Ed Koch, 88, feisty, funny mayor of N.Y.

New York Mayor Ed Koch as he addressed the opening session of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in July 1984.
New York Mayor Ed Koch as he addressed the opening session of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in July 1984. (AP, File)
Posted: February 03, 2013

NEW YORK - When Ed Koch was mayor, it seemed as if all of New York was being run by a deli counterman. Mayor Koch was funny, irritable, opinionated, often rude and prone to yelling.

And it worked, for a while at least.

With a Bronx-born combination of chutzpah and humor, Mayor Koch steered New York back from the brink of financial ruin and infused the city with new energy and optimism in the 1970s and '80s while racing around town, startling ordinary New Yorkers on the streets by asking, "How'm I doing?" He was usually in too much of a hurry to wait for an answer.

Mayor Koch died of congestive heart failure Friday at 88, after carefully arranging to be buried in Manhattan because, as he explained with what sounded like a love note wrapped in a zinger: "I don't want to leave Manhattan, even when I'm gone. This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me."

Fond tributes poured in from political allies and adversaries, some of whom were no doubt thinking more of his earlier years in City Hall, before many black leaders and liberals became fed up with what they felt were racially insensitive and needlessly combative remarks.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement that although they disagreed on many things, Mayor Koch "was never a phony or a hypocrite. He would not patronize or deceive you. He said what he meant. He meant what he said. He fought for what he believed. May he rest in peace."

During his three terms in office from 1978 to 1989, New York City climbed out of its financial crisis thanks to Mayor Koch's tough fiscal policies and razor-sharp budget cuts, and subway service improved enormously. To much of the rest of the country, the bald, paunchy Mayor Koch became the embodiment of the brash, irrepressible New Yorker.

He was quick with a friendly quip and a devastating put-down, and when he got excited or indignant - which was often - his voice became high-pitched. During his time in office and beyond, he dismissed his critics as "wackos," feuded with developer Donald Trump ("piggy") and fellow former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ("nasty man"), lambasted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and once reduced the head of City Council to tears.

"You punch me, I punch back," Mayor Koch once observed. "I do not believe it's good for one's self-respect to be a punching bag."

New Yorkers eventually tired of Mayor Koch.

Homelessness and AIDS soared in the 1980s, and critics said that City Hall's response was too little, too late. Mayor Koch's latter years in office were marked by scandals involving those around him and rising racial tensions, stoked in part by the mayor himself. In 1989, he lost a bid for a fourth term to David N. Dinkins, who went on to become the city's first black mayor.

In a statement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city "lost an irrepressible icon" and called Mayor Koch its "most charismatic cheerleader."

"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," Bloomberg said.

Mayor Koch's mark on the city has been set in steel: The Queensboro Bridge was renamed in Mayor Koch's honor in 2011. Coincidentally, a documentary about the mayor titled Mayor Koch opened nationwide on the very day of his death. After viewing a final cut last summer, Mayor Koch applauded and congratulated the filmmaker.

A lifelong bachelor who lived in Greenwich Village, Mayor Koch championed gay rights, taking on the Roman Catholic Church and scores of political leaders. His own sexual orientation was the subject of speculation and rumors.

After leaving office, he continued to offer his opinions as a political pundit, movie reviewer, food critic and judge on The People's Court. Even in his 80s, Mayor Koch exercised regularly and worked as a lawyer.

Describing himself as "a liberal with sanity," Mayor Koch pursued a fearlessly independent course. When President George W. Bush ran for reelection in 2004, Democrat Mayor Koch crossed party lines to support him and spoke at the GOP convention. He also endorsed Bloomberg's reelection efforts at a time when Bloomberg was a Republican.

"I'm not the type to get ulcers," Mayor Koch wrote in Mayor, his autobiography. "I give them."

Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924, the second of three children of Polish immigrants. During the Depression the family lived in Newark, N.J.

The future mayor worked his way through school, checking hats, working behind a delicatessen counter and selling shoes. He attended City College and served as a combat infantryman in Europe during World War II.

Mayor Koch wrote 10 nonfiction books, including the best-seller Mayor, Politics and His Eminence and Hizzoner, written with Cardinal John O'Connor.

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