Saturday February 2, 2013

NEW YORK -- When Ed Koch was mayor, it seemed as if all of New York was being run by a deli counterman. Koch was funny, irritable, opinionated, often rude and prone to yelling.

And it worked, for a while at least.

With a Bronx-born combination of chutzpah and humor, Koch steered New York back from the brink of financial ruin and infused the city with new energy and optimism in the 1970s and ‘80s while racing around town, startling ordinary New Yorkers by asking, "How’m I doing?" He was usually in too much of a hurry to wait for an answer.

Koch died of congestive heart failure Friday at 88, after carefully arranging to be buried in Manhattan because, as he explained with what sounded like a love note wrapped in a zinger: "I don’t want to leave Manhattan, even when I’m gone. This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me."

Tributes poured in from political allies and adversaries, some of whom were no doubt thinking more of his earlier years in City Hall, before many black leaders and liberals became fed up with what they felt were racially insensitive and needlessly combative remarks.

During Koch’s three terms from 1978 to 1989, he helped New York climb out of its financial crisis through tough fiscal policies and razor-sharp budget cuts, and subway service improved enormously. To much of the rest of America, the bald, paunchy Koch became the embodiment of the brash, irrepressible New Yorker.

He was quick with a quip or a putdown, and when he got excited or indignant, his voice became high-pitched.


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He dismissed his critics as "wackos," feuded with Donald Trump ("piggy") and fellow former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ("nasty man"), lambasted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and once reduced the head of the City Council to tears.

Koch’s favorite moment as mayor, fittingly, involved yelling. During a transit strike that brought the subways and buses to a halt in 1980, he strode down to the Brooklyn Bridge to boost the spirits of commuters who had to walk to work.

New Yorkers eventually tired of Koch.

Homelessness and AIDS soared in the 1980s, and critics charged that City Hall’s response was too little, too late. Koch’s latter years in office were also marked by scandals involving those around him and rising racial tension. In 1989, he lost a bid for a fourth term to David Dinkins, who became the city’s first black mayor.

A lifelong bachelor who lived in Greenwich Village, Koch championed gay rights, taking on the Roman Catholic Church and scores of political leaders. His own sexual orientation was the subject of speculation and rumors.

Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924, the second of three children of Polish immigrants. The future mayor attended City College of New York and served as a combat infantryman in Europe during World War II.

He received a law degree from New York University in 1948 and began his political career in Greenwich Village as a liberal Democratic reformer. He was elected to the City Council and then to Congress, serving from 1969 to 1977 as the representative from the wealthy East Side’s "Silk Stocking" district.

With New York in dire financial condition in 1977, Koch defeated Mayor Abe Beame and Cuomo in the Democratic primary to win his first term in City Hall. He breezed to re-election in 1981 and 1985, winning an unprecedented three-quarters of the votes cast.

The funeral will be Monday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

Koch is survived by his sister, Pat Thaler, and many grandnieces and grandnephews.