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Ed Koch dead, former NYC mayor was 88

Officials say Koch died around 2 a.m. from congestive heart failure.

Edward I. Koch, mayor of New York City from 1978 through 1989 whose feisty, often controversial style became part of the city's revival, died Friday morning. He was 88.

Koch died at 2 a.m. at New York-Presbyterian / Columbia Hospital, spokesman George Arzt said, The Associated Press reported. The funeral will be Monday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

Saying he was expressing his condolences on behalf of "all 8.4 million New Yorkers," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a statement Friday morning that read, in part: "Earlier today, New York City lost an irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion, Edward I. Koch. He was a great mayor, a great man, and a great friend. In elected office and as a private citizen, he was our most tireless, fearless, and guileless civic crusader. 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. 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. His spirit will live on not only here at City Hall, and not only on the bridge the bears his name, but all across the five boroughs."

Bloomberg ordered flags on all City buildings to be flown at half-staff to honor Koch.

Koch was elected mayor in 1977 after surviving an 11-candidate Democratic primary, a runoff against second-place finisher Mario Cuomo and then defeating Cuomo, the future governor, who was on the Liberal line, in the general election.

He turned out to be a breath of fresh air for a city dispirited by the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, urban unrest, high crime, a graffiti-smeared subway system and a citywide blackout in July 1977 that led to widespread looting.

In later years, he served as a judge on "The People's Court," a television show, and was the subject of a documentary about his life, titled simply "Koch," that debuted in Manhattan Tuesday night at the Museum of Modern Art.

Perhaps his singular most memorable moment came on the morning of the 1980 New York City subway strike, when Koch could be seen on the Brooklyn Bridge, like a street-wise maestro, directing hundreds of commuters walking to work and encouraging them on. "How'm I doing?" Koch asked as they passed.

On his inauguration day in 1978, Koch rode a public bus to City Hall, apparently unaware that his new stature rated him a plainclothes police officer assigned to guard him.

He did know that another passenger was a reporter sent to chronicle the first day of what would turn out to be a 12-year tenure that would make him a national figure.

It was a much simpler city that Koch inherited that day. He moved into Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence on the East River, but the city's official directory in those pre-terror days still listed his home address: his bachelor pad at 14 Washington Square.

During the next 12 years he put his stamp on the city as firmly as any mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia, whom Koch admired.

He got off to a bad start with the minority community, particularly African-Americans. He saw the city through the fiscal crisis with the benefit of a rising economy in the early 1980s and was finally blindsided in his third term by a mix of corruption scandals involving his aides and political supporters.

One of the more prominent was a scandal in which a collection agent was found to have been paying off the deputy director of the Parking Violations Bureau, in exchange for contracts in 1986, the start of Koch's second term. Koch later admitted his administration failed to reveal corruption in the parking bureau.

Another was a bribery-conspiracy case against one of the closest colleagues of his campaign, Bess Myerson, who was acquitted in a defeat for then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani.

There were some exhilarating highs, such as 1982, when his aides and the New York Post -- which had strongly supported him for mayor in 1977 -- convinced him he should run for governor in the Democratic primary. His poll numbers were high in the city and he was expected to do better in conservative upstate communities than Cuomo, who was then lieutenant governor.

But then Koch mouthed off about life outside of Manhattan, telling an interviewer: "Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It's sterile. It's nothing. It's wasting your life."

And the high turned low quickly, as Cuomo won 52 percent to 48 percent statewide -- and carried every black neighborhood in the city.

Koch later made his counsel, Robert Tierney, a proponent of the run for governor, his legislative liaison in Albany.

"Bob always did like it in Albany," Koch said with a chuckle that bordered on a chortle, or even a cackle.

His relationship with the city's minority community got off to a bad start in 1978 when he decided that Sydenham Hospital in Harlem should be closed because it was underutilized and was a drain on the city treasury. It was during that dispute that a heckler at a church in Harlem yelled: "Don't let him speak. Send the Jew back to the synagogues," according to Koch.

It took almost four years before Koch listened to the advice of visiting President Jimmy Carter, who told him that the way into the black community was through its churches. Koch took the advice and his relationship with minorities improved somewhat, but it remained testy throughout his tenure. In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, Koch said he still felt guilt over the decision to close Sydenham -- even though the move saved $9 million -- because, as he said, "black doctors couldn't get into other hospitals" at that time. "That was uncaring of me," he said. "They helped elect me, and then in my zeal to do the right thing, I did something now that I regret."

