Friday, February 1, 2013
Ed Koch, New York City's mayor for 3 terms, died last night at age 88.
I arrived in New York about 2 years after Ed Koch left office as mayor of New York, so I have no direct experience of his tenure as mayor. He was mayor when I first visited the city in 1982.
New York City politicians are a little like Texas politicians. Writers of obituaries always describe both as "larger than life" like the places they govern. Koch was deeply conflicted, just like the place he governed, and left a very conflicted legacy to the city.
Koch is credited with putting New York back on the road to recovery after the long slide into neglect, anarchy, and bankruptcy of the 1970s. Perhaps, but he did so frequently at the expense of poor and middle class minorities. Like just about every mayor since Peter Stuyvesant, Koch was too cozy with the real estate and financial industries. As did so many other cities in the USA, New York developed itself for the benefit of the transient rich frequently at the expense of the established poor. Like mayors in other cities, he sometimes pitted ethnic whites against minority populations for political advantage. In this he was probably no worse and no better than most big city mayors in the USA at the time.
How much blame or credit can any mayor deserve for the decline and resurgence of New York? Mayor Lindsay still gets blamed for the city's decline. But it could be argued that the 1970's slide was the end result of decades of white flight from city centers and government policies that abetted that flight. The city's bankruptcy came after decades of mismanagement and questionable book-keeping. Should Mayor Koch get credit for the city's resurgence? Yes and no. He reformed the city's financial management. He worked to bring big profit big spending businesses into the city (especially banks and the financial industry). But banks and real estate flourished while the city's light industries and port declined. By the late 1970s, the migration out of city centers was starting to reverse in New York and many other cities.
Ed Koch was allegedly gay and deep in the closet. Maybe so, maybe not. His record on gay rights is mixed. When he was elected to Congress in 1969, Koch became one of the very first politicians to actively seek out and court gay voters in the wake of the Stonewall riots. In that he was very different from the very liberal (and very squeamish) Mayor Lindsay who hoped the whole gay thing would just go away. During his third and last term as mayor, Koch signed into law a city ordinance banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing and employment. Gay activists such as Marty Robinson, Morty Manford, and Jim Owles first proposed such an ordinance to City Council members in 1970. A bill was first introduced in 1971. The bill sat in committee until 1974. When it finally came to the floor of the City Council, surrogates for the Catholic Archdiocese made sure that the bill failed and died. For years afterward, the Council's majority leader made sure that the bill never left committee every time it was re-introduced. In 1986, Mayor Koch put his support behind the bill and got it out of committee and finally passed. It was during his third term as mayor. His administration was deeply mired in corruption and patronage scandals at the time. In his previous 2 terms, the Mayor showed no interest in advancing the bill or in gay rights at all. At this point in his career, Koch had little political capital to spend and little to lose, so this effort late in his tenure cost him little. He was late passing this bill, but better late than never. It might not now be law without Koch's support.
Koch's record on AIDS is less commendable, knuckling under to pressure from the Catholic Archdiocese to squash the city health department's efforts to educate and promote safe sex to the public. At the time, AIDS sufferers were about as popular as mildew and Koch was not eager to spend any political capital on their behalf. He shared the Reagan and Bush administrations' policies of malign neglect when it came to AIDS. AIDS activists at the time (most notably Larry Kramer) accused Koch of throwing AIDS patients under the bus to save his own closet. However Koch's AIDS policies were little different from the conventional wisdom of the time (which is no excuse).
I once read an article on Koch by a journalist given to purple prose (and whose name I can't remember) who described him as "an abrasive pavement pounder allergic to trees."
Thanks Mr. Mayor for what you did right, and never mind about the rest.
In memory of the late mayor:
Posted by Counterlight at Friday, February 01, 2013