Ed Koch: a collection of favorite New York minutes with the mayor

Ed Koch, a three-term mayor of New York, died Friday. His trademark 'How'm I doin'?' – as much a challenge as a question – was as brash as the city he led for 11 years. Here's our remembrance of some defining Koch moments.

By , Staff writer

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    Former New York Mayor Ed Koch listens during the 9th annual National Action Network convention in New York, in 2007. Koch, the combative politician who rescued the city from near-financial ruin during three City Hall terms, died Friday.
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“How'm I doin’?”

The question – an Ed Koch trademark – came at the four of us as we slipped out of a taxi in 1978 in Greenwich Village. And there he stood, the man himself. Caught unawares, we all yelled back, "Great!"

What we didn't realize was that CBS's "60 Minutes" had a film crew trailing hizzonor. As the mayor shouted at us, the cameraman swung around to capture the moment. That brief encounter with the legendary Mr. Koch, who died Friday, became the teaser – right before the tick, tick, tick – for the news show's segment.

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Over many years since then, I, like many reporters, had more substantive conversations with Koch, who invariably had an opinion about the topic du jour – and was more than willing to share it. Here are some Koch classics.

Political endorsements

In September 2011, Koch – who might be characterized as an independent Democrat – announced he would endorse Bob Turner, a Republican, over a Democrat in a special election to replace disgraced Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner in a district that spanned Brooklyn and Queens. The endorsement, he explained, had nothing to do with the candidates: It was all about his perception that President Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus” and it was important to let him know.

“I think the message is, don’t take the Jewish constituency for granted – and this district has the largest Jewish constituency in the nation,” Koch said at the time. Mr. Turner went on to win in the heavily Democratic district, thanks in large part to Koch’s endorsement, including taped robocalls.

Rudy Giuliani

In November 1997, Koch admitted he had voted for Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, for a second term as mayor of New York, saying he felt the quality of life had improved under his administration. But Koch also said he disliked Mr. Giuliani's bullying style.

“If you are not a sycophant, he destroys you,” he told the Monitor.

Koch always stood ready to explain the complexities of politics – no matter that the issue didn't involve him. For instance, Giuliani faced a hard choice in 1994: whether to endorse sitting Gov. Mario Cuomo for reelection or fellow Republican George Pataki, then a state senator.

If Giuliani were to endorse Mr. Cuomo, Koch reasoned, the backing could come back to haunt him. “Pataki will carry a grudge,” he said. “You have certain expectations as a politician, and if they are not fulfilled, you feel betrayed.”

Movies

Any Neil Simon portrayal of a New Yorker would look and sound a lot like Koch. The three-term mayor loved to have Sunday brunch in the Village with an assortment of other New Yorkers. He loved bagels and other fattening foods, and so was almost always trying to diet. Koch acknowledged he wasn’t much of a sports fan, but like many New Yorkers he did love going to the movies.

"Have you read my movie reviews?” he once asked me. He put me on his distribution list. The movie reviews were quintessential Koch: They always got straight to the point.

His Jan. 7 review of “The Impossible,” about the tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, vaulted right to superstorm Sandy, which hit the New York region at the end of October, and from there to House Speaker John Boehner's decision not allow a vote on emergency aid to storm-ravaged areas. Koch called it “the most perfidious act of Congress that I can recall.”

His "movie" review then recounted how Mr. Boehner “got the message” and scheduled the vote in mid-January. New York got its money. "All’s well that ends well,” wrote Koch.

Opining

Koch, who left office in 1989, was also fond of writing what he termed “commentaries,” and he did not confine himself only to things New York. Here's his take on how to resolve the recent "fiscal cliff" impasse in Washington: shame officials into action. 

"We Americans should shame our legislators and the President into doing their jobs, which include adopting a budget and ten-year plan that will put our house in order,” Koch wrote in a Dec.11, 2012, missive, started while he was in the hospital recovering from an illness.

He recounted a favorite story about taking over as mayor in 1977 when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. In three years, New York was back in the black, wrote a proud Koch.

“Based on my experience, there is only one common sense way to balance a budget: cut expenses and increase revenues in some combination,” he informed Mr. Obama and Congress. He also suggested six ways to raise more revenue and two ways to cut expenses.

After the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Koch called for a national day of commemoration every Dec. 17, when Americans would stop whatever they were doing and pause to observe a moment of silence. “It is my hope that an annual commemoration of this sort may raise everyone’s consciousness as to the need to control the level of senseless violence in our society,” he wrote.

Koch, unlike many former and current politicians, was readily available to talk on the phone. After a short hold, he would pick up the receiver, which is what people used back in the day. “Ed Koch,” he always said. “What do you need?”

Whether you agreed with him or not, he had an opinion.

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