In 2011, I interviewed Ed Koch for an article I was writing for City Journal. The first thing he told me was that his mayoralty had "saved the city." While it was clearly self-aggrandizing to say so, this one statement encapsulated Ed Koch, his approach and his greatest accomplishment.
Koch went on to explain that no one thought that he had a chance to be successful in taking over a nearly bankrupt city devastated by crime, labor problems and a general malaise. As he recalled: "Everyone I knew said it's hopeless and you are going to be the guy responsible for taking us into bankruptcy."
Koch was unbowed by the pessimism. He began by "recognizing that bankruptcy was a non-starter." Thanks in large part to Deputy Mayor Nat Leventhal, whom Koch credited "a genius at operations," they turned around New York's dire financial situation.
In fact, they made so much progress so quickly that they were even asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter what it would take to balance the budget a year ahead of schedule, in the third rather than the fourth year of his first term. Koch, intrigued by the idea, called together his staff and asked if this was feasible. After discussing this for about an hour, Hizzoner asked for a show of hands to see who wanted to accelerate the budget balancing schedule.
When the motion narrowly lost, one high-ranking staffer that it was unfair for lower-ranking staff to have participated. They held the vote a second time, and this time the third-year motion passed.
In balancing the budget ahead of schedule, Koch sent a powerful message that New York was back in business.
Beyond the budget, I asked Koch to name his other top accomplishments. "Putting humility aside, which is easy for me," he said, he named three.
The second was that, in his words, "I gave the people back their spirit." Koch recounted meeting "people who were ashamed of New York, especially the Time cover of [former Mayor Abe] Beame as a beggar."
Koch worked tirelessly to counteract that image — inside and outside the five boroughs — and succeeded.
Koch's third and fourth proudest accomplishments were less well known and more surprising. He cited his housing program, and the fact that he "created 150,000 units for moderate and low-income people." Of almost equal importance was the fact that they ended the abandonment of housing units, particularly in the Bronx, which had given parts of the city a hollowed out and deserted feel.
Fourth, he was proud of the way he had changed the city's judicial selection process from one based on patronage to a merit-based process.
Koch's administration was far from perfect: Crime was still rampant. He was personally uninvolved in the Donald Manes and Stanley Friedman scandals that rocked the city, but they remain a blot on his record. And his interactions with the African-American community left a great deal to be desired.
He had answers to all of these charges, of course. On the issue of crime, he did put forward some crime reforms that later bore fruit, including a plan to improve Central Park security after the 1989 Central Park jogger rape incident.
As for the scandals, they remained personally painful to him, but he took some comfort from the fact that even his nemesis Rudy Giuliani assured one audience that Koch did not know about the corruption, and that if he had known, he would have reported it.
As for race relations, he had his staff prepare an analysis, which showed that 65% of his budgets went to services directed towards minorities.
Koch deserves criticism for all three of these deficiencies, but they cannot and do not come close to erasing the positive side of the ledger. Whether or not he "saved the city," he surely and powerfully put it on trajectory to better days.