The Ed Koch legacy: Farewell to a feisty fighter

A Feisty Fighter. This title could be applied to two three-term New York mayors: Fiorello Laguardia (1934-1945) and Edward I. Koch (1978-1989).

February 3, 2013 21:57
2 minute read.
Former New York mayor Ed Koch.

ed koch_311 reuters. (photo credit: Jeff Zelevansky / Reuters)


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A Feisty Fighter. This title could be applied to two three-term New York mayors: Fiorello Laguardia (1934-1945) and Edward I. Koch (1978-1989). Like LaGuardia, Koch cut his teeth as a US Congressman. He was elected the second Jewish mayor (following Abraham Beame) in November 1977, jumping into the caldron of New York’s financial crisis. The great majority of New Yorkers greatly admired his extraordinary fighting spirit, particularly in his first term. He faced the daunting tasks of balancing a shaky budget; cajoling financial aid from banks, union pension funds, and state and the Federal government; taking on the municipal unions (including a serious mass transit strike); and staving off urban decay. This was not done without incurring the enmity of various ethnic constituencies and powerful pressure groups, but he was convinced that municipal bankruptcy would have been a disaster.

At the outset of his autobiography, Mayor, he credits the briefing by me (then vice president Of Citibank) on the city’s budgetary and financial crisis, as the impetus for his running for mayor two and a half years later. Koch says, “I cannot say that the fiscal crisis was the beginning of my desire to be Mayor of New York, because New Yorkers with long memories will recall that I ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary in 1973.

But I can say honestly that the challenge of saving the City from financial ruin or worse was the kind of challenge I like. It was at that moment I knew I was going to run again for Mayor.”

Never married, Koch had three great loves. First was the City of New York. The second was the rough and tumble of politics. And the third was his profound love for the State of Israel, even overshadowing his Jewish ethnic pride. His bruising exchanges with President Jimmy Carter were legendary.

For example, during the 1980 National Election, Koch said to Carter, as quoted in Mayor, “And what they see, Mr. President, is that in the one country which has consistently given them support, that support has eroded. In the past we vetoed resolutions that were one-sided against Israel and that questioned Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Then we got to the point where we simply abstained, and now we are supporting resolutions that have sanctions in them and are denunciatory.”

I will always cherish the professional relationship I enjoyed with him . His fighting spirit filled most New Yorkers with pride. He was a symbol of the spirit of New York City.

The writer, a senior economist and vice-president of Citibank for 25 years, was the first to identify the New York fiscal crisis and played a major role in resolving it. He has a Masters of Public Affairs from Princeton University.

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