FLORIDA, July 14, 2012 — Ed Koch is the sort of person who rarely turns up in politics these days.
He has strong opinions, longstanding convictions, and does not mince words about his ideas. As New York City’s chief executive for three consecutive terms — from 1978 to 1989 — he famously managed to save it from financial meltdown. Somewhere along the way, he reinvigorated the spirit of the Big Apple and earned a reputation as one of America’s foremost urban leaders.
Times have changed, though. Koch governed in a transpartisan fashion that would be all but impossible to replicate in this era of ideologically-charged politics. Nonetheless, he manages to remain quite the celebrity, riling the emotions of hardline leftists and rightists alike.
In a discussion about the state of modern politics, along with his storied career, Koch spoke to me about matters ranging from Citizens United to Ron Paul.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics. When you were a congressman and the mayor of New York, bipartisanship was far more prevalent. Why do you think that politics have become so divisive? What can be done to bring compromise back from the history books?
Mayor Ed Koch: One reason that politics is now more a blood sport, I believe, 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.
Cotto: At the beginning of your political career, your views were standardly center-left. During the early 1970s, however, you became far more moderate. How and why did this happen?
Mayor Koch: I believe I remained center-liberal. However, the Forest Hills low income housing project of three 24-story buildings with 4,300 people all on welfare proposed by Mayor John Lindsey to be placed in a district primarily of one-family homes caused me to say it was wrong and that low-income projects that were too large could be opposed. I dubbed myself a liberal with sanity. I was no longer an ideologue and crossed party lines to a greater degree, but viewed myself as a Scoop Jackson Democrat.
Cotto: Due to the Citizens United ruling, millions of Americans have become nervous about the influence which money plays in politics. Do you share these concerns? Or is Citizens United merely formalizing what has gone on under the table, so to speak, for generations?
Mayor Koch: Citizens United should be rescinded in effect by passage of the Udall constitutional amendment. States and municipalities should have the right to limit contributions to candidates and limit expenditures by candidates. The U.S. supreme Court has decided not to revisit its decision in the original case.
Cotto: When you were elected mayor, New York was facing some of the most dire financial conditions imaginable. Throughout your three terms, you managed to deal with many of these. How did you accomplish this, and what can Washington learn from the Big Apple?
Mayor Koch: I decided bankruptcy was not an option. It would make New York City into another Detroit, permanently ruined financially, bereft of the middle class that would flee. I decided no matter the political cost to me and the possibility I would be booted out of office, I would do everything on the merits and cut good and needed programs we couldn’t afford. It worked. I said at the time, “If you throw me out, I’ll get a better job (financially) and you won’t get a better mayor.”
Cotto: Needless to say, America remains caught in the Great Recession’s clutches. How do you think that our country can reclaim its economic vitality?
Mayor Koch: Adopt Simpson-Bowles. While retaining Social Security and Medicare as entitlements, take the measures needed to make them solvent. It can be done.
Over the last several years, mass movements such as Occupy and the Tea Party have made a huge impact on the political process. Each is largely a result of the recession and popular anger at government malfeasance. Does Koch believe that both will maintain their strength in the long run?
During complicated times like these, a robust national security policy is essential. While America can continue to build stronger relationships with proven allies, such as Israel, more should be done to prevent against domestic terrorism as well. What are Koch’s opinions on this most challenging matter?
Across the political spectrum as of late, libertarianism has emerged with a vengeance. Specifically in the Republican Party, followers of Ron Paul are storming the establishment’s gates. Does Koch believe that libertarianism is a viable philosophy for governing? What does he think about the Ron Paul movement?
From San Diego to Boston, election season has arrived once again. Does Koch have a preferred candidate, or has he yet to make a decision?
In the next part of our discussion, the Mayor will answer all of these questions and tell us a bit about his career.
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