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Tuesday, October 21, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 43.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: Ed Koch and the joy of the fight
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Ed Koch
Ed Koch
Credit:Zeitgeist Films

Ed Koch was like most mayors, only more so.

There's an old joke that Woody Allen uses in Annie Hall. It goes, "The food here is terrible! And such small portions!"

That's the way most mayors view their job: It's a horrible existence, and how can I figure out a way to do this for the rest of my life?

The thing about Mayor Koch, who died last Friday, is that he brought such unvarnished joy to the full exercise of his powers. It wasn't that he was always a nice man. In fact, he was often brutal to his opponents. But even when he was brutal, he reveled in his brutality.

Most of the time he was just a whirlwind of action. In a city that many had come to think of as hopeless and ungovernable when he took over in 1977, Koch made hard choices and started New York on its long road to renaissance. He took the reins from the dour, cautious Abe Beame, and infused the office with a sense of energy and purpose.

His famous question to New Yorkers, "How 'm I doin?" was a way of saying "I care what you think." The evidence is that only positive responses were accepted, but still, he got a lot of credit just for asking the question.

And he did the hard stuff that any good mayor has to do. A liberal Democrat, he took on the public employee unions and more pure liberal icons like Bella Abzug. I can't think of a single successful mayor who didn't find himself needing to take on his own base at some point. In fact, one mayor once told me, "If you're not willing to say 'no' to your friends, you shouldn't have this job."

Joe Nocera commented that Koch was the "last New York mayor to have a sense of humor." Koch didn't quite master the self-effacing variety, but he still was quick with a quip. He described himself as "a liberal with sanity." and when he found himself in disagreement with a some of the New York Jewish community, he said "Mayor trumps rabbi."

Mayors choose the notes to play. A diverse city is like a piano keyboard. It has all the notes, both sour and sweet, and a mayor can bring out the harmony or the discord, the dissonance or the joyful noise. The truth is that Koch did some of both, but even when he was provoking conflict, he did it with a sense of joy for the job and a clear love of his city.

There's a clip from the documentary on Koch that came out the day he died in which the old mayor reminisces about flying home to New York, looking down on Manhattan and thinking to himself, "This belongs to me." I used to get the same thrill flying into Madison. You hear mayors say things like that. Everything's in the possessive -- "My" cops, "My" firefighters, "My" convention center -- as if we personally employed these guys or owned this stuff.

It's not hubris. It reflects the personal, intimate nature of the job. There is no more retail job in politics. One mayor, a former congressman like Koch, told me, "When I was a congressman and things got hot, I could say 'Tough problem. I've gotta catch a plane.' But as mayor they want to see you there. You can't hide."

At a mayor's conference I attended in early January, one mayor we were counting on didn't show up. There was a snowstorm bearing down on his city and there was no way he was going to be out of town when it hit. We all understood.

There is no better job on earth than mayor of a city and the bigger the city the bigger the headaches and the bigger the joy. Ed Koch embraced all that. He was as big as the city he led, and that is very large indeed.

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