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Former Mayor Ed Koch dead at 88

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 2/12/2013, 4:39 p.m.
Thousands attend service for former Mayor Ed Koch

"How'm I doing?" was often the first greeting out of Ed Koch's seemingly unstoppable mouth, but that voice has at last been silenced for good. Given the deluge of encomiums flooding the airwaves and elsewhere, he was a good man, though not without his faults.

Koch, a three-term mayor of New York City and most favorably remembered for rescuing the city from financial disaster, died Friday morning of congestive heart failure. He was 88.

For several weeks, Koch was in and out of the hospital with swollen ankles and water in his lungs, and many feared that the combative politician was nearing the end of his controversial life.

And none of his controversial moments was as unforgettable as his stance on race relations, which enraged African-Americans and prompted the publisher of this paper, the late Wilbert Tatum, to call for his resignation in front-page editorials for nearly three years. "Ed Koch Must Resign," is what many New Yorkers recalled reading each week in the paper.

What riled Tatum and Black New Yorkers was Koch's indifference to people of color during his tenure as mayor from 1978 to 1989. True, it was a period of intense racial turmoil in the city, but the hostility was often exacerbated by Koch's insensitive comments. His closing of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem was among his most inconsiderate moves, and it didn't help matters when he locked horns with community activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton.

At a hastily called press conference at the National Action Network on Friday morning, Sharpton recounted some of Koch's hostility. "As the city is mourning the passing of Ed Koch, I have mixed feelings," he began. "He had me arrested in 1978, and that was the first time I had ever been arrested."

That encounter grew out of a complaint Sharpton made about Koch's reluctance to push for more funds for children. Sharpton claimed that Koch apparently had no problem challenging Jimmy Carter on his support for Israel, in which Koch had given Carter a letter expressing his derision.

Sharpton asked Koch about giving the president a letter asking for more jobs for the city's kids. Koch told him no. That's when Sharpton told him that he wasn't leaving the room. The cops were called and Sharpton was arrested.

Interestingly, it should be noted that Koch later told Vanity Fair magazine that the man he most despised was Jimmy Carter.

Sharpton admitted that, over the years, his relationship with Koch had changed and Koch toured the streets with him to address issues of drugs and crime in the community, even attending Sharpton's birthday party. "He gained the respect of those who disagreed with him," Sharpton added, "and he never patronized you. He was an authentic and straightforward leader."

Rep. Charles Rangel, like Sharpton, had those occasions of contention with Koch, but in the end, his "life was one of enthusiasm, dedication and committed public service. Ed embodied all that a leader should: charisma, principles and pride," Rangel said in a press statement. "As a member of Congress and New York City mayor, Ed was seldom afraid to speak his mind and never backed down from a fight. In his decades of service to New York City, Ed became nothing short of an icon, as large as the city itself. His legacy is defined by the turnaround he orchestrated, taking the city from austerity to surplus.