Challenger to New York's Mayor Koch should emerge soon

The proverbial calm before the storm has descended on New York City, as opponents of two-term mayor Edward I. Koch decide who will run against him in next fall's mayoral primary.

Whoever wins the Democratic race in September is virtually assured of winning November's general election.

Mayor Koch plans to run for a third term, and his reelection committee has been working quietly for some months. Now the question is who will run against the highly visible and well-known mayor.

Several names have surfaced, but no one has officially entered the fray. City Council president Carol Bellamy, who often takes on Koch in city issues, makes no secret of her interest. Herman Badillo, a former congressman from the Bronx and once a deputy mayor under Koch, is also high on the list of potential opponents.

Other names mentioned include: US Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D) of Harlem; state Assemblyman Frank J. Barbaro (D) of Brooklyn; Victor Gotbaum of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink (D) of Brooklyn; and city comptroller Harrison J. Goldin. Even former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro has been brought up as a possibility. Black leader Basil Paterson was considered a favorite of many, but he withdrew from consideration earlier this fall. Any of these candidates would need the support of a coalition that includes minorities, labor , and liberals.

Koch, a folk hero to some, a divisive force to others, is a formidable candidate. Most observers point out that if he is to be seriously challenged, his opponents will have to unite behind one candidate.

The campaign will not likely be a quiet one. Koch is not known for his restraint, political watchers point out. In ''Mayor,'' his autobiography that was on the top of the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks at the beginning of this year, the mayor got in jibes at several of his potential opponents.

His support is still strong among older, middle-class voters, particularly those in the outer boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Koch is proud that the city is back from the ''brink of bankruptcy,'' that the city has kept its position as a leader in finance, commerce, communications, and culture. He thumbed his nose at the doomsayers when the chips were down, and some of his most loyal followers respond to this more than any specific program he has enacted for the city.

But his appeal among blacks and Hispanics is weak, say most observers. Many of the city's black politicians have openly broken with Koch, and one of the hopes generated by Jesse Jackson's strong showing in the presidential primary here was that minority voters could be mobilized to help defeat Koch.

Like Koch's second campaign, quality-of-life issues will likely dominate the campaign. The public transportation system, although not directly controlled by Koch, is a sore point here. Housing for poor and middle-income families is scarce. And education has reached a crisis point, according to many city leaders. The dropout rate is nearly 50 percent and, as Ms. Bellamy pointed out in a recent speech at the City Club of New York, 70 percent of minority ninth-graders will not finish high school.

Although economically the city has done relatively well in recent years, job growth for city residents has been outstripped by new jobs that go to commuters. Some critics charge that job gains in the financial and service sectors of Manhattan have been attained, while the outer boroughs have been neglected.

But a candidate must come to the forefront soon in order to begin an effective campaign. Bellamy has said she will decide soon.

In the recent City Club speech, she talked about making the city ''liveable again'' for residents.

As in the past, she talked about leadership with a ''vision that looks beyond survivalism.''

But Bellamy has received lukewarm attention from minority leaders, who would play a key role in any coalition that may form to challenge Mayor Koch.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.