New York City's Mayor Edward I. Koch arches his eyebrows when asked about a remark by a frequent critic that ``Hizzoner'' is growing more sensitive to the poor. As he begins his third term as mayor, Mr. Koch points to his record-breaking election, in which he garnered 76 percent of the vote. ``What happened in that election? . . . I smashed my opponents. So if you smash them, then what alternative do they have other than to say, `Well, he's different now. He's more sensitive now.' ''
That's New York City's mayor, all right. He comes out swinging at every opportunity, be it in books -- he recently turned out ``Politics'' after his best-seller ``Mayor'' -- or be it in person. He openly calls critics ``enemies,'' in a sometimes abrasive style.
The mayor is intent on making this third term one for the history books, and he continues to carve his own niche in city lore, say observers.
``I want the third term to have the same sense of challenge and intitiative that the first term had . . . and to avoid the lethargy and the sameness that existed, people say, in the third terms of two of my predecessors -- [Robert] Wagner and Fiorello La Guardia.''
Financially, New York is looking hale and hearty compared to the situation Koch faced when he took office in 1979. But there are still many problems facing this city of 7.5 million people. Among Koch's priorities for the third term are housing, education, transportation, and the overall problem of poverty.
It is this issue that has caught much public attention. Increasing numbers of homeless individuals and families are seen all over the city. The dropout rate is high, and nearly one-quarter of the city's population lives below the federal poverty line. Some politicians, including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, say that New York will be ``two cities'' by the end of the century, with a large underclass.
The mayor does not deny the problem, but he takes issue with the way it is portrayed. ``If you simply try to convey that New York City is Manhattan burgeoning with wealth and the rest of the city in poverty, it is simply a falsehood. . . . The vast number of people who live here are middle class.''
He does not like questions about what the city will be like in the year 2000, calling them ``baloney'' questions. ``How do I know where we will be in the year 2000?'' he asks. ``But I will says this to you. The city of New York now has the lowest unemployment rate in 11 years.''
He gloats over recent statistics showing that since he became mayor, more than 290,000 city residents have gotten jobs. In one of his many skirmishes with critics, one charge has been that a small proportion of new jobs has gone to city residents.
``I am fighting this falsehood day after day,'' says Koch. ``But to have that certified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the federal government was such a wonderful thing that I sent it to a couple of people -- like all of my enemies.''
``I am not able to eliminate poverty,'' says Koch. ``Nobody is going to eliminate poverty over the next 40 years.'' In a capitalist society, Koch explains, there will always be differences between the top and the bottom, ``and I am for that. But the goal has to be to have minimums below which people shall not fall,'' he says. ``And there is where I will direct my efforts . . . to shore up, to be supportive, of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder -- and to provide more opportunities for them to rise.''
The homeless in New York has been a Page 1 issue this fall in the city's newspapers, and the mayor is quick to detail just what the city is doing.
Each night, he points out, the city provides shelter for 4,000 families -- roughly 16,000 people, and over 8,000 single individuals. Families stay mostly in hotels, although many may have to spend some nights in an emergency shelter before hotel space is found.
Hotel families get a restaurant allowance, since rooms are not equipped with kitchens. And individuals can get three meals a day at shelters. The city also provides some homeless with ``an opportunity for a work experience,'' says the mayor, which may include cleanup work in the shelter, or in the city's subway or parks system.
When Koch ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982 against Mario Cuomo, one factor was the threat of President Reagan's New Federalism.
``It looked in '82 as though, under the proposed New Federalism, the federal government would no longer be working with the cities in a whole host of programs, but working directly with the states.'' That would leave it to the states to decide the role of the cities, reasoned Koch, leaving cities (and their mayors) with diminished authority. Koch lost the election, but Mr. Reagan also lost his battle to establish New Federalism, Koch says.
Instead of restructuring the federal government's role, Reagan has simply withdrawn funding, and it is impossible for cities and states to pick up the slack, says Koch. He is confident that the federal government will resume that role, ``when the Republican philosophy and the Reagan philosophy leave government.''
In the meantime, Ed Koch will keep work as if this third term was going to be his last. ``I tell you . . . I expect to run for a fourth term, a fifth term, a sixth.''