Feature

Edward I. Koch, 1924–2013

The outspoken mayor who embodied New York City

Ed Koch wasn’t just another big-city mayor; for many New Yorkers, the ebullient, plainspoken politician became a quintessential expression of their city’s character. “Hizzoner” welcomed the comparison more than once, such as when the city renamed the Queensboro Bridge after him in 2010. “This [bridge] suits my personality because it’s a workhorse bridge,” he said. “It’s always busy. It ain’t beautiful, but it is durable.” 

Born in the Bronx, Koch trained as a lawyer and entered politics in 1963, when he was elected Democratic district leader for Greenwich Village, said The Washington Post. He spent nine years as a U.S. congressman, known for his opposition to the Vietnam War, before running for mayor of New York City in 1977. The city was then an “international symbol of urban ills”: During that sweltering summer, residents were deeply shaken by the “Son of Sam” serial killings and by the rampant looting that followed a citywide blackout. Koch beat primary rival Mario Cuomo by tacking to the political center, pledging to get tough on crime and embracing the death penalty. He was unconcerned about disappointing his liberal base. “I have always been much more moderate than my supporters,” he later said.

Koch became famous for asking New Yorkers, “How’m I doin’?” said The New York Times. For his first two terms as mayor, from 1978 to 1985, the answer was generally “mixed-to-good.” He hauled the city back from near bankruptcy in the late 1970s with bold spending reforms, turning the $1 billion deficit he inherited into a surplus of $500 million by 1983. Koch also launched an ambitious social-housing program in the 1980s that built or renovated more than 200,000 units. Labor unionists disliked him for cutting city payrolls and opposing transit workers during a 1980 subway strike. But his constituents loved their colorful mayor, “who could outtalk anybody in the authentic voice of New York.” He was re-elected in 1985 with a record 78 percent of the vote. 

But Koch’s third term “began badly,” said NYSun.com, and only got worse. Queens Democratic Party boss Donald Manes, a Koch ally, committed suicide after being implicated in a scheme to defraud City Hall, and Koch’s lackadaisical response to a racially tinged killing in the neighborhood of Howard Beach angered the black community. Worsening crime and crack cocaine epidemics only deepened the rift with African-Americans, and in 1989 he was beaten in the Democratic primary by David Dinkins, a black rival who ran “on a platform of racial reconciliation.” Some liberals had by then become dismayed over Koch’s failure to respond aggressively to the deepening AIDS crisis, which killed more than 30,000 New Yorkers. Critics in the gay community said the lifelong bachelor ignored the epidemic out of fear that voters would conclude he was a homosexual. AIDS activist Larry Kramer branded Koch a “murderer of his own people.” 

Even out of office Koch couldn’t be ignored, said WNYC.org. He wrote a memoir that was turned into an off-Broadway play, served as a judge on The People’s Court, and remained until his death an outspoken, often contrarian voice on local and national politics. Although the ex-mayor was a noted self-promoter, he was fiercely private about his own life—especially when it came to his much-discussed sexuality. Asked in 1998 if he was gay, he responded with characteristic bluntness. “My answer to questions on this subject is simply f--- off,” he said. “There have to be some private matters left.”

Though he was a proud Jew, Koch long ago reserved a plot in Trinity Church Cemetery, in northern Manhattan, so that he would spend eternity in the city he loved. “The idea of leaving Manhattan permanently irritates me,” he said.

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