Ed Koch, Former Mayor of New York City Passes Away at 88

By: New York Daily News Email
By: New York Daily News Email
Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, a three-term Democrat who oversaw the city

In this Aug. 30, 2004 photo, former New York Mayor Ed Koch speaks at the first day of the Republican National Convention in New York.

(New York Daily News) - Ed Koch, the three-term mayor whose irascible exuberance and "How'm I doin'?" tagline made him synonymous with New York chutzpah, died early Friday morning. He was 88.

Koch was in and out of the hospital in recent weeks, battling a fluid buildup around his lungs that caused shortness of breath and made speaking difficult.

He was unconscious when he was moved to the intensive care unit at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Columbia Thursday afternoon, and died at 2 a.m. Friday of congestive heart failure.

Cardiologist Dr. Joseph Tenenbaum was by the quintessential New Yorker’s side when he died.

Koch's sister Pat was also with him at the hospital for several hours on Thursday, spokesman George Arzt said.

The funeral will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at Temple Emanu-El on the upper East Side before Koch’s burial in an upper Manhattan plot he bought a few years ago to avoid spending eternity outside of his beloved city.

Allies and even enemies mourned the passing of the scrappy son of the Bronx who fancied himself “Citizen Koch” and is credited with leading the city away from bankruptcy.

His other legacies include hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing, landmark campaign finance reform and even a bridge, formerly the Queensboro, that’s now named after him.

“Through his tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship, Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback,” Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement issued Friday.

“We will miss him dearly, but his good works - and his wit and wisdom - will forever be a part of the city he loved so much.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said Koch “was more than just the sum total of his accomplishments.”

“Mayor Koch was larger than life," she said. “He stood taller than the bridge that bears his name. His sense of humor and tenacious spirit personified this town. Ed Koch was New York."

Former Mayor David Dinkins, who defeated Koch in a 1989 Democratic primary to block the mayor from a fourth term, hailed his rival’s accomplishments.

“He should be remembered as a man who did a lot of good things,” David Dinkins told ABC News.

Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.) said Koch’s death wouldn’t lessen his impact on the city that he loved so much.

“Ed Koch personified the spirit of New York,” said King. “New York's Mayor For Life is now New York's Mayor for eternity."

As mayor, Koch was a quote machine who courted controversy, a self-proclaimed “liberal with sanity” who angered civil libertarians and civil rights activists.

“I'm not the type to get ulcers,” he once bragged. “I give them.”

He didn't mellow when his political career ended with his 1989 ouster from City Hall. Nor did he shy from the spotlight.

He continued to write movie and restaurant reviews, pen books, helm radio shows, appear in TV commercials and movie cameos. He even spent two years as the judge on "The People's Court."

He was unpredictable to the end.

In 1999, he wrote a book about then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani entitled “Nasty Man.” In 2004, he endorsed Republican George W. Bush for president; four years later, he was back in the Democratic fold, supporting President Obama and other party standardbearers.

In April 2008, Koch shelled out $20,000 to buy a plot in Trinity Cemetery on Riverside Drive — the only Manhattan cemetery that still had room.

“I don't want to leave Manhattan, even when I'm gone,” he said at the time. “This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.”

Edward Irving Koch was born Dec. 12, 1924 in the Bronx, the son of a Jewish furrier, but actually grew up in Newark, N.J.

By 1941 he was back in the city, attending City College. After a three-year stint in the Army, he enrolled in New York Law School.

He began dabbling in politics in the 1950s as a street stumper for Adlai Stevenson.

He joined the Village Independent Democrats and was elected district leader in 1963, defeating Carmine DeSapio, the last of old Democratic machine bosses.

Though most famous famous for being mayor, he served eight years in Congress before setting his sights on Gracie Mansion in 1977.

Koch was the dark horse in a crowded field seeking to oust hapless Abe Beame from City Hall. But on primary day, Koch lead the pack followed closely by then Secretary of State Mario Cuomo — setting the state for brief but brutal runoff battle that Koch won.

Cuomo refused to quit and carried on as the Liberal Party candidate, over the objections of his own advisers and the Democratic Party.

And on the streets, some of Cuomo's supporters took the campaign to a new low by posting signs reading, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo,” a reference to longstanding rumors that Koch was gay.

