His three-term mayorship, from 1978 to 1989, brought tough new cuts and policies to the nation’s largest city, as a result landing him frequently in the pages of TIME. His 12 years at City Hall proved the power of restraint — he described himself as a “liberal with sanity,” often asking constitutents the question that became his catchphrase — “How’m I doing?” — along with a cheery thumbs-up. And the answer, more often than not, was a positive one.
Even after his retirement, Koch managed to maintain a political presence, finding his endorsements and editorials in much demand. He penned numerous op-eds in defense of Israel, as he was “fiercely proud of his Jewish faith,” his epitaph reads.
Koch, a lifelong bachelor, often sidestepped rumors about his sexual orientation — often with some choice words for his critics. During his initial mayoral run in 1977, he was bolstered by his close relationship with former beauty queen Bess Myerson. He never did marry — and the rumors persisted – but it’s clear that Koch’s first and only love was the city he served.
Here’s what TIME wrote about the mayor over the course of his three terms:
On his broad appeal:
But none of this really explains Koch, who remains remarkably mysterious for an apparently open man. Some of the mystery is due to his living alone and keeping his own counsel. Some is due to the fact that there are sides to Koch that do not smack of Establishment at all — a strong egalitarian impulse that continually rises to the surface, coupled with genuine comfort in mixing with all classes and races, without any feelings of personal superiority. (A Mayor for All Seasons, June 15, 1981)
He lives in a one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment, where he occasionally cooks steaks for friends and serves low-priced French table wine from a living-room rack. In the kitchen he stocks old-fashioned seltzer siphons. (Cool Man for a Hot Seat, Oct. 03, 1977)
On quick reflexes:
Koch reacted instantly to the [Black Monday stock market] crash by freezing the planned hiring of 5,200 new workers and postponing raises for 4,000 management jobs. As a result of his reassuring actions, the city’s bond rating was upgraded last week to its highest level since the 1975 financial crisis. (Troubled Times for Hizzoner, Nov. 30, 1987)
On his first two years in office:
If New York is a taxi, Ed Koch is its driver—quick-tempered, belligerent, opinionated, chatty, protective, frank and possibly nuts. He usually speeds, and sometimes he drives on the sidewalk. His enemies are “crackpots.” To everyone within earshot he asks, “How’m I doing?” Two out of three of those surveyed have answered: good. (New York, New York, It’s a … , Aug. 18, 1980)
On cleaning up the city:
Since February, transit police have guaranteed that there will be one officer on every train from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. They have instituted sweeps of subway stations, a kind of underground rapid-deployment force that in 33 months has detected 9,000 incidents of crime. (New York’s Subways: Under the Apple, Apr. 08, 1985)