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It was hard to imagine New York City ever being without Ed Koch. Whether you loved him, hated him or fell somewhere in between, Koch was a larger-than-life figure who always seemed to embody the very essence of the city.
His death on Feb. 1 at age 88 came as a shock — even though he had been very publicly preparing for it for years.
Long after leaving office, and in fact until the very end, he remained an avuncular political icon who was always available for a quote and relished the spotlight. His endorsed carried clout and was coveted. He regularly e-mailed out his opinion pieces on a myriad of issues and — after we dropped him as a movie reviewer a few years ago — his movie critiques.
Two years ago, proving he was still relevant and could have a profound political impact, he launched the New York Uprising campaign, pushing for campaign finance reform, independent redistricting and ethics reform in Albany. He was successful on two out of three, though politicians — fearful of losing their gerrymandered seats — ultimately refused to weaken their hold on redistricting.
Most will say that Koch leaves a mixed legacy. Most important on the pro side, he pulled New York City out of the 1970s fiscal crisis, and also poured billions of dollars into the creation of middle-class housing — on a scale no one has done either before or after him.
Koch also reformed the judicial selection process so that it became based on merit rather than patronage. This last initiative stemmed from his political roots, which were in Greenwich Village, where he was an early, leading member of the Village Independent Democrats club. V.I.D. was a Reform Democratic club, and judicial reform was part of its platform.
Running with Carol Greitzer, Koch went on to topple Tammany District Leader Carmine De Sapio, a political kingmaker and machine boss known for selling judicial nominations. From there, Koch rose to city councilmember, congressmember and finally a three-term mayor of New York City. He continued to live in Greenwich Village as mayor — it was said because he valued his privacy. Some said it was because Koch was gay and didn’t want his social life exposed.
This leads to part of Koch’s legacy that remains controversial: his failure to respond quickly and assertively to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. AIDS activists charged that his lack of action resulted in thousands of deaths. That Koch was gay, they claimed, only served to heighten the outrage.
It was Koch’s choice to keep his sexuality private, though it definitely would have helped gays had he come out.
Koch also came under heavy criticism for closing Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, an action he later said he regretted having taken. In addition, in terms of race relations in New York City, he unfortunately became a polarizing figure, and was dubbed racist by black activists. However, those who knew him over his political career contend that Koch wasn’t racist, but more of an opportunist: He saw that he had lost support in the Village, on the Upper West Side and Harlem as he had moved to the center, and so realized his base was now the boroughs. He used race as a way to maintain his power, the thinking goes. That he was famously pugnacious didn’t help race relations either. But his level of racial insensitivity or antagonism never reached the level of Rudy Giuliani.
He crossed party lines often, such as to support the likes of George W. Bush and Bob Turner. His old club, V.I.D., parted ways with him when they endorsed the more liberal Mario Cuomo over him for governor.
Koch was a staunch defender of Israel and a vigilant monitor of anti-Semitism around the globe.
For all of his imperfections, Ed Koch was always New York’s number one cheerleader.
Whatever you think of him, one thing’s for sure, there will never quite be another mayor like Ed Koch.