Ed Koch, mayor who became a symbol of NYC, dies

By Celeste Katz, Joanne Wasserman, Mattew Lysiak, Corky Siemaszko

New York Daily News

Ed Koch, the irascible three-term mayor whose exuberant “How’m I doin’?” tagline and unabashed style made him synonymous with New York chutzpah, died early Friday at age 88.

To the end, Koch was the nasally Noo Yawk-voiced ambassador of a city that remained his true love long after he left City Hall.

“I am grateful, most of all, to the people of the City of New York for allowing me to be their mayor,” Koch told the Daily News in an interview two months before he died.

His death triggered an outpouring of tributes from allies and enemies who credited him with rescuing a desperate, crime-ridden city from bankruptcy and setting it on the path of a remarkable renaissance that continues to this day.

Flags across the city were lowered to half-staff in his honor and his praises were sung from the White House to Jerusalem.

President Obama called him “an extraordinary Mayor, irrepressible character, and quintessential New Yorker.”

Mayor Bloomberg lauded Koch as “a great mayor, a great man and a great friend” who was the city’s “most charismatic cheerleader and champion.”

PHOTOS: REMEMBERING FORMER NYC MAYOR ED KOCH

“When we were down, Ed Koch picked us up,” Bloomberg said. “When we were worried, he gave us confidence. When someone needed a good kick in the rear, he gave it to them — and, if you remember, he enjoyed it.”

Koch had endured heart problems but was in relatively good health until a series of illnesses and hospitalizations — most recently on Monday.

Koch was moved to the intensive care unit at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Columbia on Thursday. He died at 2 a.m. Friday of congestive heart failure.

“The mayor died with dignity,” a nurse at the hospital said. “He didn’t suffer.”

Koch’s sister, Pat Koch Thaler, had been with him at the hospital earlier for several hours Thursday, Koch spokesman George Arzt said.

“She sat for hours and hours by his side holding his hand gently,” the nurse said.

Koch’s funeral will be 11 a.m. Monday at Temple Emanu-El on the upper East Side, following a program Koch laid out, including an organist playing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Burial will follow at Trinity Cemetery, at 155th St. and Broadway.

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In a city of outsized egos and giant personalities, Koch loomed large, forging a remarkable public career that played out in two unforgettable acts. And like the Sinatra song, Koch often did it, “My Way.”

Across 12 colorful and tumultuous years as mayor, from 1978 to 1989, Koch helped to put a near-broke city back on its feet, leaving a legacy that includes more than 150,000 units of affordable housing, landmark campaign finance and judicial reform — and even a bridge, formerly the Queensboro, that’s now named after him.

And when voters grew weary of the corruption scandals and racial strife of his final term and sent him packing, Koch forged a new life as a lawyer, author, talk-show host, celebrity pitchman and movie reviewer.

“You knew where Ed stood on any topic, and whether or not you agreed with him or what he said, you couldn’t help but like him,” former President Bill Clinton and his wife, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said. “His personality was enormous, big enough for the city he called home for nearly his entire life.”

Edward Irving Koch was born Dec. 12, 1924, in the Crotona Park section of the Bronx, the son of a Polish-Jewish furrier. The middle of three kids, he grew up idolizing his big brother Harold, who died in 1995.

In a kids book Koch wrote with his sister called “Eddie: Harold’s Little Brother,” he recounted how his brother set him on the path to City Hall by telling him to do something he’s good at.

“I like to talk,” Eddie says in the book.

“You sure do!” Harold agrees.

And the die was cast.

Koch’s family moved to Newark, N.J., where he went to high school, but by 1941, he was back in the city, attending City College and supporting himself by selling shoes and working a deli counter. Drafted into the Army, Koch fought in Europe in World War II — earning two battle stars as an infantryman — before returning home and enrolling in New York University Law School.

He settled in Greenwich Village and waded into politics as a street stumper for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate who twice lost to Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

Koch joined the Village Independent Democrats and was elected district leader in 1963, defeating Carmine De Sapio, the last of the old bosses who ruled the Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall. He served in the City Council was elected five times to Congress before setting his sights on Gracie Mansion in 1977.

Koch was the dark horse in a crowded field seeking to oust hapless Abe Beame from City Hall. But on primary day, Koch led the pack followed closely by then Secretary of State Mario Cuomo — setting the stage for a brief but brutal runoff battle that Koch won.

Cuomo refused to quit and carried on as the Liberal Party candidate. And on the streets, some of his supporters took the campaign to a new low by posting signs reading, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”

RELATED: A TIMELINE OF ED KOCH’S LIFE AND CAREER

Koch won — but just barely. In a city scarred by constant fires and a sticky-hot July blackout that sparked riots, his “law and order” message carried the day.

But Koch never really forgave Cuomo, or his rival’s then 19-year-old son, future governor Andrew Cuomo, who managed his dad’s campaign.

Koch got some posthumous payback Friday, calling Mario Cuomo a “p—k” in a New York Times video that was released — on his instructions — after his death.

Koch made a point of taking a bus to his inauguration. It was the start of a 12-year ride at City Hall that was as bumpy as a trip on the IRT before he helped overhaul subway service.

