Bigger and Blacker

How the former mayor made Al Sharpton kosher and is winning back the hearts of African Americans

'Do you miss me?' the gangly figure chimed, his nutcracker face, once pudgy and jowly like a self-described overweight 'Jewish god,' beaming in response to a standing ovation from a jam-packed, predominantly black audience at Al Sharpton's 45th birthday celebration in Harlem last week.

'Rudy Giuliani has made their memory of me affectionate,' asserts former mayor Edward I. Koch as he reminisces about the "generous reception" he got at the historic Canaan Baptist Church after David Dinkins introduced him. In many ways, Koch's appearance at Canaan was a stunning achievement for the former top politician and Sharpton. Their joint advocacy of a Second Chance initiative— which would wipe clean the criminal records of mostly black non-violent offenders— became the turning point in ending years of feuding, testing the depth of racial reconciliation in their beloved city.

"I got calls from people saying, 'What are you doing? You're making him kosher!' " the 74-year-old Koch remembers. "I said, 'Look, if we can find people who are leaders, he is a leader. When he asks 500 people to get out in the streets to demonstrate they come. Most people can't do that. That's a leader. If I can change him so that he recognizes that he has a responsibility to [quit being] a demagogue, isn't that helpful to New York?' The people say, 'Yeah, it is.' "

Photograph By Robin Holland

But Ed Koch soon discovered that black people can be wary of putative pariahs like him, even though he and Sharpton had been united in declaring that black men and women are facing a social crisis and need the Second Chance project as a way out. Some of the strongest opposition has come from members of the nearly all-Democrat black caucuses.

"I am discouraged by the lack of interest displayed by a number of advocacy organizations, all of which like the concept, but, for whatever reasons, will not add the proposal to their agendas," Koch complains. "We have attempted to interest the NAACP, the Black Caucus in Washington, and the Black Caucus in Albany, but we have not been successful."

The trip to Canaan could have been disastrous for the bad-ass "Citizen Koch" turned racial conciliator. Despite his call for healing, Koch contends in his latest book, Giuliani, Nasty Man, that Dinkins— who defeated him in the 1989 Democratic primary and then beat Rudy Giuliani to become the city's first black mayor— "egregiously mishandled the response to the pogrom in Crown Heights," and that's why he threw his support behind Giuliani in 1993. In fact, Koch did not know what to expect as he traveled late uptown to Sharpton's birthday party in a shiny, black Lincoln with tinted windows.

He'd long sensed that his controversial tenure still might ignite strong feelings among some African Americans, particularly over the issue of, in the words of one critic, "Koch-era police brutality." But as he strode boldly to the podium, warmly embracing Dinkins, Koch did not look like a fearful man. "The last time I felt this brotherhood was in 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi, when I went there to defend blacks and whites who were fighting for the right to vote," Koch recalls. "I felt very secure in that church."

At Canaan, Koch felt safe in the company of an eclectic black and Latino leadership that included activist attorney Alton H. Maddox Jr. and the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, two of his fiercest political rivals. Neither Maddox nor Daughtry showed any evidence of the hostility that sparked years of warfare in which Daughtry often referred to Koch's policies as "anti-black," and Maddox depicted the ex- mayor as "a racist." As Koch reflected on his greeting of Maddox and Daughtry, he remembered "mulling over" their racially charged battles. "I used to fight with these guys," he says. Koch intimates that he felt sorry for Maddox, the ultranationalist who chairs the United African Movement, which bars whites from its weekly rallies. "I kept thinking about him and how awful it must be for him," says Koch, referring to Maddox's now nine-year suspension from practicing law for refusing to cooperate with a lawyers' disciplinary committee and for controversial comments he made during and after the Tawana Brawley investigation.

"When I saw him, all kinds of emotions ran through me," says Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn. "Obviously, my mind went back to the battles we've had."

