Q&A: Ed Koch’s Life and Legacy

How the former New York City mayor, who died early Friday morning, left a lasting imprint

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Former New York Mayor Ed Koch listens during the 9th annual National Action Network convention in New York.

Ed Koch, the firebrand three-term mayor of New York City who died early Friday morning, will be remembered for the stamp he left on the five boroughs. Two scholars of Gotham’s history talked to TIME about Koch’s legacy, his sense of humor and his regular gaffes.

On New York City in 1978, when Koch became mayor:
Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University: Koch came into office when New York was at a low point in its history. The city’s finances were under enormous pressure because the major banks would not lend to the city. There was grave doubt about whether the city could survive. He was able to come in and immediately impose his personality on the city. If he had to do difficult things, he was willing to do it with wit. And sometimes he was able to neutralize opponents with his sense of humor.

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On Koch as the embodiment of New York:
Jonathan Soffer, associate professor of history at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University: He was a great champion of the city. It was clear to most New Yorkers that Koch had a deep abiding love for this city. That reputation, that started when he was in public office, was solidified because he stayed in the public eye. He would exert political power, but it always seemed to be because he wanted to continue helping New York.

Moss: He made people in New York feel good about being New Yorkers. He had a New York sense of humor, always willing to engage, to ridicule, and also to take on any opponent. He had an unusual temperament, which is that he was a fighter. But he wasn’t a mean spirited fighter. Jimmy Carter came to NYC, running for re-election and Koch had been critical of Carter, and he rode in a car with Carter and Carter apparently said to Koch, “You’re killin’ me!” And Koch just shrugged.

On his place in New York City history:
Moss: The thing about Koch is even when he left office he was still a public persona here. He never left the limelight; he was actually in the limelight more after being mayor. He was a movie critic, a food critic, he did advertisements. He’s one of the few politicians who maintained his prominence even without holding office.

(PHOTOSFormer NYC Mayor Ed Koch, 1924-2013)

On his oft-questioned sexuality:
Soffer: I wrote about in my biography, Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City — and he read the manuscript and he did not make a mark on it — that “Ed Koch does not construct himself as gay, he does not construct himself as straight either.” He mostly kept his sexuality private. In one incident, a talk show host asked him if he was gay, and Koch turned on the talk show host and said “Did you have oral sex with your wife last night? Because that’s precisely the question you’re asking me.”

On his legacy:
Soffer: Koch was sometimes honest about his politics to a fault. I think, more than any other reason, he lost his chances for re-election to a fourth term when he said that Jews would have to be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson. He could not be deterred from saying things that were just excruciating. But paradoxically, it gave him a reputation for honesty.

Moss: Whatever enemies he had while in office, they now have great affection for him. People like authentic politicians, and he was an authentic guy.

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