Ed Koch, New York City And The Politics Of Resentment And Race

Feb 4, 2013
Originally published on February 4, 2013 3:19 pm

For anyone who lived in New York during his tenure — and even if you didn't — Ed Koch was a larger-than-life figure, a feisty, combative and mostly-successful mayor who, for better or worse, dramatically changed the city and left his mark in the history books.

But how will history judge him?

When he was first elected, in 1977, Koch — who died early Friday morning at the age of 88 — came off as honest, independent, competent, optimistic and fearless. He talked about sacrifice, not more programs. He promised to stand up to the unions. He refused to pander. And New Yorkers loved him for all of it.

Once in office, he began to rebuild dilapidated bridges and streets. Affordable housing became a reality and neighborhoods began to bounce back. The city's finances improved.

And he moved away from his liberal reputation, one which he certainly earned during a political career that began in Manhattan's Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and continued in Washington as a member of Congress. At City Hall, his support for the death penalty, for example, helped draw middle class whites to his corner; minorities became wary of him. But with his numbers in the stratosphere, he was overwhelmingly rewarded two more times. In 1981, he won both the Democratic and Republican primaries, something no New York mayoral candidate had ever achieved. Four years later, he won again with some 78 percent of the vote. He was, by all accounts, a true celebrity, one who transcended politics.

But by the time he was defeated, in the 1989 primary in a bid for a fourth term, his outspokenness, once seen as charming and endearing, was portrayed as arrogance. He had become a bully, and always seemed happiest when he was picking a fight with someone. To many, it felt tiresome. And while untouched personally, corruption became widespread in city agencies; a close ally, Queens Borough President Donald Manes, committed suicide in the wake of a scandal. Crack, and AIDS, were becoming an epidemic, and homelessness was drastically on the increase. Even if he wasn't tired of the city, the city seemed to tire of him.

And his relationship with African Americans had hit rock bottom. He would say things that went beyond simple charming outspokenness. He declared that most blacks were anti-Semitic, and at one point disparaged Jesse Jackson's presidential candidacy, saying Jews "would be crazy to vote" for him. David Dinkins, the Manhattan borough president and an African American, beat Koch in the '89 primary. He was, as it turned out, not going to be mayor for life.

But in a city filled with characters who served as mayor, Koch was one of a kind. Yes, he loved being mayor. But he also loved being Ed Koch. And while the city changed during his 12 years in office, and while he left Gracie Mansion in defeat in 1989, he will by most accounts go down as one of the most influential and consequential mayors in the city's history.

Political career. Koch helped end the long reign of Carmine DeSapio, a major power broker in Manhattan and district leader of Greenwich Village, in the early 1960s. After that, he was elected to the city council in 1966, and two years later he ran for the House seat formerly held by John Lindsay (R), who in 1965 was elected mayor.

A supporter of Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign who switched to Robert Kennedy when RFK got in the race and then back to McCarthy after Kennedy's assassination, Koch ran as a "peace" candidate and upset the favored GOP candidate, state Sen. Whitney North Seymour Jr. In doing so, Koch became the first Democrat to win Manhattan's "Silk Stocking" congressional district since 1934. In the House he was a leading opponent of both the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon.

In 1973, with two landslide victories behind him, Koch decided he wanted to be mayor. But he got no noticeable support and quickly withdrew from the race. Four years later, however, he was in the race to stay.

In 1977, by most accounts, New York City was in deep trouble. Its finances were in ruins. Abe Beame, the charismatically-challenged incumbent who was elected four years earlier on a promise to restore the Big Apple to fiscal health, appeared clueless. Added to that was a blackout during the summer of '77 that unleashed widespread looting and vandalism.

Koch was not supposed to win. In the House nine years, he was not nearly as well known as his opponents. He didn't have the money or the organization backing that Beame did, or the celebrity and appeal to women of another Democrat, former Rep. Bella Abzug, who had given up her House seat in 1976 when she was narrowly defeated in the Senate primary. And Gov. Hugh Carey, who wanted Beame defeated, was backing his secretary of state, Mario Cuomo.

