Edward Koch, Brash New York Mayor in 1980s Boom, Dies at 88

Edward I. Koch, the outspoken three-term New York mayor who led the biggest U.S. city from the brink of bankruptcy in the late 1970s and boosted the spirits of crime-weary residents, has died. He was 88.

Koch died today at 2 a.m. of heart failure at NewYork-Presbyterian Columbia Hospital, spokesman George Arzt said. Koch had been hospitalized in September for anemia and in December for pneumonia and flu and was moved into intensive care yesterday afternoon. The funeral will be held on Feb. 4 at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

Serving from 1978 through 1989, Koch presided over the Wall Street-fueled economic boom of the 1980s, turning a $1 billion budget deficit into a $500 million surplus in five years. He restored the city’s credit, doubled the annual budget to $26 billion and oversaw $19 billion in capital improvements. His subsidized housing plan produced more than 156,000 new and renovated units.

“Through his tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship, Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today in a statement. He called Koch “an irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion.”

Koch’s in-your-face style, straight talk and catchphrase “How’m I doing?” endeared him to New Yorkers wracked by the lingering fiscal crisis, the Son of Sam serial killings and the arson and looting that erupted after a blackout in July 1977.

‘Eccentric Uncle’

Commuters walking across the Brooklyn Bridge during the first day of an 11-day transit strike in 1980 were startled to find the bald, 6-foot-1-inch mayor cheering for them. He called critics “wackos,” welfare advocates “poverty pimps,” told visiting Soviet schoolchildren that their government was “the pits” and said a crack-smoking lawyer accused of killing his daughter should be “boiled in oil.”

A documentary about the former mayor by Neil Barsky, “Koch,” opened today in Manhattan.

He was “some mad combination of a Lindy’s waiter, Coney Island barker, Catskills comedian, irritated school principal and eccentric uncle,” the writer Pete Hamill said in 2005 during a panel discussion at the Museum of the City of New York, which hosted an exhibition on the recovery since the 1975-76 fiscal crisis. “He seemed to be everywhere at once.”

By 1985, Koch, a Democrat, had become the most popular mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia four decades before, winning 75 percent of the vote in his bid for a third term.

Corruption Scandals

Four years later, after corruption scandals rocked his administration and his criticism of civil-rights leader and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson angered some black voters, Koch was defeated by David Dinkins in the Democratic primary. Koch maintained his loss had nothing to do with the scandals or accusations that he had become a polarizing figure.

“The real reason was longevity,” he said in a 2004 interview. “You have to know when to get off the stage.”

Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924, the second of three children of Russian-Jewish immigrants Louis and Joyce Silpe Koch. His father was in the garment business. Koch attended City College of New York from 1941 to 1943, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and saw combat in World War II. He was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1946.

After the Army, Koch entered New York University School of Law, receiving his degree in 1948. He opened a small law practice.

Dissident Faction

Koch became active in Democratic politics, working for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956 and becoming a member of the Greenwich Village Independent Democrats, a dissident liberal faction of the party. Koch challenged the old-line Democratic organization that was still known as Tammany Hall.

After serving two years on the City Council, Koch in 1968 won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, a victory considered an upset against the Democratic machine. During his nine years in Congress, he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and advocated federal aid for mass transit and health care for the elderly.

Primary Fight

Koch entered a seven-person Democratic mayoral primary in 1977, beating chief rival and future New York Governor Mario Cuomo for the nomination. The September primary was marred by mean-spiritedness that included posters saying “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo,” an apparent attempt to say the unmarried Koch was a homosexual. The Cuomo campaign denied it was behind the signs.

Koch took office as mayor in January 1978 after winning the November general election against Cuomo, who ran on the Liberal Party ticket.

He succeeded Abraham Beame, who in his single term as mayor struggled with the worst fiscal crisis in the city’s history. Beame’s lack of charisma -- his speeches were so bland that many people couldn’t remember what he said, according to the New York Times -- stood in stark contrast to his successor. Koch never seemed to stop talking, about anything.

He was always approachable to reporters and members of the public. On weekends, New York residents could often find the mayor on the porch at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence, chewing the fat with passers-by. He also would call impromptu news conferences.

‘Irrepressible, Candid’

Saul Pett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Associated Press, summed up the mayor this way in a 1981 profile:

“He’s the freshest thing to blossom in New York since chopped liver, a mixed metaphor of a politician, the antithesis of the packaged leader, irrepressible, candid, impolitic, spontaneous, funny, feisty, independent, uncowed by voter blocs, unsexy, unhandsome, unfashionable and altogether charismatic, a man oddly at peace with himself in an unpeaceful place, a mayor who presides over the country’s largest Babel with unseemly joy.”

In 1982, Koch unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo for the Democratic New York gubernatorial nomination. Koch was hurt by an interview with Playboy magazine in which he described rural life as “a joke.” The line didn’t go over well with residents of the farming communities in upstate New York.

‘Better Off’

Koch walked out of City Hall for the last time as mayor on Dec. 29, 1989. He said New York was “far better off now” than when he took office.

“He was about performance, he was about integrity, about attracting the best and the brightest,” Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mario’s son, said today in a radio interview. Cuomo said he often asked Koch questions. “He always had great advice. He had such wisdom and experience.”

As a private citizen, Koch worked as a partner in the law firm Bryan Cave LLP, as a radio commentator for Bloomberg News, as a newspaper columnist and movie reviewer and as a lecturer and talk-show guest. He took political stands that angered many Democrats, such as his support for President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

Koch had a pacemaker implanted in 1991 and suffered a heart attack in 1999. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2009.

At age 83, Koch paid $20,000 for a burial plot at Trinity Church Cemetery, then the only graveyard in Manhattan that still had space, according to the Associated Press.

Koch Bridge

In 2009, Koch celebrated his 85th birthday at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan with guests including Cuomo, Henry Kissinger and Mayor Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. Former President Bill Clinton delivered his congratulations by video. A year later, Bloomberg announced that the city’s Queensboro Bridge, celebrated in Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” would be named after Koch.

Even in his mid-80s, he refused to stop campaigning. In March 2010 he formed a group called New York Uprising, which sought to tighten ethics rules, overhaul the budget process and force disclosures of income among state politicians in Albany. He visited Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse to make his case.

“I never said I’d solve all the problems,” Koch told reporters on his last day on the job in City Hall. “Who can? Problems are going to be there forever. It’s the nature of the city. Within the confines of what a mayor can do, I did a lot. And I think they will remember that.”

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