Daughtry led a group that disrupted Koch's mayoral inauguration in Brooklyn in 1978. "I snatched the mike and said, 'You can't speak in Brooklyn until you address the police killing of 15-year-old Randy Evans.' " Although the alleged police brutality had occurred under the administration of outgoing mayor Abe Beame, Daughtry felt that Koch— "with whom we had been friendly"— should have taken up the cause for justice. Koch recalled the incident in a 1994 Daily News column: "I turned to Daughtry and asked, 'Why are you doing this? I just got elected. I didn't have anything to do with that police matter.' Then I offered to meet with him at City Hall to discuss it. He agreed and left with his entourage."

Koch's relationship with the African American community began its downward slide in 1978 with the death in police custody of popular black businessman Arthur Miller. Two years later, Koch and Daughtry would clash over the closing of the city-run Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. Declaring that the hospital was losing money and did not deliver effective medical services, Koch shut down the facility, calling protesters "rabble-rousers." To Daughtry and other community leaders, the closing symbolized the mayor's indifference to the needs of the black community.

Then there were the congressional hearings on police brutality in 1983, which became a bitter symbol of racial animosity. Black leaders had called for the hearings to probe what the Reverend Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church called "an alarming rise [in] racial violence and racially motivated police misconduct." Koch dubbed the hearings a "circus." He recalled in an interview this summer with NY1's Dominic Carter that subcommittee chair John Conyers, who presided at the sessions, "had to apologize for his earlier statements" that brutality and corruption in the NYPD under Koch was "systemic and pervasive."

Embracing Ed Koch at Canaan was intended to reinforce recent calls by Sharpton for black leaders and their supporters to forget past disputes. Koch's popularity, Sharpton says, has a lot to do with the way African Americans now view him. He is gaining viability as an anti-Giuliani firebrand and winning back their hearts. If they have forgiven him, how did this happen?

Shortly after Ed Koch was elected mayor for the first time, many blacks felt that the man who'd had a distinguished career as a trailblazing First Amendment attorney, Democratic district leader, councilman, and congressman had turned his back on decades of civil rights struggle.

In assessing "the Koch years," some black leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, argued that Koch was one of the first politicians in New York to figure out that if you moved to the right on race and you were loudmouth about it , you benefited, particularly if you were Jewish or Italian ("I'm for capital punishment, are you?" he asked a white woman in an oft-quoted 1977 campaign appearance in Brooklyn). He was one of the first to openly declare that not all Jews are liberals.

These unyielding critics of the former mayor contend that his Machiavellian politics helped to create a a robust Jewish-Italian constituency of closet racists that Rudy Giuliani eventually was able to tap into when he ran against David Dinkins. "Koch laid the groundwork for someone like Giuliani," one Harlem leader claimed. "Some people compare him to [former Alabama governor] George Wallace, who tied together racism and populism and transformed the result into a national movement."

But other blacks resent the characterization of Ed Koch as a stiff-necked Southern cracker. "Indeed Rudy Giuliani is Ed Koch's Golem," says a former Koch insider, but Giuliani exploits his populism and "does things that Koch never would have done" to the African American community. In recent years, Koch has unleashed criticism of Giuliani's stewardship with a vengeance. "You know he turns down demonstration permits," Koch told one interviewer, "he doesn't let people come to the steps of City Hall to petition their representatives. He's running the city like a petty tyrant, which may be appreciated in some Third World countries, but not here."

But why now? Koch's black critics ask. Is he making amends for creating the monster? What has changed him? The answers may be found in what Koch himself attributes to "my Lazarus heart" in an upcoming book entitled, I'm Not Done Yet!

"I've had a stroke," Koch writes in the book, which is to be published next year coinciding with his 75th birthday. "I have a pacemaker to correct an erratic heartbeat. I take seven different prescription medications every day: one to keep my blood thin, another for my benign prostate condition, several beta-based drugs for my arrythmia . . . you get the idea."

