Riding home from work last year, former New York City mayor Ed Koch got a call from current mayor Michael Bloomberg: Would Koch agree to let the mayor propose to rename the Queensboro Bridge the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge?
Koch responded, “Who wouldn’t agree?”
Indisputably a legend and now arguably a landmark, the eminent New Yorker joined Fordham Law professor Thane Rosenbaum on Jan. 19 to revisit his mayoral legacy in A Conversation With Ed Koch.
Koch served three terms from 1978 to 1989 as the city’s 105th mayor, rescuing the city from the brink of bankruptcy and restoring such pride among New Yorkers that I ♥ NY t-shirts soon filled Times Square tourist stores.
Speaking at the school’s Forum on Law, Culture and Society, the 87-year-old son of the Bronx showed that, while age may have slowed his walk, it hasn’t diminished his wit.
Koch said he never had aspirations toward politics as a child. “I was a very reclusive kid. I really didn’t know until I was seven that I wanted to be a lawyer,” the former mayor said to laughs.
He admitted to feeling like an unlikely candidate to win the 1977 mayoral race against incumbent Abe Beame and primary opponents Mario Cuomo and Bella Abzug.
“I [was]no genius. In the area of economics, I know [nothing],” Koch said of his inheritance of a bottomed-out New York City with a $6 billion budget deficit. “But there is something I do know, and it’s simple science from my mother’s knee. You don’t spend money you don’t have.”
“My first job was to give New Yorkers a sense of pride again,” he said. “I was scared. But of those who chose to run, people thought me the best. So I did what I could do—my best.”
Hizzoner, as he is affectionately known, said one of his finer mayoral moments was his reaction to the 1980 transit strike that shut down the city for 10 days. Koch took to the city’s bridges each day to shake the hands of ambulatory New Yorkers who wouldn’t let the strike stop them from coming into the city to work. The incident did much to paint Koch as a people’s mayor: He was re-elected twice by large margins, the last being 78 percent.
Always outspoken on issues about which he is passionate, the Democrat has been known to cross party lines to support certain politicians; he voted for George W. Bush and recently supported Republican Robert Turner to fill resigned congressman Anthony Weiner’s 9th district seat because of Turner’s strong support of Israel.
But Koch said he is solidly “on the bus” to re-elect President Barack Obama. He has been tapped to campaign for the president in the state of Florida, where he hopes to convince Jewish voters of the president’s solid international and domestic agendas.
“My priorities are to make sure that Social Security and Medicare remain government programs, and that Medicaid is not made into a block grant,” he said. “Internationally, I want someone who will stand up to terrorism.”
He also said he’d like to see some in the finance industry pay for the corrosive financial policies that led to the government bank bailout. He personally lost 40 percent of his portfolio, he said, and millions of Americans wrongly paid a similar price.
“A kid steals a bike, he could go to jail,” Koch said. “A guy steals millions? He only pays a fine. That’s just not right.”
Does the Republican field stand a chance in 2012? Koch described Ron Paul as “David Duke without the armband,” and said Newt Gingrich was a smart man. Mitt Romney, who “should have released his taxes years ago,” will win the nomination, Koch said.
“But Obama will be re-elected,” he said. “Because the Republicans are nuts!”
Nowadays the former mayor is a partner in the law firm Bryan Cave and hosts his own call-in show on Bloomberg radio. He can be seen weekly on NY1, where he shares a commentary program with former republican senator Alfonse D’Amato.
An alleged serious Tweeter, Koch also hosts his own webcast called Mayor at the Movies(www.mayorkoch.com), where he posts his video reviews of contemporary commercial films. At the close of the evening, he urged audience members to pass him their business cards so he could add their emails to his mailing list.
Apparently the former mayor’s simple formula for charming New Yorkers remains steadfast: As crowds dispersed to the elevator banks, Hizzoner was already there:
“Emails?” he said, collecting cards and shaking hands. “Emails?”