It was primary night, and Ed Koch was eating mussels.
The 87-year-old former mayor had a corner table at an Italian restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan. At his elbow was John LoCicero, his political advisor since the 1960s. LoCicero was eating mussels, too.
Primary polls were still open for another hour, but LoCicero, Koch and the three other longtime Koch allies out for dinner on June 26 were already talking about the general election — and the deciding role they predicted for the mayor in President Obama’s re-election campaign.
“Ed will get him Florida,” LoCicero said.
Koch, who hasn’t held public office since 1989, reasserted himself as the go-to arbiter of a candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides last fall. His cross-party endorsement was widely credited with helping Republican Bob Turner win a surprise victory in a special congressional election in a heavily Jewish New York district.
But Koch isn’t satisfied helping win a few races in New York’s outer boroughs. This year, the mayor plans to fly south to win Florida’s Jews, and maybe Florida itself (and perhaps, if the electoral math turns out right, a second term) for President Obama.
Obama may see in Koch a surefire backstop against Republican claims that he is insufficiently pro-Israel. But Koch isn’t great at staying on message. When barnstorming Florida for Jimmy Carter in 1980, Koch said the then-president “should rot in hell” if he broke commitments he’d made on Middle East policy. In an election with no margin for error, the mayor could be a liability.
“He’s got a proven record of lighting off Roman candles and carrying dynamite wherever he goes,” said one Florida Democratic political consultant, who asked not to be named. “That’s kind of what makes him interesting.”
Ed Koch is the only living person with a New York City bridge named after him. A polarizing mayor who came to power backed by a coalition of middle-class white voters, Koch was at the center of the tensions between black and Jewish communities that peaked in the early 1990s. Decades later, however, the rough edges of Koch’s legacy have been smoothed over. He’s the city’s eccentric grandfather, wryly aware of his own nostalgic cachet.