It is possible that in his waning years, Ed Koch is trying to reconnect with his roots. (He is supporting Brooklyn councilmember Una Clarke for Congress.) Maybe, some argue, he feels guilty about breaking the covenant that liberal Jews are supposed to observe regarding social justice. By forging an alliance with Sharpton and other black activists and speaking out against the repressive policies of the Giuliani administration, Koch has performed what religious Jews call T'shuva. He has repented. He has atoned for his political sins.

African Africans have come to understand the concept of atonement as laid down by Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, and now some are beginning to view Koch's sudden shift toward them as an act of atonement. You can come back as a new person and black people will accept you. It worked for Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry, who was caught in an FBI sting smoking crack with a woman in a hotel room. Political pundits said Barry was finished, but he begged for forgiveness and was swept back into office by his core constituency.

"I come out of a people who at times go too far in forgiveness," says Daughtry. "However, I must confess that when people express a sincere desire to want to move on from the past— who recognize that they might have made mistakes— I'm prepared to say, 'Fine, let's move on from here,' provided that the person has exhibited sincere behavior patterns that support that they truly want reconciliation."

Sharpton convinced Daughtry that Koch was sincere about working with African Americans once again. "Based on what Reverend Sharpton has said to me, I'm prepared to extend my hand to Mayor Ed Koch and to say in a biblical phrase, 'If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.' " It is a hand that Koch says he extended to make a pact with God in 1987 when he had his stroke. "God has kept his word with me," Koch declares in I'm Not Done Yet! "He has not taken me one slice at a time. I intend to keep my bond with Him, and use my alloted time in a positive way. The untimely and truly tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., at age thirty-eight brought home for me with even more emphasis how fragile we all are, and posed for me the question I now ask myself every day: Why was I saved? The simple response is that God is not yet finished with me, and I remain relevant."

Ed Koch is having the time of his life with his newfound ally Al Sharpton, a political up-and-comer who routinely faces questions from Koch about his more bombastic past.

"Over the years, we've had discussions and I've always said to him, 'You're a black leader; you apologize for Tawana Brawley and for your statements that were anti-Semitic and anti-white. I don't happen to believe you're anti-Semitic. I believe you're a demagogue.' And he said to me on a number of occasions, 'I'm thinking about it. I'm thinking about it.' "

The mayor and the reverend had a rocky relationship from the start, and Koch likes to remind people that he was "the first American" to send Al Sharpton to jail after Sharpton staged a sit-in at City Hall in 1978. Koch can't remember whether Sharpton had an appointment that day he showed up at City Hall with about 25 black members of the clergy. The deputation demanded to meet with Koch. The mayor obliged and ushered Sharpton and the ministers into the Blue Room.

"I don't think I had met him before," he says of Sharpton, adding that the medallion-wearing activist was "in full regalia, big this, big that." After introducing all of the ministers, Sharpton declared, "I have a petition here."

"Well, let me read it," said Koch, who perused the document and asked Sharpton to elaborate on its demands. As Koch remembers, it called for $50 billion in reparations. "It required me to have 200,000 summer jobs and a whole host of things. I think we had about 65,000 summer jobs. So I'm thinking to myself, I don't wanna start a big riot here by just saying, 'Please leave.' " Koch tried to disarm Sharpton.

"Look, you just presented this to me, why don't you leave it with me and let me study it?" he told the minister. "I'll get back to you."

"No, you're gonna sign it now!" Sharpton demanded.

"The meeting is over!" declared Koch, who stood up and stormed back to his office. Sharpton and three ministers followed him. "We're gonna sit down here in your office so that nobody can get in or out!" Sharpton said.

"Please don't do that," Koch pleaded. "You have an absolute right to picket me. Go out on the steps and do whatever you want, but you cannot stop people from entering my office."