Koch won the battle - but just barely - and made a point of taking the subway to his inauguration. It was the start of a 12-year ride at City Hall that was as bumpy as a trip on the IRT before he helped overhaul subway service.

New York was on the verge of financial ruin, and Koch reversed its fortunes by slashing city budgets, attracting new jobs, and going after federal funds.

Prying money out of Washington was not easy, perfectly captured by the Daily News in a famous headline from just before the Koch era began: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”

“People need to remember that he was more than the guy with the quick comment and whatnot,” Dinkins said Friday. “He is also the man that repaid the loan in the 1980s when the federal government had first said they weren't going to help us. And he not only repaid it, but paid it early."

New York City's bond rating bounced back, but Koch was accused of selling out to developers while ignoring the poor and the burgeoning homeless population.

He'd marched for civil rights in the South, but he earned poor marks for race relations at a crucial time in New York. He broke the 1980 transit strike, marching across the Brooklyn Bridge, and was branded anti-labor.

He was a champion of gay rights, but his own sexuality was off-limits for discussion. And his public appearances with Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, on his arm did little to banish the rumors.

“I have a social life,” the lifelong bachelor once said. “But I don't discuss it.”

Throughout, his chutzpah and unabashed adoration of New York energized a beaten-down populace. His thumbs-up trademark and signature phrase “How'm I doin'?” made him famous around the world.

The question was actually first raised by Koch when he was in congress, but he continued posing it to constituents throughout his career in public service.

“I love being the mayor,” he once said. “I want to be the mayor forever.”

Re-election in 1981 was a cinch, but Koch soon found out there were geographical limits to his popularity.

Running for governor the next year against his old rival Cuomo, he made a colossal flub when he dissed the hinterlands.

“Have you ever lived in the suburbs?” Koch remarked about Albany. "It's sterile. It's nothing. It's wasting your life.”

Voters beyond the city were unamused, but it didn't do him any harm in the Big Apple. He breezed to a third term in 1985 — the last mayor to do so before Bloomberg altered term limits to give himself a shot at the elusive tenure.

“Ed Koch has given New York City back its morale," the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said in 1984.

Koch's final stint in City Hall was his roughest, his accomplishments eclipsed by racial tensions and a corruption scandal that nearly toppled him.

The rot was in the city's Parking Violations Bureau and the federal investigation led by an ambitious prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani brought down some of Koch's closest allies.

“I am shocked,” Koch declared at least three times in a packed City Hall press conference after the scandal broke wide open.

Koch was never personally implicated, but then-Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote acidly that hizzoner “worked incessantly at knowing nothing.”

Koch long had an uneasy relationship with the city's black leaders, but the one-two punch of the 1986 Howard Beach race beating and the 1989 shooting death of a black teen in Bensonhurst proved fatal to his mayoralty.

He lost the 1989 Democratic primary to Dinkins, who became the city's first black mayor.

He walked out of City Hall on Dec. 30, 1989, to a bagpipe's strains of “Give My Regards to Broadway," with tears in his eyes, his thumbs in the air.

“I leave with joy,” he said — though when a constituent later urged him to run again, he said, “The people have spoken ... and they must be punished.”

Anyone who expected him to go quietly wasn’t paying attention. Koch was just as busy — and as obstreperous — in retirement.

He wrote five political books, four mystery novels and a children's book. He kept his vocal cords limber with commentary on just about anything: food, film, politics.

He joined a law firm and succeeded Judge Joseph Wapner on "The People's Court." He hawked Snapple and even showed up on "Sex and the City."

Koch, who'd had a mild stroke while in office in 1987, suffered a heart attack in 1999 and had a bout with pneumonia in 2001. Nothing slowed him down for long.

In August 2008, firefighters and paramedics raced over to his Greenwich Village apartment after he accidentally set off his Life Alert pendant in his sleep.

He jovially told the Daily News that he had not died.

“To the consternation of my enemies, I'm still alive,” the then 83-year-old said.

A couple years later, as he marked his 85th birthday, a more subdued - but still feisty — Ed Koch acknowledged his mortality.

"I'm coming to the end of my life, whether it's another five years or so ... or less, or more," he said. "I do reflect on what I've done for the 85 years that I have been given so far. And I'm proud of what I've done."

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