Forget the Contrarians: Ed Koch Was A True Liberal

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tags: obituaries, New York City, Ed Koch, liberalism, Rutgers, Robert W. Snyder


Robert W. Snyder, director of the American Studies program at Rutgers-Newark, is writing a book on New York City from LaGuardia to Bloomberg for Cornell University Press. He can be reached at

Ed Koch as mayor. Credit: Flickr/LCB

Ed Koch was laid to rest with applause for leading his city out of the despair of the 1970s with bluff, bluster and chutzpah. Yet the Koch mayoralty, for all its theater, was also a turning point. In complex and contradictory ways, Koch hastened the shift from a liberal New York that dates to the 1930s to the more conservative city of today. His record bears marks of both.

When I interviewed Koch in 2010 for a book about New York City from LaGuardia to Bloomberg, he said he wanted to be remembered as the mayor who restored the city’s confidence after the fiscal crisis; balanced the city’s budget; built affordable housing on a massive scale; and reformed the process of selecting judges to take the politics out. All three were measures (excepting perhaps the pride in budget balancing) that any liberal Democrat could endorse. Yet his style and policies gave him a reputation as a conservative.

When Koch entered City Hall in January 1978, he inherited a city shaken by crime, the fiscal crisis of 1975, racial and ethnic conflict. Conservative assaults had undermined the generous urban liberalism that had been a hallmark of New York City government since the days of Fiorello LaGuardia and the New Deal. Koch described himself as “a liberal with sanity,” thereby maintaining a link to his roots while wooing more moderate and conservative supporters. With limited resources at his disposal, Koch restored confidence in part by projecting irrepressible optimism and outrage. The combination won him support and coverage in the press. Although he could be kind in private, in public he was frequently acerbic -- and there was indeed something compelling about a mayor who dismissed his critics as “wackos.”

Yet Koch’s verbal firepower served him badly in one area: race. The new mayor built a strong base of support among moderate Jews and Catholics, but his approach to black activists and politicians could be combative -- at times, needlessly so. Amid austerity-driven budget cuts that hurt racial minorities and the poor, this set up repeated confrontations.

As New York’s non-Hispanic white population went from being a majority to a minority, the mayor occupied a diminishing political base in a city scarred by ever more rancorous race relations. If there was tragedy in the Koch administration, it was in the mayor’s failure to lead the city’s working class and middle class whites, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, into a more constructive relationship with African Americans.

In housing, in keeping with his older liberal incarnation that affirmed the power of government to improve people’s lives, Koch’s actions spoke better than his words. Working with nonprofits, public-private partnerships, and community organizations, the Koch administration rebuilt devastated areas like the South Bronx and saved neighborhoods threatened with housing abandonment, like Washington Heights. Low and moderate income New Yorkers, among them African Americans and Latinos, benefited significantly from these initiatives.

Yet here again, as Koch’s biographer Jonathan Soffer shrewdly points out, the Koch legacy was mixed. He may have built more affordable housing, but he also embraced economic development through financial and insurance industries, gentrification, and high-end real estate that sharpened economic inequalities. Koch defended these strategies as the only way to revive New York’s economy after its industrial base collapsed. Socially liberal but critical of labor unions (especially during the 1980 transit workers’ strike), he left to his successors an economically more vigorous but economically more unequal city.

Koch left office after he lost the 1989 Democratic primary to David Dinkins, who was elected on a platform of racial healing. Dinkins, the city’s first African American mayor, served one term before narrowly losing a reelection bid to Rudy Giuliani. Under Giuliani, New York achieved neither racial justice nor racial peace. Koch remained in the headlines as a newspaper columnist, television commentator, and all-around kibitzer. If he remained moderate to liberal in his domestic policies, his views on international affairs -- especially on Israel -- frequently put him in a hawkish camp. In 2004, in the middle of the Iraq War, he endorsed George W. Bush for president.

The former mayor’s conservative strain won him the affection of the New York Post, a once liberal newspaper that has been a conservative voice since Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1976. Yet if Koch’s stances and rhetoric on volatile issues like race, Israel and the death penalty marked him as a conservative, his belief in strong, honest, effective government -- especially on domestic issues -- marked him as part of New York City’s liberal tradition.

Contrary to he beliefs of free-market fundamentalists, the Koch record on affordable housing demonstrates that government can change things for the better. But even more important than any one policy decision, it was Koch’s embrace of politics, government and public life that gives his legacy affinities with the liberal tradition.

Unlike former mayor Rudy Giuliani (a prosecutor) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a businessman) Koch was proudly and effectively a politician. He was neither an autocrat nor a CEO, but a political man at home with public life and public debate. He was far more accessible to the news media than his successors, and overall he had a far greater appreciation for the value of dissent and freedom of speech in a democracy. It was the Giuliani administration, not the Koch administration, which treated journalists as nuisances. And while Koch’s record on police-community relations was not perfect, it was the Bloomberg administration -- not the Koch administration -- that conducted the mass arrests seen at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City.

In 1982, during Koch’s first term in office, more than 700,000 demonstrators marched through Manhattan and gathered in Central Park to support disarmament and a freeze of nuclear weapons. Koch marched with them (with a Greek group from Queens) in support of a bilateral freeze. As difficult as it is to imagine a march of such scale being welcomed in New York City today, it is equally hard to imagine a mayor joining in.

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