"We're sitting down here until you sign it!" came the rebuff from Sharpton. Aghast, Koch turned to a police officer. "Cop!" he shouted, "Remove them!" As far as Koch could remember, no police officer had ever ejected anyone from City Hall for engaging in a civil disobedience protest. "Mayor, what if they resist?" the cop whispered.

"Have you never heard the word arrest?" Koch bellowed. "Arrest them!" Koch swears now that that historic confrontation "in a way bonded" him and Sharpton.

Several years later, as Al Sharpton was raiding crack houses and painting red crucifixes on the doors to exorcise drug dealers, Ed Koch was privately declaring war on the criminal-justice system. Koch was appalled that the mandatory minimum sentences and stepped-up enforcement that began with Nelson Rockefeller's so-called "war on drugs" had fallen disproportionately on blacks. Nearly one in every three young black men is serving a criminal sentence in prison, on probation, or on parole. Blacks, Koch realized, are more likely to be prosecuted under federal drug laws than whites guilty of the same offense.

"Many of these kids— a lot of them white— who use powder cocaine, get probation," Koch emphasizes. "Blacks using a cheaper drug, crack cocaine, in less quantity, get a minimum of five years and more. And it's just wrong."

In 1994, Koch launched an ill-fated campaign to enlist New York's prominent politicians and major black-advocacy groups in his fight. They blew him off. Maybe it's a racial thing, he thought. He recruited Charles Ogletree, the noted Harvard law professor, who is black. It didn't help. Koch was discouraged. Then one day last year he was invited to participate in a panel discussion on Black Entertainment Televison. The moderator said Al Sharpton would be there.

"I'm really frustrated, and maybe you can help me," Koch told Sharpton after the show. He revealed the details of his Second Chance project. Its main purpose, he pointed out, is to afford those with non-violent felony records, who have served their jail sentences, an opportunity to earn a pardon, have their criminal record expunged, and turn their lives around.

"The Second Chance proposal is not a retreat from being tough on crime," he told Sharpton. "In fact, we believe that individuals who complete the program— because they will be able to obtain jobs and be more likely to marry— will less likely become repeat offenders. The program would be available only to those who have not engaged in violent crime. We believe that most of those who would be eligible have been convicted of drug possession or sale."

While the program will be available to all without regard to race or gender, the group most affected is young black males, Koch argued. "Those with felony records are often unable to get a decent job and find it difficult to marry, since young women prefer spouses who can support a family," he explained. "They also lose their right to vote, and they become pariahs and crime recidivists. We want to break that cycle."

Under the program, executive pardons and expungement of criminal records would be authorized by Congress and participating state legislatures. "Then, when asked if they have ever been convicted of a crime by a prospective employer, the former felons could honestly answer, 'No,' " Koch said. "In addition, their civil rights would be restored."

After Koch defined the project, he asked Sharpton if he had any ideas, since he and Ogletree were at an impasse with the advocacy organizations. "I'm gonna see Jesse Jackson this week, and if Jesse likes it I'm with you," the minister told Koch. Two days later, Sharpton contacted Koch. "Jesse loves it," he said. "I am with you." Sharpton, Koch recalls, also brought up the subject of making a public apology for his role in the alleged Tawana Brawley hoax. "I told Jesse about your advice to me about apologizing," Sharpton offered.

"You listen to that man," replied Koch, giving the impression that Jackson had urged Sharpton to come clean. "He is giving you good advice."

Ed Koch wanted the world to know that he and Al Sharpton, former political enemies, are working together now. Earlier this year, he invited his new friend to dine at the upscale Four Seasons restaurant. "Could I bring the press?" Sharpton joked. "Why do you think I called you?" Koch replied.

As he left the Canaan Baptist Church, Ed Koch may have reflected on what some blacks are calling his Day of Atonement. Finally, Koch has bridged the racial divide, resolving the painful debate over his turbulent relations with the city's African Americans. He left Harlem not as a recidivist liberal Jew but as a mensch whose "Lazarus heart" has grown bigger— and blacker.

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas

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