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Famous for greeting constituents with “How’m I doin?,” the Jewish mayor presided over some of the city’s most difficult years, from 1978 to 1989, and helped spur the recovery that would flourish under one of his successors, Rudy Giuliani.
Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924 to Jewish immigrants from Poland. The family moved to Newark, N.J., when Koch was 9, after his father’s fur shop closed during the Depression, but returned to New York in 1941 when business picked up again. After high school, Koch enrolled at City College and worked as a shoe salesman, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1943.
He served in the infantry and after the war spent time in Bavaria helping replace Nazis who occupied public posts with non-Nazis, according to The New York Times. He was discharged in 1946 and went to law school at New York University.
Koch got his start in politics as a Democratic district leader in Greenwich Village, then worked his way up to City Council, and in 1968 beat incumbent Whitney North Seymour Jr., a Republican, in a race for Congress. Though he served for nine years in Washington, Koch remained a creature of New York, saying he got the “bends” whenever he stayed away from the city for too long, according to the Times.
In 1977, Koch ran for mayor, upsetting Abraham Beame, another Jewish mayor who oversaw a fiscal crisis that brought New York to the edge of bankruptcy. Upon taking office, Koch immediately set to cutting the municipal budget, trimming the city’s workforce, reaching a settlement with unions and securing federal aid that had been denied to Beame. In his second term, he turned the $400 million deficit he had inherited into a $500 million surplus.
He won a third term with 78 percent of the vote, but then things went sour. His administration was beset by a series of corruption scandals, rising drug-related violence and burgeoning racial tensions. Koch became the target of black ire for closing a hospital in Harlem – a move he later conceded had been a mistake – and for saying that Jews would be “crazy” to vote for the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential primary, given Jackson’s support for Palestinians and his 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown.”
After losing his bid for election to a fourth term in 1989 when David Dinkins bested him in the Democratic primary, Koch retired into a happy existence as a Jewish Yoda, blessing or cursing political figures as he saw fit and not always hewing to the prescripts of the Democratic Party.