Mayor Edward Irving Koch, who reigned over New York City from 1978 though 1989, was as irrepressible as the town he led. He was intensely proud of his role in guiding the city away from bankruptcy in the 1970s and for starting a system of merit selection for city judges. He had a right to be.
Without his driven, muscular leadership, New York might never have turned around its rapid deterioration and consolidated its strength as an international financial center and global tourist destination. Koch pushed back hard—often with little more than the force of his personality—against an army of self-interested political hacks, tough-bargaining union leaders and other grandees who dominated New York’s permanent government. The reforms he achieved helped get the city get back on its feet.
But that wasn’t the real reason for his appeal. He was smart, funny, obsessed with the limelight and outrageous—and his opinions, ranging from foreign policy to race relations, could be starkly frank and inevitably abrasive.
“Mayor Koch was unavoidable for comment,” reporters would sometimes sigh in the midst of an outburst on deadline.
His mayoralty ended after three terms—following contentious relations with the city’s minority community regarding the likes of activist Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson—and he lost the 1989 Democratic primary to David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor.
When Mayor Dinkins encountered criticism in the face of recession and relentless urban problems, Koch’s die-hard supporters clamored for him to run again.
“No, no, no!” Koch would always reply: “The people threw me out of office, and now the people must suffer!”
In the end, he helped make possible the extraordinary economic boom and quality-of-life gains that contributed to new levels of prosperity in the city and Long Island long after he left office. As a former mayor, he was a movie reviewer, television judge, radio talk show host, television talking head, Newsday columnist, law partner and relentless opponent of legislative gerrymandering.
New Yorkers loved him and they hated him—but he was always one of them, and the city and region have profited in untold ways from his energy, his wisdom and his success as a reformer.