John Norquist

Remembering Ed Koch

The first big-city mayor to reject groveling for federal help by selling urban pathology, Koch’s arrogance helped save New York.

By - Feb 4th, 2013 12:57 pm
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View of New York City

View of New York City

Ed Koch served as mayor from 1977 to 1989, stepping down not long after Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist took office. Norquist offers a remembrance of the controversial politician.

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch died Friday after a long, loud and mostly successful career. Koch was not just outspoken, but brave and strong willed. When I read the obituary in the New York Times I wasn’t completely surprised to read he had earned two battle stars fighting the Nazis in World War II. He began political life as a liberal populist on the City Council and then in Congress.  When he was elected Mayor of New York he was able to transition from populism to making the tough decisions big city mayors have to make.

NYC at the time certainly had its problems, but Koch was the first mayor of a major city to recognize that highlighting urban pathology in an attempt to attract Federal subsidies was a bad bargain for cities.

During the second game of the 1977 World Series sportscaster Howard Cosell announced, “ladies and gentlemen the Bronx is burning.” With fire and smoke billowing beyond the right field wall, the scene captured the negative image of New York City in steep decline. Bankrupt and overwhelmed with violent crime, the city was in such trouble it would have been difficult to know that help was on the way. The hapless incumbent mayor Abe Beame was desperately trying to pull NYC out of the bankruptcy he’d inherited from John Lindsay.  A few years before, President Gerald Ford had famously (if inaccurately) been quoted as telling New York to “drop dead.”

1977 was an election year. Beame was a likely loser and young Mario Cuomo, then Secretary of State of New York, was the front runner. In a surprise, Cuomo lost to liberal Congressman Ed Koch, who had moved to the right during the campaign, picking up votes in the middle-class ethnic boroughs in Queens and Brooklyn. Upon taking office, Koch balanced his budget, declared his contempt for criminals and started a clean-up campaign that began the turnaround of Times Square. Success came steadily if slowly. After being elected to a third term Koch set out to improve poor neighborhoods in the Bronx. Koch had taken a city in financial ruin, with its confidence in tatters and laid the groundwork for later success attributed to Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. Despite his accomplishments, voters tired of Koch’s bombastic personality and rejected him for a fourth term.

Ed Koch was the right Mayor at the right time for NYC. Lindsay and Beame had groveled for bailouts trying to get America to feel sorry for the Big Apple. When Koch became Mayor he would have none of it. He said, “I’m from New York City you gotta a problem with that?” He knew the sympathy New York’s politicians had sought was undermining the city’s confidence and economy. He was arrogant and NYC needed arrogant. Koch stood up to bullying from left and right; from public employee union leaders, self appointed community activists like Al Sharpton and corporate leaders demanding tax abatements. He balanced the city’s budget and still found resources to add thousands of houses in the Bronx, turning around its long decline.

He had faults. Who doesn’t? But he breathed confidence back into a city that works better thinking of itself as the greatest place on Earth.

John Norquist served as Milwaukee Mayor from 1988-2004, and prior to that as a state legislator from 1975-1988. Norquist is author of the book, The Wealth of Cities(Perseus 1998). Since 2004, he has headed the Congress for New Urbanism, an urban planning and reform organization based in Chicago.

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