Tributes poured in last Friday for Ed Koch, the three-term mayor who personified New York City from 1978 through 1989, and who died early that morning at age 88.
They came unsolicited from elected officials across the city, and were echoed on the street by the people of Queens.
“He was a great mayor; I thought the world of him,” said Fred Barlow of Elmhurst.
Koch inherited a city on the brink of fiscal collapse and was voted out a dozen years later in a city boiling over with racial tensions and political corruption.
He was the candid, often charming, face of New York who went to the Brooklyn Bridge and subway stations to cheer on commuters during a transit strike. He loved the spotlight, and relished verbal combat with his opponents and critics.
He regularly would leave City Hall or Gracie Mansion to greet people in the streets and at subway stations with his customary inquiry “How’m I doing?”
“Earlier today, New York City lost an irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “He was a great mayor, a great man and a great friend.In elected office and as a private citizen, he was our most tireless, fearless and guileless civic crusader. Through his tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship, Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback.”
Henry Huber of Elmhurst once met the mayor at a street fair on the Lower East Side.
“He was always positive, upbeat,” Huber said. “He was always with the people.”
“He was great for New York,” said Vincent Cucchiara of Middle Village, a 40-year city resident. “He gave the city a flavor.”
Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx in 1924, and served in the U.S. Army infantry in World War II, rising to the rank of sergeant.
The Greenwich Village lawyer was a self-described liberal, and joined with a group of reform-minded Democrats.
He made his first mark in 1963, challenging and beating Carmine DeSapio, the last leader from the old Tammany Hall Democratic machine, for district leader. He was elected to the City Council in 1966 and Congress in 1968.
The future mayor made a name for himself in Queens in the early 1970s, when he opposed Mayor John Lindsay’s attempt to construct a massive affordable housing project in Forest Hills to support more than 4,000 people. Congressman Koch played a key role in reducing the size of the complex to the shock of some of his liberal allies.
It was during the fiscal crisis and the aftermath of the Son of Sam murders that Koch in 1977 entered a primary against embattled Democratic Mayor Abe Beame. He defeated Beame and Congresswoman Bella Abzug, and later beat future governor Mario Cuomo in a runoff.
“If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me,” Koch once said. “If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”
The self-styled “liberal with sanity” became a pragmatic centrist in many ways, particularly when it came to budget cuts and hard-line stances in negotiation with city unions. In 1981 he won re-election running cross-endorsed on the Republican party line.
On the negative side, racial tensions were high throughout Koch’s tenure, with several high-profile incidents in which young black men were killed, garnering him distrust in the African-American community.
After saying he never wanted to be anything but mayor of the city he entered the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial primary in a rematch against Cuomo. He lost, and Cuomo went on to serve three terms.
Koch’s final term was marred by corruption scandals, many centering around the old Parking Violations Bureau. While none of the graft, kickbacks and other crimes were ever tied to Koch, some of his close allies went to prison. Queens Borough President Donald Manes in 1986 committed suicide in his Jamaica Estates home as federal prosecutors began closing in.
He lost his re-election bid in 1989 to David Dinkins, who would go on to become the city’s first African-American mayor.
Perhaps it was the DeSapio race early in his career that later gave Koch an affinity for James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), a former low-level staffer in the Koch administration, in the midst of Gennaro’s improbable first campaign for the City Council, 12 years after he had served Koch.
“I was running a Democratic primary ... as an insurgent candidate, meaning that I was running against the candidate that was supported by the Queens Democratic Organization,” Gennaro wrote.
“Of course, as I was running as an insurgent candidate, nobody from the Democratic political establishment in New York City would give me the time of day, let alone any support,” he said.
“No one except Mayor Koch, that is.”
Gennaro said Koch did not even know who he was when he made his first and only presentation to the mayor in his final year in office.
“But he knew that presentation was a big moment for me, and he made me feel at ease and commended me for a job well done,” the councilman wrote.
Shortly after arriving in New York City, then-Archbishop John O’Connor sought advice on his job performance from an expert sitting in the front pew at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“Mr. Mayor — how’m I doing?”
