New York City Mayor Edward Koch is unrepentant - but willing to concede he might have gone a bit too far. His scathing criticism of the Rev. Jesse Jackson during the recent New York primary raised charges of divisiveness from many of the city's black, white, and Hispanic leaders. The episode has increased the call to find a strong mayoral challenger to Mr. Koch in 1989.
``There is no question I wounded the feelings of a large number of people,'' the mayor said at a breakfast meeting with reporters here yesterday, adding that he would be more careful with his phrases if he had to do it over.
``One thing I regret is that I did not ... comprehend the emotional tie to this candidacy on the part of the black community. ... And I don't deplore [that tie],'' Koch says.
``I am sorry that I injured their feelings,'' he says. ``Would I change if I had to do it over? The answer is I wouldn't change my thought that it was important that somebody speak out.''
Although his comments may have been infelicitous, Koch says, divisiveness is common fare in primaries. But some New Yorkers say they feel the tensions aroused had less to do with primary issues than with divisions in New York City.
The mayor's opponents have been unable to challenge him successfully at the polls since his election in 1977. Eleven years of the always outspoken, always controversial, and always available mayor has spawned both admirers and detractors. His supporters may sometimes wince at the mayor's conduct. But his opponents are more often frustrated at their inability to bring him down.
This time they vow to forge a coalition to defeat Koch in 1989. He has been battling charges of racism almost from the beginning of his stint as mayor of this polyglot city. During his administration, a city corruption scandal has brought about the conviction of more than 10 local politicians. And the plight of the poor and homeless is more pronounced now than at any time since the Great Depression.
Koch is quick to point out that the city has been brought back from the brink of bankruptcy, and unemployment is the lowest in 17 years. Federal cuts, he notes, have created much of the problems the city's poor face in housing. He will count off the names of several high black officials in his administration, including the head of the New York Police Department. And the mayor says he intends to run on his record next year, a record that has been helpful to all New Yorkers, including the black community.
But the criticism that Koch has received in the wake of his attacks on Jesse Jackson indicates more New Yorkers than ever question the way the mayor wields his baton over the city. Exit polls at last week's presidential primary indicated that 62 percent of the city voters think Koch should not run for a fourth term.
At yesterday's breakfast, Koch said the country has to get used to blacks running for major positions, and that these candidates should not be treated with kid gloves, something he accuses the press of doing during the current election campaigns. He was not, he said, attacking Jackson racially. And there was not a statement he made that anyone disputes, the mayor says.
``Jesse Jackson does not have, in my opinion, the correct policy positions. If you can't say that, then what are you doing? You are destroying the democratic process,'' he says.
But Koch's criticism went beyond questioning policy positions to attacking Jackson's character, for example, when he accused Jackson of lying regarding his role during the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.?
``I discussed his policies and his character. Didn't we do that with Senator [Joseph] Biden? ... What did we do about Gary Hart? ... What I am simply saying is that while I understand the pain of some people - and I believe I contributed to the defeat of Jesse Jackson in New York ... don't I have a right to try to get the best candidate?''
Indeed, Koch had praise - albeit faint - for Jackson on other issues. Koch spent yesterday afternoon here at a meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors talking about the urban agenda and the drug problem. He told reporters earlier that Jackson has the best record in opposition to drugs. He would also approve of Jackson as a secretary on education or health and human services in the White House Cabinet.