The people who don't like him call him Mayor Mouth, or the Mayatollah. You don't have to search his record carefully to see why. o
Every week, there's another zinger, another one-liner, another outraged group protesting.
The city tells Mayor Ed Koch that his plan to detain indigent street women -- "bag ladies" -- for 72 hours to clean them up is unconstitutional and he announces, nonplussed, that "the Constitution is dumb." Local judges pass sentences he considers too lenient and he declares that the judicial system "stinks." Another big city mayor, Jane Byrne, moves into a crime-ridden housing project and local reporters ask Mayor Koch -- who resides in a beautiful mansion in its own park -- if he'll do the same. With not a shred of political mincing about, he says, in so many words, "fahgit it."
He enjoys his home, says the balding mayor, whose face is so often likened to that of chicken producer Frank Purdue, and "would be a shnook not to." He knows what it's like to be poor, he says, having grown up seven to a two-bedroom tenement. For good measure, he reiterates the pleasures of the mayoral mansion with the cadence of a stand-up comic who's hot, so hot he does not have to be restrained any more.
"This is some house," he says, with emphasis.
The problems of the city, which his critics go on and on about? Oh, yeah, the mayor -- Mayor Culpa, as he calls himself -- will concede them. Yeah, there are fewer cops and the streets are dirty. The subways, and you may quote him, "stink."
Somewhat peculiar that, to hear the mayor say, often and loudly, that a city service stinks, to admit that "of course" he's unhappy with city services. c
What is even more peculiar, however, is that a majority of New Yorkers agree with him: Life in New York City is not good, and probably getting worse. They say so in the polls.
Then they go on to say that they think the mayor is doing a "good" or "very good" job and that they plan to give him their votes.
A Democrat admittedly grown more conservative, Koch ends his first term as mayor this fall, but the consensus is that he's a shoo-in for reelection, likely receiving the nomination of the Republicans, and perhaps even the Conservatives. Already, key Republican leaders have given him their endorsement, and the polls show him to be one of the most popular mayors in years, even with an austerity budget. A Daily News poll two months ago noted that while only 31 percent of New Yorkers felt that services were adequate, 60 percent felt that Koch was a "good" or "very good" mayor. This optimism is shared, first and foremost, by Koch himself, who has taken to referring to his mayoralty as "my 12-year term." He also likes to remind his constituents what they have to lose, should he not be reelected.
"I can always get a better job," he warns. "You won't get a better mayor."
This is not to say he is popular among all New Yorkers. Two groups have sprung up in opposition (one has already folded) and the mayor also lacks the support of the black and Hispanic communities. In one poll last fall, while 59 percent of the voters said they would support the mayor, about half of the blacks and Hispanics polled said they would not -- and 60 percent of the blacks found him unsatisfactory.
Labor mediator Ted Kheel, who headed the short-lived "Coalition for a Mayoral Choice" (which included former congresswoman Bella Abzug and historian Arthur Schlesinger and collapsed just last week), claims that Koch has won his powerful Irish-Italian-Jewish middle-class support by a reliance on "the latest racial code words." He also darkly recalls a dinner for political writers where, he claims, Koch -- much criticized for closing Harlem hospitals -- took part in a skit which, Kheel claims, typifies Koch's racial insensitivity.
He put on an Afro wig and said, 'Why do I suddenly feel like opening hospitals?'" says Kheel, who has an eye on the office of mayor himself. "The audience loved it, two out of six blacks walked out . . . ."
"He appeals to peoples' emotions on race relations, instead of their good sense," Kheel continues. "He's caught the public mood, just like the president has caught the public mood . . . and, of course, he's just overwhelmed the press. He does stunts, he mugs, he has one-liners, he's very good copy . . . he says he treats everybody equally, and he does; he's rude to everybody, a tough guy, and the public loves that, as long as they're not on the receiving end . . . ."
The middle-class public does anyway. During the transit strike two years ago, Koch posted himself at the Brooklyn Bridge and confronted commuters as they hitched, hiked, and car-pooled in, asking if they felt he was doing the right thing or whether he should cave in to the unions. When hecklers yelled dirty words at him, he shouted dirty words right back. When the crowds started chanting that they wanted predecessor John Lindsay, he turned the attack on the crowd. "Everybody who wants Lindsay back, raise their hands," he said, and when the hands went up he let them have it. "Dummies!" he yelled.
