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Koch Aims for Enshrinement in N.Y. Political History

Times Staff Writer

In the fall of 1956, a young lawyer with a growing taste for politics carried an American flag to street corners in Greenwich Village, and wherever he could draw a crowd, he preached the election of Adlai E. Stevenson for President.

It was a seminal experience, good basic training amidst the traffic and the turmoil for what would come later.

“You can really make great points when there are hecklers in the audience,” Edward Isidore Koch reminisced in his memoirs. “The only kind of heckler you can’t use is the drunk. The others, the ones who want to debate you, are terrific. I love them. I became politically active then and there.”

Already Running Hard

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On Thursday, 33 years later, Koch announced for a fourth term as mayor of New York. His declaration on a local radio program was a formality. He had been running hard for a year, some say for most of his life.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am running,” Koch, 64, said from his office at City Hall.

“Is that your formal announcement?” a reporter asked.

“I’m an informal guy,” Koch deadpanned.

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Unlike previous reelection campaigns where he won with over 70% of the vote, the mayor clearly is the underdog, suddenly thrust against the reality of his political mortality.

Only two other mayors, Robert F. Wagner Jr. and Fiorello H. LaGuardia (Koch’s hero) ever governed New York City for three terms. David Garth, the mayor’s good friend, confidant and campaign strategist, said Koch’s bid for a fourth term “is the difference between making the All-Star team and making Cooperstown,” referring to the site in Upstate New York of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He wants to make Cooperstown. If he has to go out, he’d rather go out fighting. He understands the reality. He may not like it, but he faces it.”

Time Getting Scarce

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The reality is difficult, and the innings are beginning to slide by quickly on Koch’s field of dreams.

New York’s Democratic primary is Sept. 12. The latest polls show Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins, who is seeking to make history of his own by becoming the city’s first black mayor, with 45% of the vote--five points above the threshold to avoid a runoff. Koch, in the latest Daily News/WABC-TV poll, trails with 31%.

Equally serious, only 37% of registered Democrats gave Koch a positive job rating--an amazing slide judged against the euphoria of his first two terms in office.

For millions of Americans west of the Hudson, Koch over almost a dozen years has come to symbolize New York City: brash, brawling, tough and tumultuous. His autobiography “Mayor” was a best seller. His many appearances on television ranging from “The Tonight Show” to “Saturday Night Live” have made him a national celebrity.

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The mayor’s mouth, his detractor’s charge, is his most prominent political feature. He gloats in his victories, glories in his enemies defeats.

It got him in big trouble when he declared during the 1988 presidential primary in New York that “Jews have got to be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson.” The mayor later apologized.

Victories have been very few in his third term, which has been marked by charges of corruption in government, chaos in some neighborhoods caused by crime and crack, homelessness and simmering racial tension. Voters began to forget Koch’s work that helped bring the city back from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970’s. Koch’s ability to identify with the city’s worst problems as if he were an ordinary citizen, not the public official most responsible for solving them, began to wear thin.

Atop all this, Koch suffered a small stroke. It left no paralysis or diminution of faculties, but Koch’s physicians told him he’d had a close call: The stroke was just a hairbreadth away from the motor area of his brain.

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The task for Koch over the next eight weeks is clear: drive Dinkins below 40% and get to play in extra innings in a runoff on Sept. 19. It will be a tricky exercise.

Current polls show almost three quarters of black Democrats voting for Dinkins in the primary, which leads Koch’s advisers to believe that the mayor can’t attack the 61-year-old borough president with full vigor for fear of losing the black vote in November’s general election. U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani, 44, who is expected to win the Republican primary, will also appear on the Independent and the Liberal Party ballots in an effort to make his candidacy palatable to disaffected Democrats.

Instead of attacking Dinkins, the mayor has engaged Giuliani in political combat whenever possible, hoping the perception will grow that Koch, not Dinkins, is the only Democrat tough enough to defeat the former prosecutor.

At the same time, the mayor has been running commercials stressing his achievements in minority neighborhoods. One set of commercials features black and Latino residents praising the city’s $5.1-billion effort designed to create 252,000 units of affordable housing--the largest municipal building program in the nation.

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“It’s still the second toughest job in America,” the tag line proclaims, attempting to tie together Koch’s achievements with the oblique charge that Dinkins is too weak to sit behind the mayor’s desk at City Hall.

At the same time, Koch’s advisers hope Richard Ravitch, a 55-year-old builder and former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and city Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin, 53, remain in the Democratic primary. Even though both are polling in single digits, their endorsement of Dinkins, if they dropped out of the race, could be devastating.

The mayor’s advisers also hope that Dinkins will become the subject of increasing media scrutiny. Dinkins failed to file federal, state and city income tax returns for 1969 through 1972--which he admitted when he withdrew as a potential candidate for deputy mayor in 1973.


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