Quid Pro Koch: The 1977 Democratic Mayoral Primary


The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in the September 26, 1977 edition of the Village Voice. Mario Cuomo lost that November’s mayoral general election, garnering 40.97 percent of the vote to Ed Koch’s 49.99 percent. Cuomo also narrowly lost the primary, which was held a few weeks before this story ran. Mario Cuomo died on January 1, 2015 at age 82.

Mario Cuomo, slow to enter the mayoral race, spent much of his campaign trying to escape the Hamlet metaphor. He lost because he turned out to be Coriolanus. Like Shakespeare’s Roman general, he was too proud to ask for the office he wanted.

Unlike the primary, when seven candidates were scattered across the ideological spectrum, the runoff left only one issue for political professionals: patronage.

Cuomo, pursuing the path of righteousness with a zeal that is his weakness as well as his strength, refused as a matter of policy to make any commitments. In the abstract, an honorable man does things his own way; in practice, however, that meant not doing them at all.

Things began to come apart for him almost as soon as the primary votes were counted. The Brooklyn organization, rudderless after Beame’s defeat, was up for grabs. Koch, who had almost no field organization of his own, needed it desperately; Cuomo needed merely to allow the leaders to divide along their own natural inclinations.

Instead, when a friendly district leader asked Cuomo to speak with Brooklyn county leader Meade Esposito, Cuomo refused to make the call. Instead, he asked the leader to give Esposito a message: “Drop dead,” it began. This is known as purity with a vengeance. One day later, when Esposito addressed his leaders and their key captains, he suggested that those who were “interested in job security,” should talk with Ed Koch. They did. On Monday, Koch carried Brooklyn by 18,000 votes.

Cuomo’s supporters argued — and some still argue — that Cuomo would have betrayed his entire campaign had he struck a deal with Esposito. Cuomo himself sounded this chord when he proclaimed, “You can’t run an impure campaign and then bathe yourself in the waters of the inaugural.”

While it’s true that one might be hard put to lie down with Esposito without feeling the strong need for a bath, Cuomo brought the same attitudes to his meetings with minority leaders. For them, faced with double defeat in the mayoral and Manhattan borough president’s races, high-level patronage meant not so much the shoring up of a corrupt political machine as access to power at a time when their generation-long representation on the Board of Estimate had abruptly ended. And, as late as the Sunday after the primary, when a group of black elected officials agreed to allow Percy Sutton to negotiate with Cuomo on their behalf, it appeared that the city’s black leadership would support Cuomo.

“On Monday morning,” said State Senator Carl McCall, “when I was actually on my way downstairs to tell a TV reporter that I was going to go for Cuomo, I got a phone call from Charlie Rangel. ‘Wait a minute,’ he said, ‘we’ve got some more information.'”

That night, after Koch had been photographed entering Rosh Hashanah services, he managed to turn up in Dave Garth’s offices for a meeting with Manhattan’s elected blacks. At that meeting, according to McCall, Koch “made a commitment that he would involve more blacks in high positions in his government than Lindsay and Beame combined.” On Wednesday, after the public pause for Rosh Hashanah, the Manhattan blacks endorsed Koch. In the runoff, he carried Harlem by 3,500 votes.

Oddly enough, it was Herman Badillo — whom Cuomo had refused to guarantee control over the top appointment in the city’s housing program — who inadvertently delivered significant black support to Koch. According to one participant in the surreptitious meeting at Garth’s office, “One of the other reasons for going with Koch was that Herman was there. If Koch won, we didn’t want to have Herman appear as the minority spokesman.” Badillo, of course, also influenced the Puerto Rican vote; Koch’s margin in the South Bronx was 2,000 votes.

In all this, Cuomo pursued the Grail of purity. And, while Koch scored points by attacking Cuomo for “pandering” to the police at the PBA’s convention, Cuomo could protest only that he had promised them nothing. The Post editorial noticed Koch’s charge, but the PBA leadership noticed the lack of promised and held back their expected endorsement.

History may grant Cuomo, as Shakespeare prophesied it would Coriolanus, “a noble memory,” and that may be consolation enough for him. It won’t be enough for those of us who will have to continue living with the patronage and patty cake under Ed Koch.