Volume 73, Number 44 | March 3 - 9, 2004


My ups and downs, but mostly ups, with Ed Koch

By Ed Gold

A recent gathering of Village Independent Democrats club ancients kicked off recollections of my more than 40-year mostly friendly association with Ed Koch, the former mayor, which he ended abruptly last September when he barred me from attending a Saturday luncheon club of which he is the central figure.

The cause of the expulsion was obvious. The Villager had run a news story about his endorsement of Bush for a second term, an event I found both confounding and dismaying. I had been asked by the reporter what had happened to Koch since his early liberal inclinations, and I concluded sadly that he had become a right-winger and a neo-con. I also said he was xenophobic, which, in retrospect, was too harsh.

My removal from the luncheon group was disappointing, as was the fact that he had had his secretary deliver the message.

Actually, in the many decades of our association this was only the third time he had gotten outspokenly upset.

In 1960 he might have been annoyed when I beat him in a V.I.D. election for vice president but we remained on good terms and the following year, when I was elected president, he served as one of the club’s vice presidents.

Way back in 1962 he was publicly angry at me and a few others for not working hard enough in a primary against Assemblyman Bill Passannante in which Koch was soundly thrashed. Ironically, in that campaign Koch had tried to run to the left of Passannante, promising to liberalize state laws on sodomy, abortion and divorce.

Sodomy. Abortion. Divorce. It became known as the SAD program, and it also described the results for Koch.

I had worked for him in his campaign but also was heavily involved in a contest against the old-line congressman, Leonard Farbstein. We lost that one, too, and didn’t take the seat until Bella Abzug won it some years later.

The second time I raised Koch’s blood pressure was in his banner year, 1977, when he won the Democratic Party mayoralty designation in a field of seven.

One afternoon, still early in the campaign, I received a call that he was embarking on a walking tour through Greenwich Village, and would I like to accompany him. I was told the New York Post that afternoon had endorsed him in a front-page editorial.

I joined the small entourage but first bought several copies of the Post so we could let Villagers know the good news. I picked up a fast-paced Koch at 12th St. and Sixth Ave. and we headed south. He poked his head into every store along the way, asking “How’m I doing?” and shaking as many hands as possible.

The moment of truth for me came at Father Demo Square. Koch introduced himself to one of the women sitting on a bench and asked if she had any questions. “How do you stand on crime?” she asked.

Koch quickly responded: “I’m for the death penalty,” and moved on. At that point I asked whether his answer wasn’t an over-simplification.

He turned on me, waving a finger in my face, and made his position crystal clear: “This is my campaign and I make the decisions and I don’t like second-guessing.” (I’ve left out the epithets.)

I never questioned him again during the campaign but resolved that I would confine my contribution to helping him win V.I.D.’s endor-sement against a serious threat from Abzug, who was also running for mayor.

John LoCicero, who later became the chief political operator in the Koch administration — and who remains a good friend — was in charge of organizing the club endorsement effort. I worked closely with him in phoning, collaring and sometimes nagging club members to support Koch.

On the night of the club election we were very edgy when suddenly, about a half hour before the meeting got under way, an army of Bella supporters, all wearing large buttons, descended on the club. Abzug had invited them all over to her home for a bite and pep talk before the meeting. We were a little shaken.

We sent people to the phones to remind our “yes” voters to get off their rumps and get to the club pronto. Our people trickled in and by the time the vote was taken about 200 members had participated with Koch winning by under 20 votes.

An even closer call had occurred at the beginning of Koch’s political rise in 1963 in his first contest for district leader against the famous Tammany leader, Carmine DeSapio. Koch’s run the year before against Passannante had alienated Senator Herbert Lehman, a party icon and leader of the reform Democrats in the city. While Lehman and his friends despised DeSapio, they also didn’t like either V.I.D. or Koch at that time.

Koch asked me to co-chair campaign finances, then “promoted” me to chairperson when his initial choice, Stanley Geller, said “No thanks.”

So we set up an operation outside of V.I.D. to fight DeSapio and raise money, and barely mention Koch.

We called it Democratic Mobilization, with Lehman as its head. V.I.D.’ers Murray Gelman and Elise Paul joined me on contact work, public relations and correspondence. I enlisted Arlene Carmen, later of Judson Church, to run fundraisers, the major one taking place at the Harvard Club with historian James McGregor Burns as key speaker.

Jack Kaplan, the business magnate and philanthropist, gave us office space at 55 Fifth Ave., and his key aide, Ray Rubinow, served as liaison and morale-builder.

We put together an impressive sponsorship list of about 70, including Lloyd Garrison, Theo Bikel, Telford Taylor, Leonard Boudin and Curtis Roosevelt. We worked all summer to get Lehman to publicly endorse Koch and finally succeeded a week before the primary.

The night of the primary election, Koch was losing until the vote from Stewart House reported, giving us a 41-vote margin. The courts eventually found that margin too tenuous in the face of numerous challenges to Koch’s vote total, and we had to beat DeSapio in 1964 and 1965 before he got the message and stopped running.

My club activity in the district leadership battles in the ’60s brought forth several warm notes from the future mayor. He wrote prophetically in one note: “While you and I have on occasion had our differences, and undoubtedly we will in the future, I am very, very appreciative of all that you did for V.I.D. and for me personally.”

On another occasion, he was even more effusive and even hyperbolic: “When the chips were down, you in your customary manner, were there raising thousands of dollars and marshalling the big-name supporters that we needed so badly.

“Without your support, I don’t believe that we would have won.”

Other events come to mind in the amazing mayoralty win in ’77.

We were in Koch’s Washington Pl. apartment when someone suggested he should know something about baseball. “You should for example know who Jackson is,” a reference to the Yankee slugger, Reggie Jackson.

“He’s already endorsed me,” Koch responded. “Henry Jackson is a friend of mine,” a reference to the senator from Washington.

We dropped the subject.

Possibly one of the low points in the campaign took place the night after the famous blackout. A West Village couple had opened up their house to Koch for an important fundraiser. But there was still no electricity. About 10 people showed up and Koch, in a good mood despite the terrible situation, regaled them with political stories into the night. The campaign collected a total of $100, including my $25. And all the ice cream melted.

If his politics have waivered from left to right over the years, his devotion to frugality has remained firm. When he was still in Congress, he treated several of us to an excursion to a Broadway wholesaler who specialized in seconds in shirts and underwear. He bragged for years about buying wine for $3 a bottle and now buys by the case at Astor Place Wine & Liquor. He would go to Fairway Uptown for produce and canned goods, comparing prices with Balducci’s. And twice in our history he asked me to find a wholesale furrier who could sell him a shearling jacket.

Over the years, he’s given me one present and I’ve given him one.

At his first inaugural I visited him in his City Hall office and brought him a shiny red apple created by the noted ceramicist, Paul Belardo, who had a shop on Christopher St. for many years.

After the ’63 squeaker, in his first run for district leader, he gave me a silver pin in the shape of a kicking donkey with the number “41” imprinted on its side, signifying his margin of victory.

I still have the pin. I don’t know whether he kept the apple.


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