Former mayor Ed Koch died of congestive heart failure this morning. He was 88 years old.
After a stay in the hospital last week, he returned to intensive care yesterday for treatment of his lungs, which were filling with fluid, as well as an iron deficiency. Unfortunately, it did not save his life.
Koch, an upbeat mayor who presided over the city during its 80s boom, first ran for the office in 1977; during the campaign he touted himself as a “liberal with sanity” and promised a crackdown on crime, welfare, and the Board of Education. Upon his election, he steered the city out of near-bankruptcy and eased the housing crisis, but was criticized for his responses to the crack and AIDS epidemics that seized New York City in the 1980s.
In 1965, while Koch was still district leader of Greenwich Village, he traveled to Mississippi to observe the struggle for civil rights. He hoped to use his political clout to instigate change in the state, urging the credentials committee to appoint Freedom Democrats. When he wrote about his experience for the Voice, he candidly described crying during testimony about the brutal beatings happening in Mississippi, as well as the fear the journey instilled in him:
When I landed in New Orleans in the State of Louisiana, I felt the way refugees from Germany must have felt when they arrived in Holland or France. This may sound melodramatic, but that’s the way it was and that’s the way I felt.
His candor personified the tough, tenacious city he ran for over a decade. In 1965, we wrote, “the nice guy finished first,” after Koch ousted Carmine DeSapio as district leader. When he nabbed the mayoral position, he told reporters, “I say exactly what I think. I’m the sort of person who might give other people ulcers.” His frankness made him exciting, and he capitalized on the public’s interest with his long-time conversational slogan: “How’m I Doing?”
There was, however, one subject on which he was unwilling to speak — his sexuality. Although Koch was widely believed to be gay, he remained tight-lipped on the subject and ignored questions about his sexual orientation. He was vilified by the gay community for his silence during the AIDS crisis. Playwright Larry Kamer wrote of Koch’s legacy:
We must never forget that this man was an active participant in helping us to die, in murdering us. Call it what you will, that is what Edward Koch was, a murderer of his very own people. There is no way to avoid knowing that now.
A documentary on his legacy, titled simply “Koch,” opens today in theaters nationwide. The Angelika Film Center (18 W. Houston Street) is currently waiting to hear from their corporate office about adding extra showtimes, though they are already have five screenings scheduled for today.