I could not count the number of times I have met Giuliani or Mike Bloomberg. But I remember meeting Koch for the first time at Gracie Mansion. There are many aspects of being a mayor that go unnoticed. The deals with unions, developers, city pensions, and the problem above all problems - government debt – are where individual mayors can really make a mark. Koch came up through the Democratic machine system, and he got the city through one of its toughest times in recent memory. If Koch was the governmental savior, Felix Rohatyn was the financial brains that rescued New York. But Koch was good at building the relationships that made the city run, and a lot of chief executives – from mayors to presidents – cannot make that claim today. Can a person be a successful mayor of a large city without being able to build relationships? It may not be necessary, but it sure does help. You know Koch was good at this because the relationships he formed lasted his entire life.
I briefly worked as a volunteer with retired Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. Stern is a brilliant man, and like Koch, he is a piece of New York City political history. Stern and Koch were great friends. They were part of a cadre of friends that attended movies and regularly ate together at restaurants. Their's was a relationship that lived through government and into civilian life. The reason why this is an important story is that very few people at this level of government can make this claim. Koch was close with his friends when he was mayor, and he remained close even when the issues of the day were not about City Hall.
Koch was a quintessential New Yorker from a time when being so meant more than coming here after college to build a career. Koch cared about this city and the evidence is in one of his last efforts. Koch, Stern and a team of others set out to reform the way districts are drawn in New York. There is no more important issue when it comes to reforming government than how we draw districts.
If districts are drawn in this state with the oversight of an independent body, we will have more competitive elections. Politicians designing districts means that incumbency is protected. Koch did this city and state a great service right up to the very end. The relationships that he built and the friendships that he forged helped the reform effort. That worn out phrase from Leo Durocher that “nice guys finish last” is nonsense. Nice guys very often are the most effective, and Koch was proof of that. Years ago, I wrote a letter to Koch just to get his thoughts on another writer. He wrote me right back. In many ways, he was more than a part of the political upper echelon; he was a part of the citizenry. He wrote back.
He was never cocooned in a staffing fortress like some leaders. Just look at how he was laid to rest, in a nondenominational cemetery so he could remain in New York. Even in death, he was not a cliquey politician.
Some critics who complained that he was not open enough about his personal life were off base. Koch should be remembered as a relationship builder, and in this city, that is a very big deal. To be a leader when relationships mattered beyond politics, that must have been a blast.