In a statement Friday, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who described himself as one of the former mayor's "most vociferous critics," mourned his passing.

"Although we argued about everything from my marching in Bensonhurst, to Florida and Trayvon Martin, and although we disagreed on politics from his views on President Obama to other matters, I have found that he was never a phony or a hypocrite," Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and an MSNBC host, said, in part, adding: "He would not patronize or deceive you. He said what he meant. He meant what he said. He fought for what he believed. May he rest in peace."

The confidence, even cockiness, that marked Koch's personality was not deflated by his decisive loss in the four-way Democratic primary in 1989 to David Dinkins.

Dinkins defeated Republican Rudy Giuliani in the general election, but some New Yorkers still wanted Koch, who took great delight in saying he would not run again because the voters had turned him out and, "Now they must pay!"

The Almanac of American Politics had this to say in its 1998 edition: "Koch started as a liberal and became more conservative, and in the process lost the support of Manhattan by backing capital punishment, opposing racial quotas and questioning poverty programs. But he left the city in far better shape, economically and fiscally and governmentally."

Koch was born on Dec. 12, 1924, in the East Crotona section of the Bronx. The family moved to Newark in 1931 and Brooklyn in 1941. Koch attended City College in Manhattan.

He was drafted in 1943 and fought in the infantry with the U.S. Army in France and rose to the rank of sergeant. Although he was wounded and decorated, he chose never to publicly discuss his time in the service or in combat.

After an honorable discharge in 1946, he went to NYU Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1949. He practiced law for years, moved from his parents apartment in Brooklyn to his own place in Greenwich Village in 1956 and drifted into local Democratic politics.

In 1963 he was elected a district leader in the East Village, was a delegate to the state convention in 1964 and managed to get into several spirited battles for local races.

His fist-in-your-face approach to opponents and his boosterism for himself and the city at times left him like a caricature at times, obscuring his knowledge of the nuts of bolts of politics and government.

During a 1985 debate in the Democratic primary, the candidates were asked what one thing they would change if they could.

Koch put his finger on a major issue, repeal of the Wicks Law, but he almost put the room to sleep and quickly switched gears. To this day, the Wicks Law still governs bidding on public construction projects, wasting up to $400 million annually, according to its critics.

When he was catching the political bug in the 1950s he took to speaking every night in Sheridan Square in the village and claimed to enjoy the hecklers.

"If you know how to handle a heckler, he can be very good for you," Koch recalled in his 1984 autobiography, "Mayor."

"You can really make great points when there are hecklers in the audience," he wrote. "The only kind of heckler you can't use is the drunk."

His street training served him well after he became mayor and started to hold regular Town Hall meetings around the city with an open microphone for any citizen to complain or question.

A row of city commissioners and their aides usually sat on either side of Koch, and they could answer specific questions.

But on broader questions about himself and his policies, Koch handled the answer, and a questioner who wanted to argue overly long invariably lost the argument.

He could adroitly deflect criticism with an anecdote. One of his favorites was about his own comments to a group of senior citizens about crime.

Koch would recall how a judge he helped elect got mugged, and said later that the mugging would not affect his judicial decisions.

According to Koch, an elderly woman in the crowd rose and yelled: "Then mug 'im again!" Amid the laughter, people forgot the crime statistics.

After leaving Gracie Mansion, Koch joined a law firm, more for his public appeal than his legal acumen. He wrote books, starred as a television judge in a reality show, reviewed movies for weekly newspapers and was a frequent guest on news shows.

He became an outspoken critic of harsh sentences for nonviolent felons and teamed up in 1999 with Harvard Prof. Charles Ogletree Jr. and an old nemesis, the Rev. Al Sharpton, to form Second Chance, a group to help those inmates work their way back into society and erase their criminal record.

During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Koch endorsed Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo.

"In the '77 [mayoral] campaign, there were signs in Queens -- 'vote for Cuomo, not the homo' -- they were shocking, absolutely shocking," recalled Koch in a News 12 Long Island documentary. "And I thought that Andrew, as the campaign manager, was involved. He told me he was not. So whether he was or wasn't -- and I believe him that he wasn't -- if he were, I forgave him. That's the end of it. I won!"

With Anthony M. DeStefano

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