As mayor, Koch was a quote machine who courted controversy, a self-proclaimed “liberal with sanity” who angered civil libertarians and civil rights activists, and attacked opponents as “wackos.”

“I’m not the type to get ulcers,” he once bragged. “I give them.”

But when Koch took over, there wasn’t much laughter in City Hall. New York was on the verge of financial ruin.

RELATED: ‘KOCH’-YA ON FILM, MR. MAYOR

“His first order of business was restoring the city’s credit, and he did that by establishing budgetary transparency,” said Jonathan Soffer, author of “Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of NYC.”

Koch slashed budgets, attracted new jobs, and refused to take no for an answer in dealing with the federal government. Within three years, he balanced the books.

“People need to remember that he was more than the guy with the quick comment,” said former mayor David Dinkins, who ousted Koch in 1989. “He is also the man that repaid the loan in the 1980s when the federal government had first said they weren’t going to help us. And he not only repaid it, but paid it early.”

Soffer said Koch also did another very smart thing to bring New York city back from the brink. “Koch organized state, local and private money to rebuild the areas of New York that had been burned down, flattened or discarded as a result of austerity programs from the 1970s,” Soffer said.

The result was a sweeping, $5.4 billion housing program that provided jobs and homes in some of the most desperate corners of the city.

Koch was the first New York mayor to march in a gay pride parade and to champion gay rights. But he was pilloried by playwright Larry Kramer as an “evil man” for his slow response to the AIDS crisis.

If that stung, Koch didn’t show it. And while he may have been as gabby as a Gotham cab driver, his own sexuality was off-limits for discussion. Nor would he discuss his relationship with Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, who sometimes appeared on his arm at campaign events.
“I have a social life,” Koch, lifelong bachelor, once said. “But I don’t discuss it.”

Throughout, his unabashed adoration of New York energized a beaten-down city. His thumbs-up trademark and signature phrase “How’m I doin’?” made him famous around the world.

“I love being the mayor,” he said. “I want to be the mayor forever.”

He famously cheered commuters walking over the Brooklyn Bridge because of a 1980 transit strike. “I began to yell, ‘Walk over the bridge, walk over the bridge, we’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees.’ And people began to applaud. I knew I was onto something,” he said.

Reelection in 1981 was a cinch, but Koch learned there were geographical limits to his popularity. Running for governor in 1982 against Cuomo, he made a colossal flub. “Have you ever lived in the suburbs?” Koch remarked about Albany. “It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.”

Voters beyond the five boroughs were unamused, and he lost. But he breezed to a third term in 1985 before trouble set in — racial tensions and a corruption scandal.

The rot was in the city’s Parking Violations Bureau, and the federal investigation brought down some of Koch’s closest allies. “I am shocked,” Koch declared three times in a packed City Hall press conference after the scandal broke.

RELATED: ED KOCH, MEET YOUR BRIDGE

The federal probe was led by an ambitious prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani, who later became mayor and had a fierce on-again off-again relationship with Koch

Koch backed the Republican for mayor but also penned a book about him in 1999 entitled “Nasty Man.”

“We disagreed at times, but no one ever doubted his deep love for our city,” Giuliani said Friday.

Although Koch marched for civil rights in the South, he had an uneasy relationship with the city’s black leaders. He offended many by slamming Jesse Jackson in the 1988 Presidential primary.

The one-two punch of an infamous 1986 racial beating in Howard Beach, Queens, and the 1989 shooting death of a black teen in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, proved fatal to his mayoralty.

He lost the 1989 Democratic primary to Dinkins, who became the city’s first black mayor.

When Koch walked out of City Hall on Dec. 30, 1989, it was to a bagpipe’s strains of “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

“I leave with joy,” he said — though when a constituent later urged him to run again, he said, “The people have spoken … and they must be punished.”

Unlike most losing politicians, Koch did not fade away. “In many ways, Ed Koch never stopped being mayor,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.Koch weighed in with five books on politics, was a regular on news radio and TV programs and cranked out a column that ran in The News. He endorsed candidates without regard to party. He appeared in TV commercials hawking products like Snapple and made cameo appearances in movies and shows like “Sex and the City.” Koch even spent two years as the judge on “The People’s Court.”

Koch, who had a mild stroke while in office in 1987, suffered a heart attack in 1999 and had a bout with pneumonia in 2001.

Nothing slowed him down for long. But as he marked his 85th birthday, Koch acknowledged his mortality.

“I’m coming to the end of my life,” he told the News. “I do reflect on what I’ve done for the 85 years that I have been given so far. And I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

Koch’s downward slide began in September when he was hospitalized for anemia. In December, he returned with a respiratory infection. Two more hospitalizations followed in January.

Koch went out “the way he would have wanted to go: no pain, still kicking and fighting,” Bloomberg said.

He was brash — and loyal to his beloved New York — to the end, purchasing a plot at the Trinity cemetery, after learning that the church permitted Jews to be buried there.

“I don’t want to leave Manhattan, even when I’m gone,” he explained. “This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.”

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About Pedro Heizer

I'm a person of simple taste, all I need is some country music, Batman, Star Wars, sports, coffee, and most importantly Jesus Christ, because what profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? View all posts by Pedro Heizer

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