In the city of Mouth, he is Mouth Numero Uno, master of the fast, funny, nasty comeback. Talk? He loves to. Try to ask him a question, and he's off and running before it's halfway out. "May I answer that, may I answer that," he'll say. There is always an answer, even if it seems to have nothing to do with the question, and if he feels the question does not deserve an answer, he'll let that be known, too. "That's a stupid question," he'll tell an on-camera reporter, and again, not a minute later, "That's really stupid." The intonation is Borscht Belt comic, the confidence is late Sinatra -- a man giddy with popularity.
It is true that this style, quite often, does not travel well out of the city and that even in New York there are those who find it offensive. It is a little too ripe, like day-old herring. It smacks slightly of professional ethnicity, of vaudeville, of shtick.
"He's like your uncle who made a million dollars in the linoleum business and therefore feels qualified to tell you you know nothing about nuclear physics even if you happen to be a nuclear physicist," says a man who worked in the Koch campaign.
Those feelings -- among the white, middle-class, voting majority -- are not typical, however.
What is typical is a piece in a recent issue of New York magazine, entitled, "Why Reagan and Koch Are the Most Popular Politicians in America."
"Watching [Koch], listening to him, most New Yorkers . . . are delighted to see behavior that reflects their own attitudes . . . when he refuses to be bullied by hecklers and either denounces them or walks out, or when he says exactly what he thinks on a controversial issue like quotas . . . he is exhibiting the kind of nerviness and candor that have always been the very bone and marrow of New York . . . ."
Sunday at Gracie Mansion and the mayor, a 56-year-old bachelor who makes no bones about the fact that politics is his life, is remarking on his latest attack.
"You see today's New York Times," he says, "I never saw such a stupid editorial -- since the last editorial on this subject. I happen to like The New York Times, but they have a blind spot, which I suppose they might accuse me of, but on the subject of judges they are bizarre. May I speak about that for a moment? They say, in this editorial, 'Y' know the mayor has finally found a case that's certainly worth talking about, but even then he shouldn't talk about it,' they don't think it's appropriate for the mayor to talk about individual cases or individual judges" -- pause for emphasis -- "I do, in fact they go on to say there are other appropriate ways to appeal this decision" -- a shorter pause -- "name one."
He's off and running: the story of the case, in which a white judge, a white defendant before him, said the young man deserved to go to jail, but that he would not send him to jail, because the defendant's "slight build, his mannerisms, dress, color and ethnic background" would make him subject to sexual attack. Koch's subsequent attack on the judge, charging him with racism, the reporter would agree it was a racist decision, yes?Other cases where the judicial system has fallen down, cases so extraordinary, so extraordinarily bad, well let him tell you about it in a brief way, may he, do you follow . . . .
The question of racism applied to his own behavior he attacks with equal vigor ("No, no, no, no!"). He says that if other politicians had received a rating of 44 percent favorable, as he did from the black community, from their constituents, "they would jump with joy."
So he goes throughout the afternoon, untiring, with zest.
How does he explain his popularity? It's easy, it's easy, the answer is extremely easy, the people of New York have a lot of common sense, says the mayor, and know he cannot provide the best services with a reduced budget. ("What they're saying is that the mayor, with limited resources, is getting the best bang for the buck.") Politics his main interest? Yes, yes, and isn't it wonderful he likes it; people are afraid to say they love their work, afraid someone will call them a workaholic; who caaaaaaahs?, what does it mean, more people should like their work. Life style? Gets $80,000 a year salary but only takes $60,000 a year, buys Brooks Brothers suits on sale, stands in line at Chinese restaurants like everyone else. Oh yeah, he values "the middle-class verities" and "lives a middle-class life." He never spends more than four bucks on a bottle of wine when he's paying for it, looks after the city's money as if it were his own, now like when he was a congressman, y' know.
Which brings to mind . . . he has often said that, as a congressman, he made a lot of "dumb" moves, including spending. Would he please, now, disclose his dumb moves as mayor?
There's an immediate and typically blunt refusal. A little laugh. A nice one-liner:
"Let my enemies point out the dumb things I did; why should I make it easy for them?"