No one’s perfect, not even Edward Irving Koch, the 105th mayor of New York City, despite the naturally laudatory tone of most press coverage since his death last Friday at age 88. But he came pretty damn close, at least in his role as mayor.
New York needs bold, brash, outspoken and visionary leaders, and Koch was certainly all those things. He led the city out of the financial morass Mayor John Lindsay had led it into and Mayor Abe Beame, Koch’s immediate predecessor, failed to get it out of. In so doing he not only helped the city enjoy its first economic boom in years, he restored the pride without which it wouldn’t be New York.
Among his key moves was an infrastructure reconstruction effort to make up for years of neglect, especially of the city’s bridges, which made everyone safer. It’s also what led to the recent renaming of the Queensboro Bridge in his honor — a move this page opposed, suggesting the Manhattan Bridge instead, because that borough is where he lived.
Koch also helped restore honor and strength to a Police Department hit hard by both scandal and budget problems prior to his taking office. He wasn’t able to actually reduce crime during his tenure, but given the crack epidemic’s explosion of violence, it’s possible no one could have, and that things would have been even worse with someone else at the helm. Violent crime did begin to fall just a few years after Koch left office, largely due to a joint venture of Mayor David Dinkins and Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., but it’s likely history will credit Koch with setting the stage.
Long before becoming mayor, even though he was a congressman who represented Manhattan and had grown up in New Jersey and the Bronx, Koch did right by Queens. Most notably, he was known for leading the fight to stop a boneheaded plan of Lindsay’s to build a public housing complex for 3,000 people in the middle of Forest Hills, something that would have drastically changed the community forever.
Koch famously said what he meant and meant what he said. It was around the time of the housing plan debacle that he started describing himself as “a liberal with sanity,” and it was in large part his middle-of-the-road, law-and-order approach to governance that made him so successful.
In 1977 he won the mayoralty after a difficult primary against Beame, Rep. Bella Abzug and future Gov. Mario Cuomo. By the time he sought re-election in 1981, he was so popular he ran on both the Democratic and Republican lines, winning 75 percent of the vote. Then in 1985 he won a third term with an amazing 78 percent of the vote, despite not getting the Republican nod that time around.
Alas, though he did so much for the city, even Koch fell victim to the third-term albatross that plagues so many chief executives in one way or another (including, we dare say, the current occupant of Gracie Mansion). In his case many of his allies were revealed to be corrupt, including of course Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who eventually killed himself; and it was discovered that his administration had become another patronage mill, despite his promises to the contrary. Koch was never directly implicated in any wrongdoing, but when he sought a fourth term, he lost.
But he never lost his desire to improve the world or taste for the spotlight. He remained a political force in the city to the end, one whose endorsement was eagerly sought by many running for office. He remained the city’s biggest cheerleader and an equally strong booster of Israel. He remained a reformer who even helped clean up Albany just a couple years ago. He remained Koch, a mayor whose administration could not possibly be confused with any other. We join the rest of the city in bidding him a fond farewell.