Koch: No Room For Bad Choices

I dropped in to see Ed Koch the other day to talk about the Fire Department, and I received a tutorial in the politics of rationality-and the politics of irrationality. Suffice it to say, Mr. Koch seized on the occasion to connect dots that most of us wouldn’t even notice, never mind see were related.

The city’s frightening budget gap was very much on the former Mayor’s mind. On the day we spoke, City Comptroller William Thompson had estimated that this year’s deficit may be as high as $6 billion-a billion more than previous estimates-and Mayor Bloomberg seemed inclined to agree. Mr. Koch was surprised at how calm everybody in City Hall seems to be. “I’ll tell you something,” he said. “This scares the heck out of me. Maybe when you have a personal fortune of $4 billion, you look at a $5 billion deficit and you say, ‘What’s so tough about that?’ I hope he’s right. I think it’s scary.” Mr. Koch also thinks that Mr. Bloomberg’s predicament is far worse than anything he faced in office-even in the late 1970’s, when the city was carefully backing away from the abyss.

Mr. Koch turned our conversation about his experiences in managing the Fire Department into a parable about politics, fiscal reality and unreality, and regrets. By the parable’s end, it was clear exactly how a promise to reopen a firehouse in 1977 and a long battle to close a hospital in Harlem are related to the dilemmas Mr. Bloomberg faces today.

During his epic struggle to win the Mayoralty in 1977, Mr. Koch promised to reopen a firehouse in Brooklyn that had been closed during the fiscal catastrophe of 1975. “It became an important issue as a symbol,” Mr. Koch recalled. “You got lined up by the [firefighters’] union and were asked, ‘Are you for it or against it?’ ‘I’m for it!'” He laughed. “You can’t do everything rationally if you want to stay in office or win office. Occasionally you do something based on irrationality-but hopefully not too many times. It’s a fact of life.”

Reopening a firehouse was not going to send the city back to the abyss. But, Mr. Koch suggested, that kind of decision-making-based not on numbers and fiscal reality, but on political considerations-was irrational and bound to cause trouble.

Then again, acting rationally doesn’t necessarily pay off, either. Mr. Koch pointed to what he called “the biggest fight I had as Mayor, and the one that caused me more political problems than anything else.” That was the closing of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. Even today, the controversy inspires passions on both sides: those who insisted that the facility was not just a financial disaster, but a health-care fiasco, and those who saw the closing as a symbol of the city turning its back on the people and community of Harlem.

“We were in terrible financial straits,” Mr. Koch recalled, “and the budget director said, ‘This is ridiculous. This hospital costs more per patient than any of our other hospitals, and they’re not giving good care. Why are we keeping it open?’ I wanted to do everything by the merits, so I said, ‘All right, we’ll close it.'” As a candidate in 1977, Mr. Koch had promised to keep the hospital open; as Mayor in 1979, he changed his mind.

There was hell to pay. Mr. Koch, who marched for civil rights in the South during the 1960’s, was denounced as a racist. In our conversation, he acknowledged that the hospital-like the firehouse in Brooklyn-had symbolic value to the community. “It had opened its doors to allow black doctors to practice in a hospital at a time when other hospitals were discriminating against them,” he said.

“I think we saved $9 million a year,” Mr. Koch said. “Was it worth it? Was it worth all the heartache and the picketing and the screaming and the wounded feelings? The answer is no, it was not.” He offered the story, he said, to show how he “suffered the consequences of being rational.”

What, you may ask, does this history have to do with Michael Bloomberg and the incredibly growing budget deficit?

“This business about being irrational in terms of dealing with money problems-I don’t know whether there’s any room for that today,” he said. “I’m saying that if I had to do it all over again with Sydenham, I would come to a different decision. But I don’t know that there is room for that kind of irrationality now. There just isn’t any money.”

We didn’t talk about any particular method, rational or otherwise, for getting more money into the city’s treasury. But if Mr. Bloomberg has no room for irrationality, as Mr. Koch suggests, then he ought to reconsider his absurd opposition to a revived commuter tax.

Talk about crazy.