In Conversation with Ed Koch

On October 24, 2011, Jonathan Fanton sat down with Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York City, to discuss his career, New York politics, and relevant issues in the country and city today. 

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, the FDR Fellow at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. This historic building, home to Eleanor and Franklin, and Franklin’s mother, Sara, is now the center of Hunter College public policy program. In addition to teaching and research, Roosevelt House sponsors programs that bring policy makers together with faculty, students, and the general public to discuss issues of the day.

Tonight’s program is a little different. I have long wanted to have a series of public conversations with the most interesting people I know personally, people I have met in my years as President of the New School and the MacArthur Foundation but also through civic activities such as Human Rights Watch.

I am delighted that my first guest is our former mayor, Ed Koch, who is a good friend and mentor. When I came to the city in 1982, Mayor Koch helped educate me about the mysteries and marvels of our city. He asked me to serve on a committee to review the state of the city’s homeless shelters, which was my first deep exposure to that challenge. And through my work as Chair of the 14th Street Union Square Development Corp., I saw how well the city worked under Ed Koch as I came to know his senior team like Parks Commissioner Henry Stein, Housing Commissioner Paul Crotty , and Deputy Mayor Alair Townsend.

As we became friends we had lunches and dinners together on a regular basis, occasions from which I always learned, not just about New York but about national and international affairs.

So what we are about to do is to bring you in on our ongoing conversations.

If there was ever a person who needed no introduction it is Ed Koch. Most of you have followed his career starting with the reform club Greenwich Village Independent Democrats through which he unseated long-time boss Carmine DeSapio as district leader.

A City Council seat came a year later and then in 1968 he was elected to the House of Representatives in a district that had not elected a Democrat since FDR’s first term. Among the marks he made in Congress, was as a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations where he proposed a cut-off of foreign aid to right-wing governments. Then in 1977, after winning a heated primary, he was elected mayor at a time when the City was on the financial rocks. He said, “We have been shaken by troubles that would have destroyed any other city. But we are not any other city. We are the city of New York and New York in adversity towers above any other city in the world.”

That deep faith in the people and institutions of our city, combined with hard work, courage, imagination, and a first-rate team, bought New York back from the precipice. And as the City regained control over its finances and its destiny, Ed Koch moved us from the defensive into a creative period.  After years of instability and looming fiscal ruin, Ed Koch put New York back on a sound financial footing. He balanced the city’s budget and encouraged the growth of business in New York. He implemented a merit-based appointment system for judges, passed ordinances barring discrimination against gays and lesbians, and introduced the most ambitious housing program in the nation that stabilized our neighborhoods.

Speaking of neighborhoods, it was under Ed Koch that the first Business Improvement District was created in Union Square. He showed us that government and the community could work together to revitalize places like Union Square. Now there are 66 BIDS in all five boroughs – and mayors all over the country have followed his lead.

And life after Gracie Mansion has been full: columns on politics and world events, the best movie reviewer I know, appearances in more than 60 films and TV shows playing himself, and nearly 20 books from memoirs to mysteries, including a touching candid exchange with John Cardinal O’Connor. Ed Koch has remained relevant, a force for principled discourse unconstrained by the bounds of political correctness.

So I have violated the “Needs No Introduction” rule long enough. Let’s get on with the conversation.