His best line came out of one of his TV commercials, put together by his media strategist, David Garth: "After four years of the clubhouse" — referring to Beame — and "eight years of charisma" — a shot at Lindsay — "why not try some competence?"

The primary was close. The four leading candidates were within 30,000 votes of each other. But the results were not what analysts expected. Beame finished third in the primary, Abzug fourth. Koch finished first, some 10,000 votes ahead of Cuomo. And in the runoff 11 days later — a runoff that proved nasty ("Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo" read posters around some parts of the city) — Koch prevailed, 431,849 to 354,222. That fall he easily disposed of his Republican opponent, state Sen. Roy Goodman.

(The bitter feelings about Cuomo's or his supporters' tactics stayed with Koch for the rest of his life. Check out this revealing and fascinating video interview Koch gave to the New York Times several years ago, with the understanding that it wouldn't be released until after his death.)

In 1981, Koch made history, not only winning the Democratic primary (beating state Assemblyman Frank Barbaro handily), but he took the GOP contest (against state Sen. John Esposito) as well. In 1985, he demolished his leading Democratic primary opponent, City Council President Carol Bellamy, and the general election was even less competitive.

In between, however, he made a fateful decision to seek the governorship. It proved to be a mistake. Thought to be the clear frontrunner when he entered, he quickly found himself on the defensive over comments he made in a Playboy interview that seemed to denigrate suburban voters and rural life. Upstate voters rallied behind Mario Cuomo, by then the state's lieutenant governor, by a 2-to-1 margin; Koch carried NYC by just 3,000 votes, with many saying they disapproved of his gov. bid. All in all, Koch lost 53-47 percent.

And then came the 1989 mayoral primary, in his bid for an unprecedented fourth term. Untouchable in the '81 and '85 contests, things came to a screeching halt in '89, thanks to the culmination of scandals and increased racial tension. He lost to Dinkins by a margin of 51-42 percent.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

Speaking of football. The non-Super Bowl football news of the past few days is the announcement by Donald Driver, the all-time leading receiver of the Green Bay Packers, that he is retiring after 14 years. Only one person, Brett Favre, played more games in a Packer uniform.

And why does that bit of news belong in Political Junkie? It's all because of this button from 2008, which many people had thought was a campaign item. Now they know better.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on Senate news coming out of Massachusetts, Iowa and Georgia. You can listen to the segment here:

Last week's trivia question: The announcement by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin that he will not seek a sixth term next year will end the partnership he's had with fellow Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley since 1985. With Harkin's upcoming departure, which state's senators will now be serving together the longest? (answer below)

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me.

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a Political Junkie T-shirt but also a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??


Feb. 12 — Obama State of the Union message.

Feb. 26 — Special primary in Illinois' 2nd CD to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), who resigned. (General election: April 9)

March 19 — Special primary in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District to replace Tim Scott (R), who was appointed to the Senate.

April 2 — Runoff in S.C. 01. (General election: May 7.)

April 30 — Special Massachusetts Senate primary.

June 4 — Special election in Missouri's 8th CD to replace Jo Ann Emerson (R), who resigned.

June 25 — Special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace John Kerry, President Obama's choice to become secretary of state.

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******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

Trivia answer: California. Both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were first elected in 1992.

This day in political history: After a partisan debate, the Senate votes 76-22 to rename Washington National Airport in honor of former President Ronald Reagan, who is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Republicans argued that it was an appropriate tribute for a great president, while Democrats said the move was a blatant political act. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed an amendment that would remove J. Edgar Hoover's name from the FBI headquarters but it was voted down (Feb. 4, 1998). The next day the House, on a 240-186 vote, approved the Senate bill and President Clinton signed it into law, a day before Reagan's 87th birthday.

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