BY HENRY STERN
A month has passed since we lost Mayor Koch. And I am still coming to terms with his passing. On a personal basis, it is the loss of a very good friend, companion and mentor; someone I knew for 50 years. He supported me even when I was unable to stand with him publicly for reasons of self-preservation. He was godfather to my first son Jared and held him at his bris. He was a rare figure in city government. He grew wiser and deeper with the passing years. He will long be remembered and hopefully his good works will endure for generations.
When we met, he had been a candidate for the lowest office on the ballot, state Assemblyman. He had been defeated by a substantial margin. Some people suggested that he was the wrong candidate for a sophisticated neighborhood like Greenwich Village. As the son of poor Polish immigrant Jews, how could he compete with the more polished Fifth Avenue Jews who went to reform temples? How could a kid from City College and NYU Law School compete with Ivy Leaguers at prestigious firms?
We became friendly because we were in similar lines of work and had similar ideas for reform. As Secretary of the Borough, I attended every community board meeting in twelve community districts. This was the best way I knew to learn about the neighborhoods and the people. That is where the civic action was.
Politics is a business of people and the villagers considered the community board to be a town meeting where they could express their views. The board met monthly, on a Tuesday evening. After work downtown and before the meeting, I went straight to dinner. The place we went most often was the Limelight, located at 7th Ave across from Christopher Park. They sold a complete dinner for $1.80. (That was, of course, the price in 1962.)
In October 1962, when Koch was 38 and I was 27, I recommended him to Borough President Dudley for appointment to community board number 2, which was the first public office he held. Some local politicians questioned whether he was sufficiently mature to serve on such a distinguished board. Nonetheless, the Borough President appointed him and he became a valuable member of the board because he reached out to all of the neighborhoods in the Village, not just the one in which he lived.
Koch and I would see each other at community meetings, which were most often held to complain about city services, and I heard him speak to various groups in the neighborhood. He reached out to everyone he met, hoping to build relationships for his next campaign which he lacked in the race for Assemblyman.
In those days in Greenwich Village a person who wanted to speak in public would take a stepladder and plant it on a sidewalk at a street corner, displaying an American flag to show that the speaker was exercising his first amendment right to public speech and could not be silenced by the arbitrary denial of a permit by local officials. But without a sound permit for amplification, the speaker had to rely on the strength of his voice, his vigor and his cleverness in argument to hold the attention of the ever-shifting street crowd that half-listened to the man who stood at the top of the stepladder. Hostile hecklers, some from rival clubs, would at times seek to destabilize the meeting and seize the attention of the crowd for themselves.
This variety of improv turned out to be an area in which the young Koch was unusually gifted. His loud and forceful voice, somewhat high pitched at the time, could not be shouted down as he discussed his topic. His positions were progressive: opposition to the war in Vietnam, support for women’s right to abortions and the repeal of drug laws he believed to be arbitrary, overly punitive and discriminatory against poor people.
Local issues in the Village were overshadowed, however, by the struggle between Mayor Wagner and Tammany Hall for control of the citywide Democratic Party. Carmine DeSapio, leader of an Italian-American Democratic Club in the South Village, was under attack by liberal reform elements of the party based loosely on Adlai Stevenson’s Presidential campaign of 1956. In general Stevenson supporters were not welcomed by the regular Democratic organization (Tammany) which often supported Irish and Italian incumbents with more conservative views.
To his credit, a reform that DeSapio initiated provided for the direct election of district leaders. Formerly they were elected by members of the state committee, an obscure group of over a thousand county committee members of whom most of the public were unaware. In 1962, Koch became the Village Independent Democrats candidate for State Assembly and lost an uphill battle against a DeSapio ally, William Passannante. The Village Independent Democrats ran him against DeSapio in 1963. Koch led by 41 votes out of 9,000. The race was so close that the courts ordered a new election to be held on primary day the next year (1964). This time Koch and the Village Independent Democrats won by the small but defensible margin of 164 votes.
The Greenwich Village race attracted substantial attention in city press because it was a challenge by an insurgent against well-known incumbent who had served for many years and had influence far beyond the district. DeSapio was also a Democratic national committeeman for New York State and served as New York’s Secretary of State in Governor Harriman’s cabinet. He used his state offices for his private interests which ultimately led to his conviction and imprisonment. As district leaders, Koch and Carol Greitzer fought the Lower Manhattan Expressway, demanded more services and new schools and opposed traffic changes they considered anti-pedestrian. They supported the landmarking of older buildings to prevent displacement of their existing tenants. They did not participate in patronage; they did not seek for themselves or ask for others positions in government. By 1965 gentrification had displaced many Italian-Americans and replaced them with younger newcomers of mixed heritage, many with professional backgrounds. After an eight year struggle, 1957 -1965, the beachhead of reform had been established, secured and had defended against the old politics.
Koch took a giant step forward in 1965, when on the day before the Democratic primary he endorsed John V. Lindsay, Republican-Liberal candidate for mayor. This came about at the suggestion of old friends who felt that the election would determine the future of reform in New York City politics for a generation. By accidental timing and the breadth of the challenge, the story made part of a page one headline in The Daily News. The Democratic county organization tried to expel Koch as District Leader on grounds of disloyalty but that effort foundered.
An unexpected dividend from that decision was that Alex Rose and the Liberal party so appreciated Koch’s decision, that they not only supported him, but said that they would accept no other Democrat except Koch in the forthcoming race for vacated City Council and Congressional seats. Koch won handily against prestigious Republicans and set off for a new life in Washington in January 1969.