NEW YORK – Ed Koch, the tough, fast-talking mayor of New York in the turbulent 1970s and ’80s who is credited with rescuing the largest city in the United States from financial ruin, died Friday at age 88.
A witty and larger-than-life figure who remained a frequent public presence up to his final days, Koch been suffering heart and other health problems. His funeral is set to take place Monday in New York.
The city’s current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, praised Koch as a “tireless, fearless and guileless civic leader” for his role in pulling New York back from the brink of financial collapse in the late 1970s. “Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback,” Bloomberg said.
President Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “Ed Koch was an extraordinary mayor, irrepressible character and quintessential New Yorker.”
Koch’s greatest success was in his tough financial management during his three terms between 1978 and 1989. But he also presided over an era when AIDS, homelessness, crime and racial tensions were rampant in the Big Apple. More than anything, Koch is remembered for his salty and colorful New Yorker style and sense of humor.
The Democrat frequently walked in public or stood outside subway stations, earning a reputation as a man of the people. “How’m I doin’?” was his trademark greeting to voters. He was also famous for his accessibility and willingness to discuss any subject — with the exception of his sexual orientation.
A lifetime bachelor, Koch refused to clarify persistent speculation over his sexuality, earning an attack from gay activist Larry Kramer, who told New York magazine the mayor failed to respond to the AIDS crisis because he was “a closeted gay man.”
Koch addressed the issue with typical bluntness in the same magazine, responding: “There’s no question that some New Yorkers think I’m gay and voted for me nevertheless. The vast majority don’t care, and others don’t think I am. And I don’t give a s—t either way!”
Arthur Browne, a reporter at the New York Daily News during the Koch era, remembered him for bringing in journalists every morning for no-holds-barred question and answer sessions.
“He was the most open-to-the-press mayor that New York City has ever had,” Browne told NY1 television.
Veteran U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel said that even the many who clashed with Koch recognized his sincerity and passion. “He has to go down as one of the most unforgettable mayors that New York City’s ever had . . . it would be hard to win a public debate with Ed Koch,” Rangel said on NY1.
Koch won election to City Hall at a time when New York was in chaos, with crime out of control and the Bronx targeted by rampant arson attacks. Among his major initiatives was to restore public housing in near-abandoned neighborhoods.
He also took on trade unions in a monumental struggle to restore New York’s budget to health. But in his third term, race divisions, the AIDS epidemic and the explosion of crack cocaine-related crime piled on the pressure, augmented by a major corruption scandal at City Hall.
His bid for a fourth term failed when David Dinkins was elected as the city’s first black mayor in 1989. After leaving office, Koch continued to offer his opinions as a political pundit, movie reviewer, food critic and presiding judge on the television show “The People’s Court.” Even in his 80s, he exercised regularly and continued to work as a lawyer.