Though the two clashed on a number of issues, such as gay rights and the death penalty, they became great friends. They collaborated on the 1989 book “His Eminence and Hizzoner.”
In his post-mayoral life, Koch would be an author, lawyer, actor, political commentator and movie reviewer for local media. He also did a stint as the judge on the syndicated “People’s Court” television show.
In 2011 the City Council voted to rename the Queensboro Bridge in Koch’s honor, a move opposed by many in the Queens delegation, with Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) being the most outspoken.
They argued the change would rob Queens of part of its identity. Vallone unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill banning the naming of public structures for those still living.
Koch remained an uncompromising defender of Israel. In 2011, he crossed party lines by endorsing Queens Republican Bob Turner in a special congressional election. Koch said it was to send President Obama a message over national policy toward Israel.
Turner defeated Democratic state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows), an Orthodox Jew. Turner acknowledged on Friday that Koch’s support proved the critical element, and called him a great New Yorker.
“He was never shy to speak his mind and stand up for what he believed to be in the best interest of New Yorkers and all Americans,” Turner said. “I am proud to have called him my friend.”
More recently Koch led an effort to take redistricting mandated by the 2010 U.S. Census away from the state Legislature and put it in the hands of an independent comission.
Koch secured nearly 140 pledges from legislators, and excoriated those who later reneged. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mario’s son, also drew Koch’s ire for going back on a pledge to veto districts that were not independently drawn.
Officials past and present issued statements honoring Koch and his legacy.
“He loved the city fiercely, and it loved him back,” said Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan). “Mayor Koch was larger than life ... his sense of humor and tenacious spirit personified this town.”
Quinn said she had received Koch’s support having never met or spoken with him, getting a phone call from out of the blue when she was championing an anti-violence project.
“He told me ‘You’re doing the right thing. Don’t back down, and call me if I can do anything,’” she said.
Several officials cited Koch’s trademark love of the city.
“I’m grateful that I had a few more times to be with him on Tuesday and again last night, before he finally left New York for someplace better,” said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in a statement issued by his office, “although he’d probably argue that’s not possible.”
“He never forgot the common folk, even as he transcended to greatness and became a legend ... and managed to foster a sense of small-town Americana in our big city,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens said.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said Koch’s “How’m I doing?” was both a boast and an act of humility.
“I often disagreed with Ed,” he said. “But I also got to know and learn from this great man, with a heart and mind as big as the city he loved.”
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) first came to know Koch through his relationship with his father, Congressman Joe Addabbo Sr. He said he was honored by Koch’s support in his own campaigns.
The city, Addabbo said, has lost an icon.
“Ed dedicated most of his life to public service and helping others,” Addabbo said. “Ed kept his focus on the people’s interest and needs.”
Congressman Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx) called Koch a proud public servant and a true champion for the people of New York. Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) called him colorful, tough and warm, and said his death “has left a void in our city.”
State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Jamaica) is a former Koch aide in City Hall.
“It was truly a pleasure to work for one of the greatest mayors that this city has ever seen,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), in recalling their last meeting, said that he was as unique to the city as the Empire State Building in recalling their final meeting.
“Our conversation went from Middle East policy to the best Chinese food in New York City to movies, as only Ed Koch could,” she said.
“Ed Koch so vividly reflected the city that is now diminished by his passing,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Comptroller John Liu, GOP mayoral candidate Tom Allon and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall offered Koch their praise and his loved ones their condolences.
Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) wrote fondly of the man he knew from his father’s days as a deputy commissioner in the Koch administration, and state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) mourned the loss of a man he called his friend and mentor, having worked as Koch’s liaison to the borough.
“There was no problem too small or too big for him to address on behalf of his constituents throughout the city,” Avella said. “If it was important to them, it was important to Mayor Koch.”
“We will miss him dearly,” Bloomberg said. “But his good works — and his wit and wisdom — will forever be a part of the city he loved so much.”
“Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” Gennaro wrote, “and on behalf of a grateful city, goodbye. May God bless you always.”