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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Koch’s Place In History

The late New York City Mayor Ed Koch (1924-2013) once said that if all of the taxpayer money intended for the poor got to the poor, “the poor would be rich.”

That observation about the high cost of government-funded service- providers has resonance to this day and, thanks to Koch, a documentary directed by first-time filmmaker and former Merrick resident Neil Barsky, a new generation of New Yorkers will get to see Mayor Koch in his prime.

The 95-minute film began its theatrical release in New York City on Friday, Feb. 1, the same day Mayor Koch died at the age of 88. It opened on Long Island on Friday, Feb. 8 at Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre and, on Friday, Feb. 15, Koch will hit the big screen at Roslyn Cinemas and Malverne Cinema 4.

One thing that got lost in the tributes to the former Congressman, who first won election to the mayoralty in 1977, was that Koch was 65 years old when he left office in December 1989. David Dinkins ousted Koch in that year’s Democratic primary, and Dinkins went on to win the general election in 1989 against Rudy Giuliani.

Despite his electoral defeat after serving three terms at City Hall, Koch remained a highly visible figure on the public stage, with his endorsements still carrying weight long after he left public office. The most recent example I can think of is when Ed Koch avidly backed Robert Turner, the Republican nominee, in the special 2011 Queens/Brooklyn Congressional election held after Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned. Turner won for many reasons but Koch’s endorsement was one of them.

Koch is primarily about the New York City of the late 1970s and 1980s, an era when the city’s finances and its streets were in a constant state of turmoil. Th e 1977 mayoral election could be a film unto itself. New York Governor Hugh Carey wanted neither incumbent Mayor Abe Beame nor Bella Abzug, seen initially as Beame’s main rival, to hold City Hall’s top job.

This is why Carey recruited Mario Cuomo, then-New York State’s Secretary of State, to run for mayor. Th en-Rep. Koch was considered in early 1977 as a long shot to become Mayor Koch, but he prevailed in the Democratic primary, and then again in a two-candidate run-off against Cuomo, before emerging victorious in the general election. While all of this was going on in 1977, Son of Sam was in the midst of his murderous rampage before being arrested in August 1977, and a city-wide power outage that summer lasted for days, with criminals taking advantage of the situation by looting the city’s retail stores.

The Koch administration is widely credited with shoring up the city’s finances and making some headway in combating crime, even though a 2013 audience is sure to be shocked at the raucousness of the city’s governmental and political scene as it views the archival footage which is sprinkled throughout Barsky’s documentary.

For viewers wanting to read a darker view of the Koch years, I strongly recommend City For Sale, co-authored by the late Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett. It chronicles in great detail the municipal scandals that enveloped City Hall in Mayor Koch’s third term. The hero of City For Sale was then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, who successfully prosecuted the higher profile thieves who had access to the city’s treasury in the 1980s. In a fi tting twist, Koch and Barrett, one-time combatants, would eventually agree they had little use for Mayor Giuliani.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net