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Encounter With Rival Cracks Koch’s Restraint

Times Staff Writer

When Mayor Edward I. Koch began his unofficial campaign for reelection, many New Yorkers wondered what had happened. Gone was the mayor’s quick-to-quip personality and the feistiness that had become his trademark.

They also wondered, in light of Koch’s natural combativeness, whether his low-key political demeanor could last. The answer came Wednesday.

With the force of a pressure cooker releasing long pent-up steam, Koch blew up at his principal opponent and longtime rival, City Council President Carol Bellamy--and a relatively dull mayor’s race took on a new dimension.

New York’s two top elected officials taunted each other at news conferences from either end of City Hall, where both have offices. Bellamy accused the mayor of being a “total fraud” for refusing to discuss election issues until he formally becomes a candidate. She charged that Koch was busy raising money for his undeclared campaign.

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Taking ‘Low Road’

The mayor quickly accused her of taking the “low road.”

Labeling Koch a “fraud and a phony,” Bellamy retorted that she had learned about the low road from the mayor’s end of City Hall. She accused Koch of campaigning by photo opportunities and “wearing funny hats.”

Denying that he is seeking extraordinary press coverage, the mayor snapped back: “Every time I go to the (expletive deleted) bathroom, there is a reporter waiting to ask me a question.” Koch said the 14 debates he had in 1982 while losing the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Mario M. Cuomo were “stupid.”

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“We were there only to amuse the reporters,” Koch added.

Until Wednesday, restraint had been the watchword in the mayor’s office. In fact, it seemed, one of the best kept secrets in New York that an election was under way at all.

Return to Subdued Stance

And despite his loss of temper Wednesday, Koch and his advisers are determined to return to a subdued stance.

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“We want to put the lid back on. Once in a while, it pops off,” said one of the mayor’s closest strategists.

In hopes of gaining momentum, Bellamy and Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell, who is counting on support from Jesse Jackson, declared their candidacies a full six months ahead of September’s Democratic primary. Koch’s response was that he would not even discuss the election until after June.

And although the entire city knows he is a candidate, the mayor has delayed announcing that he will run for a third term. One adviser joked before Wednesday’s outburst that when he declares next month, Koch might just call reporters into his City Hall office at midnight.

Fund-Raising Efforts

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Koch’s strategy has been to deny his opponents a target and stunt their fund-raising ability and the chance for them to develop issues. The mayor himself has a $4-million war chest, while Bellamy has raised only about $500,000 and Farrell far less. The mayor’s advisers also hoped that if Koch could remain low-key, Bellamy would sound shrill in comparison.

Koch’s effort at subdued demeanor was the result of a lesson well learned. When the mayor ran for governor, he soon found after making flip remarks about the suburbs and rural life that loose quips quickly can help sink campaigns.

The mayor chauvinistically compared New Yorkers who have to wait for subways to their country cousins, who he said, waste time in pickup trucks and have to drive 20 miles “to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit.” He labeled the suburbs as “sterile,” adding “it’s wasting your life” to live there.

After losing the Democratic primary to Cuomo, Koch toned down his campaign rhetoric.

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Outer Boroughs’ Role

Koch’s reelection strategy counts heavily on the city’s outer boroughs of the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn, with the theme that the mayor is a leader who cares about people.

Bellamy declared her candidacy on Feb. 12 at the site of the finish line of the New York Marathon. She has been running a difficult uphill race ever since. Her campaign stresses support from women’s groups and reform Democratic clubs.

“People like Ed Koch personally,” said a key adviser to the City Council president, handing the mayor a bouquet with thorns. “Even people who don’t like his personality say it is not a bad personality to have. But city services are in bad shape.”

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Opponents’ Charges

Both of Koch’s opponents charge the mayor is pursuing a strategy of minimizing debate before the Democratic primary Sept. l0. Koch’s advisers say his efforts are “all governmental.”

Running against two candidates makes the mayor’s task much easier. In a three-candidate race, the winner must receive 40% of the vote. If no one gets 40%, a runoff takes place between the two top finishers. But early polls show Koch well over 50%. Taking no chances in what surely will be a low turnout election, the mayor’s advisers are planning a large vote-pulling effort primary day.

Diane McGrath, a commissioner of the New York State Crime Victims Board, will be the Republican candidate in November’s general election.

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