Joseph Cotto, 2/2/2016 [Archive]

We Could Use Ed Koch Right About Now

By Joseph Cotto

Enough with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Something else in the political realm demands our attention. It is an anniversary, the third since America lost one of its greatest leaders in modern times.

Ed Koch was more than a politician. During his three-term tenure as mayor of New York City, and long after he left office in 1989, the man turned himself into a living legend.

By delivering honest, witty and hard-edged opinions on issues of the day, he remained relevant. This came even as the era of detailed news reportage morphed into a free-for-all of sound-bite journalism.

Beyond this, however, Koch managed the Big Apple's finances during its most troublesome period. From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, New York was often stereotyped as a den of corruption and violence.

That image was deeply rooted in reality. Nonetheless, Koch inspired a feeling of optimism in the minds of many New Yorkers who had seen their city suffer too much for far too long.

While New York never did completely rebound during his mayoralty, Koch set the framework for what it would become during Rudy Giuliani's tenure. Such a thing required extensive budget cuts, confronting less-than-civic-minded union personnel, and dealing with public servants who had come to serve themselves only.

His reforms were not glamorous, but they were what New York desperately needed.

Today, America has a serious lack of leaders who can hold a candle to Koch's accomplishments. He was among a distinct wave of politicians who rose to power amid economic and cultural shifts that left countless cities in the dust. This wave includes San Francisco's Dianne Feinstein, Tampa's Dick Greco, Cleveland's George Voinovich, San Diego's Pete Wilson, and, perhaps most notably, Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer.

Leaders — note the word 'leaders' as opposed to 'politicians' — of Koch's magnitude are almost nowhere to be found now. What a shame that is for all of us, regardless of political perspective or party membership.

While a columnist at The Washington Times's Communities page, I had the privilege of interviewing Koch on two occasions. The first was over the summer of 2012. He told me "(o)ne reason that politics is now more a blood sport....is that the country is so closely divided. One way to bring back cordiality is to give one party all three victories — with large majorities — in the Senate, House and keep the presidency with the party winning the two houses."

Words well worth pondering.

Our second discussion took place on January 18, 2013, exactly 14 days before he passed away. From what I can tell, it was his last media interview. Published on January 22, amid the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Koch urged "mandatory prison sentences for having an illegal gun, and doubling a prison sentence for using a gun during the commission of a crime".

He also mentioned that "(t)he U.S. Supreme Court has made clear gun possession cannot be outlawed, but can be subject to reasonable regulations limiting firepower of weapons sold, as well as precluding from possession felons and the mentally ill."

The Mayor always responded to my questions in a matter-of-fact, though not necessarily abrupt, fashion. His blunt way of answering appealed to me as a journalist, yet some found him abrasive. Koch was the personification of the old-school New York attitude which has inspired an ocean of literature and cinema.

He was and always will be the quintessential New Yorker. Those of us who are not from the Big Apple can never truly comprehend the Koch mindset. As a Floridian, however, I meet no shortage of New Yorkers who think the world of him. A reputation like this must be earned, and all evidence seems to indicate that Koch deserves the praise he is so frequently afforded.

During his mayoral years, Koch would ask constituents how they thought he was doing. Considering his career in public office, the answer speaks for itself loud and clear.

Although Koch has been gone for the better part of half a decade, it is difficult to imagine — let alone accept — that he is no longer an active player in America's political theater. His absence leaves the performance woefully sub-par.

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Copyright 2016 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at joseph.f.cotto@gmail.com.

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