The Magazine

Ed Koch, 1924-2013

Irwin M. Stelzer on the people’s courtly mayor

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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I knew Ed Koch, and Mayor Bloomberg is no Ed Koch. 

Ed Koch

NEWSCOM

That does not mean that Bloomberg is a bad mayor, only that he and others who took over city hall after Koch’s third term failed to reflect New York’s boisterous energy, its chutzpah, its special sense of humor, its grittiness, its optimism, its view of life as a glorious adventure.  

I wasn’t a close friend of Ed’s, but I did get to know him a little. We first met when he asked to drop in to see me at my apartment—and showed up about an hour early, just as I was attacking a plate of fried chicken. He grabbed a chair, joined in the assault, and made his pitch. Few had heard of him then, and he needed some money to buy television time—quite a lot of money by the standards of the day. I agreed to help, maybe because he personified everything I loved about New York.

I had already voted against Koch once, when he ran for Democratic district leader in Greenwich Village against Carmine DeSapio, who ran the city’s Democratic machine. Carmine, sinister-seeming behind the dark glasses he wore because of an eye ailment, could make things happen: He got rid of the smelly buses that used to idle in Washington Square Park, filling the park with fumes and leaving the sandbox unusable by neighborhood kids. Months of pleas to city hall had brought nothing. One call to Carmine’s office and it was done. 

Yes, Carmine did deny ownership of an envelope containing $11,000 in used $100 bills that a cabbie found on the back seat after the Tammany leader left his cab. Sure, he later did time for “conspiracy,” the prosecutor’s all-purpose gambit for conviction. Undoubtedly, like George Washington Plunkitt, he seen his opportunities and he took ’em. But he delivered more government per dollar extracted from the taxpayer than all the good-government WASPs who displaced immigrants in city jobs when civil service tests replaced the more democratic patronage system. Oh yes, Koch beat Carmine by 41 votes.

After he became mayor, Ed asked me to head a commission to reform the taxicab system. I suggested eliminating the medallions that limited the supply of cabs to the level of the 1930s. I called for open competition and all the stuff I had taught my college students. He wasn’t having it. Medallions, licenses to do business, were cab drivers’ one asset (never mind that most were held by fleet owners), and his political nous combined with his sense of fairness to tell him I should find some other solution to high fares and the shortage of cabs during peak hours on rainy nights. 

I suggested allowing group riding to airports to make it cheaper for businessmen to visit the city. Ed said okay—until doormen complained that they were getting one tip for hailing a cab when under the one-passenger rule they got two or three. “And doormen talk to a lot of people,” the mayor reminded me. I settled for a fare premium during rush hours, on the theory that the added incentive would keep more cabs on the streets. Some drivers used the higher earnings to knock off early, reducing the supply of cabs. Sic transit gloria mundi, Adam Smith. 

Then there was the night Ed came to dinner. Another guest was a friend and leading feminist in the city, and when the subject of job quotas for women came up, what by the standards of my new, nonethnic wife was a shouting match ensued. Koch undoubtedly knew that liberal feminists, especially the Jewish variety, were unlikely to vote for any opponent no matter where he stood on their favorite issue.

It is difficult to imagine Ed banning large sodas or trying to get salt off the tables of New York restaurants. His job was to represent us, not to deny ordinary New Yorkers their small pleasures while the great and good indulged in their more effete, expensive, and trendy ones. It is difficult, too, to imagine Ed snarling traffic—and antagonizing cab drivers—by snatching valuable street real estate from millions of motorists and turning it over to a handful of green bikers. Sure, it reduces pollution. But if you want fresh air, “waste your life in the suburbs” or move upstate and “drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears, Roebuck suit. This rural America thing—I’m telling you, it’s a joke,” Ed told an interviewer from Playboy during his 1982 campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor—won, not surprisingly, by Mario Cuomo, who denied authorizing the “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” ad used against Ed. 

Not for the first time and not for the last, the city’s grit produced a pearl.

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