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September 23, 1965, Vol. X, No. 49
Koch: The Night the Nice Guy Finished First
By Jack Newfield
A few minutes before the polls closed on primary night Edward Koch not only appeared to be the most relaxed person in the clubhouse of the Village Independent Democrats, but seemed to be the only one who believed he would win.
Mary Pangolis, the television reporter, was telling her CBS control center, “There is a huge turnout in the South Village…Things are very depressed here. It looks like DeSapio may have won.”
Koch’s backers in the VID had prepared only a concession statement. For the first time in his three duels with DeSapio, no victory statement had been drafted. As people began to drift into the clubhouse, an unhappy campaign worker muttered, “They look like people who come to stare at accidents.”
But Koch was full of anecdotes of self-deprecation and witty asides. He told a few supporters of walking into a polling place to ask how everything was going only to have a sheaf of papers thrust into his hand by an unfamiliar pollworker.
“Who are you working for?” asked a confused Koch.
“DeSapio,” came the retort.
“I’m Koch,” said Koch.
And then the candidate did an imitation of the pollwatcher’s embarrassed apologies.
Right up until the polls closed, Koch and Carol Greitzer, his running mate, phoned voters, urging them to go to the polls. At headquarters, a row of 12 canvassers sat at a makeshift desk dialing voters, talking briefly, then dialing again, while stealing glances at the clock.
Hangers-on who lingered in the doorway were quickly drafted as “pullers” by edgy campaign workers who had hardly slept in 24 hours. Twenty-five minutes before the polls closed Koch announced to the workers in the clubhouse, “DeSapio has gotten out 80 per cent of the vote in the South Village. We must get our people out now. We need pullers desperately.” A few more young people rushed out into Sheridan Square with lists of voters known to be favorable to the reform Democrats. There were minutes to go.
Moments after the polls closed, and just before the first returns came in, Koch, still relaxed and jovial, spoke to the growing crowd.
“Whatever happens,” he told the, “we have spent $12,000 on this campaign and we have collected only $6,000. I hope we can make up some of that deficit tonight. I see people in this room who are here for the first time this summer and I see a lot of people who have worked like dogs. Those of you who are here for the first time can at least contribute $2 for a campaign poster or $5 for a ticket to our fundraising party. I urge you to purchase the posters now because the price will go up after we win.”
By 10.20 the returns began to come in. Mikki Wolter and Stanley Geller, both former executives of the club, stood at a huge tally sheet that stretched halfway across the front of the clubhouse writing the figures as they were reported for each election district. Club president Martin Berger stood at a microphone reading out the returns. Koch sat almost unnoticed at the end of a long table of tabulators, next to Arnold Weis, who quickly calculated the gain or loss in each election district as the tally sheets came in.
“The 30th election district,” Berger shouted, “Koch, 113; DeSapio 65.”
There were cheers, but this was reform territory Weis whispered to Koch a crucial fact. It was a gain of 22 votes over the previous year.
A few minutes later Berger shouted, “The 10th election district. Koch 60, DeSapio 162.” The crowd groaned. But Weis counseled Koch, “That’s okay. That’s from one of the legs,” a reference to one of the two new limb-like areas appended to the Italian-American South Village as the result of reapportionment.
At 10:35, after the 6th election district reported 243 for DeSapio and 65 for Koch, Weis turned to Koch and said, “We’ve got it. He’s slipping about 20 votes in each election district in the South Village.” At that point only about seven election districts had reported and the crowd in the packed clubhouse was unable to decipher the fragments.
For the next half hour, the results trickled in, were posted on the scoreboard, and greeted alternately with cheers and groans. It seemed impossible to tell who was winning. DeSapio would roll up huge scores in the South Village, while Koch kept taking most of the rest of the Village districts and the new ones in the north. Although there were more of them, Koch’s districts were small when compared to the massive South Village districts with their lopsided DeSapio majorities. The results were incomprehensible to the novice on the scene. Only those who knew statistics and ethnic factors understood the story was really over. For the people in the clubhouse, the results looked grim. Some began to speculate on how the mismated team of DeSapio and Carol Greitzer would get on in the halls of Tammany. Mrs. Greitzer was finishing off her rival, Diana Halle, with ease. This was some balm, but DeSapio was the enemy and the VID had its reputation of “giant killer” to uphold.
the faces of the club workers were tense. Sweat poured down everyone’s face as the hot television lights added to the 100-degree heat of the room. Koch remained unperturbed and still jovial. He bantered with Mrs. Greitzer about her outpolling him.
At 11 p.m., with more than half the votes reported, Berger broke the pyramiding tension with another plea for funds.
Suddenly, the television set that ha been on all evening, but silent, showed a familiar sad face.
“That’s Carmine,” Koch exclaimed. “Turn the sound on, someone, please.”
“I am behind by 700 votes,” said the face of the enemy with a tremor.
Deep cheers filled the VID clubhouse, followed by angry demands for silence.
“It would be most difficult, if not impossible, to catch up,” the face on the television set added.
“Do you concede?” the interviewer persisted.
“Frankly, yes,” DeSapio answered.
Tumult filled the clubhouse. Exhausted campaign workers embraced; others shouted and shouted. People swirled around Koch. He had the smile of a man disengaged from the universe.
It was the night the nice guy finished first.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]