the towel when he lost by more than 500 votes.
As district leader, Koch broke with his party in 1965 when he endorsed liberal Republican John Lindsay for mayor. (Yes, he later regretted the decision). In 1966, he was elected to a traditionally Republican city council spot, and in 1968 he took over Lindsay’s old “Silk Stocking” congressional seat.
Representing one of the most left-wing districts in the city, Koch voted for his share of wacky federal programs. (Later realizing the error of his ways, he would refer to himself as “Mayor Culpa.”) But he gained citywide exposure in 1971 when, defending the concept of the neighborhoods, he opposed low-income housing projects in Forest Hills.
Looking back on the controversy, he wrote, “I firmly believed that we should not destroy our middle-class communities, black or white, for any reason. They were all precious . . . People work all their lives to get out of poverty and the problems that go with it. I don’t think there was anything wrong, or contradictory, about my position.”
By 1977, homesickness and his belief that he could save New York from bankruptcy pushed Koch to seek the mayoralty. Running with the slogan “After eight years of charisma [John Lindsay] and four years of the clubhouse [Abe Beame], why not try competence,” Koch took on the establishment, Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug, and won the first of three terms.
In his first inaugural address on Jan. 1, 1978, Mayor Koch echoed the view of millions who grew up in our neighborhoods: “New York is a stroke of genius. From its early days this has been a lifeboat for the homeless, a larder for the hungry, a living library for the intellectually starved, a refuge not only for the oppressed, but also for the creative. New York is, and has been, the most open in the world. That is its greatness. And that is why, in large part, it faces monumental problems today.”
Thanks to his gutsy approach in handling government finances and his receptiveness to Reaganomics, the city was operating in the black, and throughout the remainder of the decade it experienced an unprecedented economic boom. Koch was not afraid to confess his past political sins, as when he admitted:
"I have publicly stated and referred to myself as 'Mayor Culpa' for having voted for programs in the Congress which added to the city spending. I neither knew nor cared at the time how those wonderful programs would be paid for and by whom. Indeed, I have summed up my responsibility by saying that if I had the power I would punish every member of Congress who participated in those days, and perhaps even today, with some of their mandates imposed on cities, by having them serve one year as mayor."
Ed Koch never minced his words and he was not bashful about sharing his thoughts on prominent political personages, groups, individuals or issues.
About John Lindsay, he said “After I became mayor, I tortured him at every opportunity. He deserved it.”
Of Mario Cuomo he said, “Hearing him is like listening to a Japanese haiku: inexplicable, sounds wonderful, and yet without substance.”
Donald Trump —“What a supreme egotistical lightweight!”
Rudolph Giuliani —“Inspector Javert . . . He’s the man for whom the end always justifies the means.
Jesse Jackson —“As a potential President of the United States, there is much to fear in Jesse Jackson. He is farther to the left than George McGovern and far to the left is not where the overwhelming majority of the American people want to go . . . His flights of rhetorical fantasy may be impressive. His grasp of the factual record is not.”
On leftist governments: “Regrettably liberals too often remain strangely silent about the excess of leftist governments. I think that is because leftist governments clothe themselves in such lofty language that their good intentions are taken as an article of faith, no matter how brutal or barbaric their actions may be.
On the drug epidemic: “…the stiffer the penalties against dealing and drug use, the less drug abuse there will be. If we’re serious we may want to do what was done in Malaysia and Japan. In Malaysia they put drug dealers to death. And you don’t see many drug dealers in Malaysia any more.”
At the end of his third term, when political scandals surfaced in the offices of the Queens borough president and the Bronx Democratic Party leader, the liberal elites made every effort to destroy Koch by tagging the blame on him. In their rush to establish guilt by association, they missed the irony of the crimes: nearly all these offenses were committed by self-proclaimed liberal reformers. And these frauds condemned Koch for having dealings with their creations.
Koch fought valiantly for a fourth term, but he could not stop the onslaught of the liberal and media establishment. On September 12, 1989, David Dinkins beat Ed Koch in the Democratic primary by 50 percent to 42 percent.
After leaving office, Ed Koch refused to retire. As lawyer, television and radio host, and newspaper columnist, he was the most relevant ex-mayor in the City’s history. To his dying day, his endorsement mattered and candidates of every party sought his blessing.
Throughout his life, Ed Koch never lost the instincts of the neighborhood kid. Like many native New Yorkers, he was sometimes outrageous, brash, and outspoken, but he was always frightfully honest.
Edward I. Koch — the quintessential New Yorker — Requiescat in pace.
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