For anyone who has been inclined to devote attention to New York City’s 105th mayor in recent years, Ed Koch has seemed like the cranky yet lovable grandfather of New York City politics.
Since leaving Gracie Mansion in 1990, he has popped up regularly, either presiding over “The People’s Court” or, more recently, offering commentary as one of the “Wise Guys” on NY1’s panel of former elected officials. To many, especially the younger generation, he is a charming elder statesman who speaks out on reforming state government.
With his warm and fuzzy media appearances, whether promoting the children’s book he wrote, penning movie reviews or celebrating the renaming of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, it might be difficult to recall precisely how divisive a figure Koch can be. However, his pronouncements in the aftermath of a congressional race in Queens and Brooklyn have certainly helped us remember.
In the final days of the campaign for the congressional seat in Brooklyn and Queens to succeed Anthony Weiner, Koch, the Democrat who has rarely met a Republican he wouldn’t endorse, threw his support behind–who else?–the Republican, Bob Turner.
Koch’s endorsement came with full-throttle rhetoric to stoke the fears of Jewish voters in the district, urging people to vote for the Republican as a way of protesting President Barack Obama’s policy on Israel. Never mind that the president’s position has been consistent with the foundation of nearly all Middle East negotiations for more than 10 years, that Israel’s pre-1967 borders should be the basis for negotiating a peace agreement,with mutually agreed land swaps.
Turner’s ultimate victory has only served to further embolden the belligerent Koch. Since the election, Koch has vowed to intensify his criticism of the president among Jewish voters on a national stage during the 2012 election unless Obama changes his position on Israel. The former mayor has added that he is disturbed by what he calls Obama’s “special efforts to solicit support in the Muslim world,” saying that they indicate “a change in the relationship with Israel that had existed since 1948.”
It is vintage Koch; a fresh reminder of the man who, as mayor was spectacularly adept at, pitting one group against another. It brings back the memories of the Koch who, a year after his persistent attacks on the presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, condemned a protest march through the streets of the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn in 1989. The march, which came at the height of one of the most tension-filled chapters of the city’s modern history, followed the killing of Yusef Hawkins, a Black teenager, by bat-wielding white attackers.
The Black politicians and clergy members who participated in the painful protest march, Koch said, threatened to inflame racial tension. The Koch Doctrine: Civil rights marches in sensitive scenarios are counterproductive and should be discouraged.
Since his defeat in the 1989 Democratic mayoral primary by David N. Dinkins (a defeat due in no small measure to his well-earned image as a master of insensitivity), Koch has been somewhat less controversial and confrontational. Like all Americans, he is entitled to state his opinions on the issues of the day (and has done so, admirably, on the topic of the need for independent redistricting in New York State).
As a longtime mayor, he may even have earned a more visible platform for those opinions. But in highly emotional political matters fraught with longstanding racial, ethnic and religious strain, there is a need for cool, sensitive and constructive dialogue.
It’s a lesson one would have hoped the 105th mayor might have learned by now.
He has not.