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Goldmark: We'll miss Mayor Koch's integrity and wit

Former Mayor Ed Koch, the combative, acid-tongued politician

Former Mayor Ed Koch, the combative, acid-tongued politician who rescued the city from near-financial ruin during a three-term City Hall run in which he embodied New York chutzpah for the rest of the world, died Feb. 1, 2013. He was 88. Credit: Getty Images

He was irascible. He was impetuous but shrewd. He was colorful, outrageous, sometimes vindictive, and larger than life in his playfulness, his enthusiasm, his boundless energy. In a city whose previous mayors had left office exhausted and spent, he commanded public attention and wielded political power for nearly half a century.

I worked with Ed Koch when I was state budget director and then head of the Port Authority. He was not an easy character to deal with. But he was always fair, always listened, and always took my ideas seriously -- probably in part because I didn't report to him, so he couldn't tell me what to do.

Koch is widely credited with returning New York City to fiscal health after its disastrous near-bankruptcy of 1975. He deserves a lot of credit in the fiscal area -- but not for what he is normally praised for. The city was already solidly back on a responsible financial course when Koch took office in 1978. His enormous achievement was to keep it on track for 12 years, all three of his terms. More important, he built and maintained public support for that course, which has served the city well to the present day.

Did he have weaknesses? You bet. He neglected the long-term economic-development challenges that faced the city, which might have included opening up the waterfront, shoring up the dwindling manufacturing sector, or investing in a large, multiyear capital infrastructure program to generate jobs and make the city's economy more competitive.

On the plus side, he appointed good people and let them do their jobs. People like Nat Leventhal, Stan Brezenoff, Gordon Davis, Bob Wagner Jr., Herb Sturz, Norman Steisel and scores of others were among the best professionals New York public service, local or state, has ever known. A mayor doesn't get many headlines or much love for appointing first-rate people, but it has an awful lot to do with how effective and how honest his administration is.

Koch's performance in the arena of race relations was more pivotal than is recognized. As with the fiscal area, the real story is not quite the way it has been popularized.

In the third quarter of the 20th century there were two giants in New York City public life -- John Lindsay, for whom I worked, and Koch, with whom I worked. They detested each other. But sandwiched around the pale and disastrous one-termer Abe Beame, they together made the city a fair and progressive place that afforded room and opportunity to anyone who wanted to "make it there," as Frank Sinatra used to sing. Lindsay opened up a city whose unions, housing, school enrollment and employment patterns were still highly segregated, and he championed powerfully and sometimes shrilly the rights of minorities to participate in governing the city and enjoy the fruits of its economic enterprise.

Koch emphasized the rights of everyone, powerfully and sometimes shrilly, but especially the white middle class, which he didn't want to be marginalized or hurt economically as the city adjusted to a much broader and fairer acceptance of all the groups who lived here. Yet Koch did not retreat one inch from the gains minorities had made during the civil rights movement and the Lindsay years; on the contrary, he quietly and staunchly defended them. Koch locked in both the sound financial practices necessary for the city to succeed and the modern, open attitudes on race and differences that have made New York City a beacon for the nation and the world.

We will miss you, Edward Irving Koch -- for all that you accomplished and all that you stood for. But above all for your wit, your irreverence, your nerve and tenacity on the big issues, and your willingness to take on any myth, any shibboleth, any stuffed shirt. Any time, anywhere.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.