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“Larger-Than-Life” Ex-NYC Mayor Ed Koch Leaves Complex Legacy of Racial Tension, Social Programs

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Former New York City Democratic Mayor Ed Koch died Friday morning at the age of 88. He served three terms in office from 1978 to 1989. Koch is widely credited with rescuing the city from the brink of financial ruin, an achievement Democracy Now! co-host Juan González notes was also the result of sacrifices from labor unions. González describes Koch’s mixed legacy, from his earlier days opposing the Vietnam War to his hostile relations with African Americans and Latinos, to the launch of a massive low-income housing program. Koch also took criticism for his handling of the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the city. He was known for his feisty demeanor, which gave him a national reputation and sparked multiple political controversies. “He always sort of represented that combative spirit of New Yorkers,” González says. “His most famous line was: 'How am I doing?' And I think that people who look back now at his period of time will say, 'Well, Mayor, you did pretty well.'” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s coverage with more on the death of former New York Mayor Ed Koch. Juan González is usually sitting beside me on Fridays, but he’s heading to the airport to speak in Houston. Juan, we just got the news a couple of hours ago that Mayor Koch died at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Can you talk about Mayor Koch’s legacy? You have covered him for many years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Amy. Well, you know, he really was a larger-than-life figure in the history of modern New York City and clearly a man who—as you said, he was brash, he was combative, at the same time he was known for his humor and his ability to disarm even his strongest opponents. And he really presided over a period of intense upheaval in the city. And while some still credit him for steering the city through the financial crisis, it’s really—I think it was an effort not just of the mayor and state officials, but also the labor unions of the city, who used their pension fund to lend the city money at a time when no one else would, so that there’s an—there’s also an attempt to rewrite the history and make it seem as if a few key figures were responsible for pulling New York City out of its worst period of time during that financial crisis in the ’70s.

However, Koch was a—he was an amazing figure. He was a one-time liberal, an antiwar—opponent of the Vietnam War as a congressman, who in his later years became increasingly a neoconservative, opponent of affirmative action, and really developed during his terms in office a very hostile relationship with the African-American and Latino community. I’ll never forget back in 1989 when he was attempting to run for his—for his fourth term, an unprecedented fourth term, and he went to the funeral of a black teenager in Brooklyn who had been killed by a mob of whites in Bensonhurst. And there was such anger in the black community at the time that Koch was actually chased out by the crowd and forced to flee in his limousine, because—and, of course, was unsuccessful in attempting to have a fourth term.

But at the same time, there was a lot of good that occurred during his period of mayor. He did launch a huge low-income housing program, feeling it was the responsibility of government to assure that there was affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers. I think he—about $5 billion that he spent in that program. And, of course, he always sort of represented that combative spirit of New Yorkers. His most famous line was: “How am I doing?” And I think that, you know, people who look back now at his period of time will say, “Well, Mayor, you did pretty well,” for a figure who was so long on the political scene. Even until the last few days, he was still pontificating on NY1, the local all-news cable news channel, as one of the wise guys who would—who would render his opinion on almost anything happening in the political world and New York City. So, it was a larger-than-life figure, very controversial, but still indelibly marked his legacy on the modern-day New York.

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