Powerhouse politician who served three memorable terms as mayor of New York

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

Ed Koch, who died last week aged 88, served three tumultuous terms as mayor of New York, during which he displayed all the tenacity, zest and combativeness that personified his city of golden dreams.

Koch was born in Crotona Park East in the Bronx, the second of three children of Louis and Joyce Silpe Koch, Polish Jews who had migrated to New York separately in the early 1900s. Louis was a furrier and a partner in a shop until it folded in the Depression in 1931.

The family then moved to Newark, sharing an apartment with Louis’s brother, who ran a catering business. At age nine, Edward, like his humbled father, began working for his uncle in a hat-and-coat-check concession. He later worked as a delicatessen clerk and went to school in Newark.

One day, when he was 13 and vacationing in the Catskills, he leapt into a lake, swam out and saved his six-year-old sister, Pat, from drowning. Though a B student, he was president of his school debating society.

Earned two battle stars

After his graduation in 1941, the Koches, back on their feet in the fur business, moved to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Koch was drafted in 1943 and earned two battle stars in Europe as an infantryman. After V-E Day, because he could speak German, he was sent to Bavaria to help remove Nazi public officials from their jobs and find non-Nazis to take their place. He was a sergeant when discharged in 1946.

After the war he went to law school at New York University. He received his degree in 1948, was admitted to the bar in 1949 and became a founding partner of Koch, Lankenau, Schwartz Kovner in 1963.

Koch began his life in politics in 1952 as a street-corner speaker for Adlai E Stevenson, who lost the presidential election to Dwight D Eisenhower. In 1956, already in his 30s, Koch moved out of his parents’ home, took an apartment in Greenwich Village and joined the Village Independent Democrats, a club opposed to Carmine De Sapio and the Manhattan Democratic organisation known as Tammany Hall.

De Sapio, a power broker whose dark glasses gave him a sinister air, could make or break legislators, judges, even mayors. It was Koch who ended the De Sapio era, thwarting his return to power in the district primary elections in 1963 and 1965. Heading a growing reform movement, Koch won a city council seat in 1966 and befriended liberal causes, like anti-poverty programmes and rent controls.

By 1968, he was ready to move up. An opponent of the Vietnam War and a supporter of Senator Eugene J McCarthy’s presidential candidacy, Koch became representative for the 17th congressional district.

He was re-elected four times by majorities of 62 per cent to 77 per cent. In nine years in Congress, he stayed in Washington two weekends. He said he got “the bends” when outside New York too long. Every Thursday night, he went home for a weekend of campaigning and meeting constituents.

Still, he was almost unknown outside his district when he ran for mayor in 1977, facing six candidates in the Democratic primary, including Mario Cuomo, then New York’s secretary of state.

To the rumours about his sexuality, his standard answer was that it was no one’s business but his own. Placards sprouted in the 1977 mayoral campaign saying: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Koch did not respond at the time, but 12 years later, in his book His Eminence and Hizzoner, he recalled: “When I first saw those posters, I cringed, and I wondered how I would be able to bear it.”

Campaign blunders

Having won the election, Koch took the reins of a city government that faced a deficit of $400 million. The mayor rolled up his sleeves. After reaching a settlement with the unions, he devised a recovery plan and balanced the budget.

After winning his second term, Koch ran for the Democratic nomination for governor. It was a mistake, compounded by campaign blunders, he conceded later. In an interview with Playboy magazine, he called suburbia “sterile” and rural America “a joke”.

The honeymoon lasted two terms. But in Koch’s final years in office, his programmes were all but overshadowed by scandals. Then, in 1987, the stock market collapsed, and even the prosperity that had sustained the city’s treasury and the mayor’s popularity began to flag. Koch had a mild stroke that August, and associates said he seemed for a time to lose heart.

After leaving office, Koch became a one-man media show, with forums on television and radio and in newspapers, magazines and books, lecturing and teaching. He earned more than $1.5 million a year.

In 2008, approaching 84, he was still pitching – endorsing Barack Obama for president, shaking the hand of the visiting Pope Benedict XVI, even generating publicity with his own burial plans.