Ed Koch, the mayor who ‘gave a spirit back to New York,’ dies at 88

Posted at 1:35 PM, Feb 01, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-01 13:35:51-05

“Good morning, I’m Ed Koch.  I’m running for mayor and I need your help.  How’m i doing?”

That is the image of a tenacious, charismatic, hilariously blunt Ed Koch that is embedded in the very bedrock of New York City’s history.

Ed Koch

Classic Ed Koch …

The second of three children born in the Bronx to Polish Jewish immigrants, Koch was destined to become one of the most controversial and colorful mayors the city has ever known.

Politics, it seemed, was in his bloodstream.

He first made his mark as a reformer in the City Council — then a hard-line liberal in the house of representatives where he served for eight years —  until 1977, when New York was on the  brink of anarchy and bankruptcy.  Businesses were leaving, fires were burning, crime was rampant, rioters were looting in the aftermath of the blackout that thrust the city into further chaos.

Above  the  noise  rose a voice:

“I was the only voice saying you can’t do this…call out the National Guard.”

Ed Koch emerged as the law-and-order candidate, running a contentious campaign against incumbent Abe Beame.

Ed Koch

Ed Koch on the job during his heyday.

Koch handily defeated Beame and quickly transformed the city, making the ungovernable city appear eminently governable.

Less than a year in office,  Koch was faced with a massive transit strike that crippled the entire city.  During his last local television interview  with PIX11’s Marvin Scott in December,  Koch viewed his handling of that strike as one of his finest hours:

Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo

Mayor Ed Koch with Gov. Mario Cuomo, who challenged him for mayor in 1977.

“There was an illegal strike by the union and we crushed it and they didn’t expect it. But after 11 days they surrendered and it was because I kept the city going. I said I wasn’t going to let these bastards bring us to our knees and we didn’t.”

Koch is credited with saving the city from falling off the fiscal cliff. He delivered a balanced budget for the first time in 15 years, created 250,000 housing units at affordable rents and he reformed the judicial system.  Pulling the city from the abyss,  Koch was particularly proud of something else:

“I would say I gave a spirit back to New York City. [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan said something that made me feel very proud: he gave New Yorkers back their morale.”

“How’m I doing?”

A question almost as identifiable with Ed Koch as his sharp tongue.

“Shut up and get out of here,” he was heard to say.

Ed Koch discusses his hit 1984 book ‘Mayor’ in vintage WPIX report

Ed Koch discusses his hit 1984 book ‘Mayor’ in vintage WPIX report

Someone once observed that Koch was like the lovable but loopy uncle who could get away with saying almost anything: “I was standing in the elevator and peed on the governor.”

In 1982, Koch ran for governor, but lost the Democratic primary to Mario Cuomo.  He was daunted by the non-supporter’s  slogan “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” as he dodged assertions that he was a closet gay.

During his third term, Koch got caught in the middle of the city’s racial strife.

Koch loved every moment as the city’s 105th mayor:  “I love my job.  It is the best. I’ve never had a boring day”

Koch knew how to connect  with average New Yorkers as evidenced by his impromptu arrival on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1981after a power outage crippled the subways and people were walking home: “Common people … it’ll be alright,”

“Your the hero of the hour,” someone shot back.

“No  I’m not.  Just doing my job,” Koch said.

Spokesman George Arzt talks about Ed Koch’s last days

New York, Ed Koch’s town …

Koch had already made history becoming only the third mayor since Fiorello La Guardia  and Robert Wagner to achieve three terms. In 1989 he decided to push for a fourth—running against David Dinkins.

Koch was defeated.  His popularity eroded during a third term that was tarnished by corruption among members of his administration, and the AIDS epidemic that gripped the city.

Out of office, Koch remained a strong political voice.  He wrote 17 books, including his acclaimed “Mayor”  in which he was not very kind to many of the people he had worked with: “Historians are not supposed to be kind … they’re supposed to be accurate.”

Into his 80s, Koch still had a zest for life and a passion for everything he did.

“If something is worth doing its worth putting your heart into it,” he said.

And the passion was there when he read that favorite Christmas poem here on PIX11 News Closeup back in 2007.

“Ed Koch is one of our greatest mayors and  celebrated icons,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

After some controversy over naming a landmark for someone while alive, Mayor Bloomberg renamed the Queensboro Bridge “the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.”

“While i believe in an afterlife, I’m not sure i could have looked down and seen it happen. It was  wonderful.”

Bloomberg has hosted parties for  Koch in recent year, the last before he was hospitalized in December.


Ed Koch on the Brooklyn Bridge in the early 1980s, as caught by the 11 Alive Action News camera.

“I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m 88 — now in my 89th year — I don’t’ know whether i will live another 24 hours or another 10 years.  But whatever god gives me, I’m happy, I’m satisfied. I’ve had a wonderful life.”

During that last interview, I asked Koch how he’d like to be remembered.

“As someone who loved the city of New York and its people and did whatever was in my power to make their lives better.”

In the documentary, “Koch,” which was released in Manhattan on Friday, he summed up his love for New York.

“Whenever I would fly back to New York, particularly at night, i would look out and say that’s mine, my city.  Thank you God.”