Ed Koch and His Enemies

What’s next for dear old Ed Koch?

“Death!” he told the Transom, with trademark glee, in his midtown office last Friday morning.

“I’m 85. My father lived to 87. The average American lives to 78. I’m already living on borrowed time, but I have no fear of death,” said the former mayor, who famously bought a burial plot at the nondenominational Trinity Church in 2008. (“I didn’t want to go to the traditional cemeteries; they seem so overgrown with vegetation. This one is very well cared for.”)

In the meantime, Mr. Koch is trying to put the fear of God in state legislators.

Last spring, he presented all of the Albany hopefuls with a set of pledges-one in support of nonpartisan redistricting, one for a fiscally responsible budget and one for a package of ethics reforms-and, as of last week’s deadline, he had cajoled an impressive 280 candidates into signing his pledges, mostly by threatening them.

“I started calling around and telling people we’re very serious, we’re going to put ‘Enemy of Reform’ over your head on our Web site,” he said. And, while many have tried and failed to clean up Albany, his efforts seem to be working. “I didn’t think we’d be so far ahead as we are today.”

This week, Mr. Koch is pushing the pledge campaign-called New York Uprising-a few miles further, embarking on an upstate press tour to shame publicly some of the recalcitrant legislators in their home districts. At press conferences in Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester, he’ll stand with the local signatories (“Heroes of Reform” as he calls them), next to oversize posters with pictures of his Enemies.

“I didn’t willingly take this on. I was waiting for someone else to do it. I mean, it takes a lot of time,” said Mr. Koch, who still delights in penning movie reviews and has lately begun casting his many opinions out to his 600-plus followers on Twitter. “It’s only after six months or a year of going to every breakfast, lunch and dinner, where all they talked about is the dysfunctional Legislature … I’m thinking somebody is going to stand up and challenge this in some form. But nobody did. So I said to myself, ‘Well, if nobody will, I will.'”

‘I didn’t want to be governor,” says Mr. Koch. ‘Everybody knows that. It was hubris.’

He started by recruiting famous trustees from across the spectrum: Felix Rohaytn; his erstwhile opponent, Mario Cuomo; and an old nemesis, Rudy Giuliani, about whom Mr. Koch once wrote a book titled Rudy Giuliani, Nasty Man. (“It’s a wonderful title,” Mr. Koch remarked with a laugh.)

The two former mayors-who Mr. Koch insists have always had a cordial relationship-ran into each other at 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue, near where they both have offices. “I saw him serendipitously in the street,” Mr. Koch said. “I said, ‘Rudy, let me tell you what I’m doing.’ We stood there for about five, six minutes. I told him what we were doing. He said, ‘Sounds good to me, send me a couple details.’ We did. On board. No problem.

“People were shocked,” he said.

After that, Mr. Koch harangued the gubernatorial candidates of both parties into agreeing that they’d veto any redistricting bill that unfairly favors one party or the other, a tactic Mr. Koch credits for getting a majority of candidates from both parties on board.

“You can’t do this if you’re a partisan,” he said. “You have to treat people exactly the same whether you’re a Democrat or Republican and call them by their rightful names. And I’m doing it. And it’s driving them crazy, but that’s good.”

One of his most powerful, and intractable, opponents is a former “political friend,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The two have been sparring lately in the press. Mr. Silver has said he is already working on many of the same reform goals, and that, as a rule, he does not sign pledges; Mr. Koch has said that makes him an Enemy.

“It’s clear Shelly will never agree to be dragged into this,” Mr. Koch said. “He’ll fight it tooth and nail until the very end, thinking he can beat us. I don’t think he can.”

Last week, Mr. Silver again expressed his opposition-which has provided cover for the dozens of Assembly members who have refused to sign-though the speaker said he supported Mr. Koch many times and “respects the elderly.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” Mr. Koch said. “I appreciate that. And I hope that when I’m on a bus he’ll give me a seat.”

This week, Mr. Koch will be making the rounds in a rented Jeep, his first campaign swing through upstate since his gubernatorial run in 1982, when he described the region as “sterile.”

“You have to understand, I didn’t want to be governor. Everybody knows that. It was-what’s the word I’m looking for-hubris on my part,” he said. “My comments were ridiculous, and everybody knows that. When I said Albany doesn’t have a good Chinese restaurant-it probably does now. But I wouldn’t be happy there. And everybody knew that. So I don’t think there’s any ill will toward me at all.”

And, with any luck, Mr. Koch says he’ll back upstate to highlight their hypocrisy, if his Heroes fail to follow through on their pledges next year.

“I’m going to be working up until the time I die,” he said. “How many last hurrahs can you have? I refer to this one as my last hurrah; maybe there will be a couple of others.” 

Ed Koch and His Enemies