When he was running for reelection after his first fouryear term as mayor of New
York city last September, Ed Koch was asked repeatedly whether he planned to seek higher office: the governorship of New York state. But the clown prince dismissed the thought of exchanging Manhattan’s disco politics for the dowdy upriver goings-on at the state capital in Albany. Recalling his passion for Chinese food, Koch joked that Albany had only two Chinese restaurants. To go there, he said, “would be a fate worse than death.” Then last week, after a month of cocktail chatter and a coupon-clipping “draft Koch” campaign in one New York tabloid, the 57-yearold mayor announced that he would try for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Reminded of his earlier quip at Albany’s expense, Koch was ready with another one-liner. “But I say everybody has to die,” he replied, with mock resignation. Coming from a less popular politician such a bald-faced turnaround would have been enough to incite electoral mutiny. But New Yorkers appear willing not only to forgive Koch for running out on a $l-billion budget deficit, the worst financial crisis since the bankruptcy scare in the mid-1970s, but to forget that he had said he wanted to
be mayor for at least 12 years. One poll showed that eight of 10 New Yorkers were behind Koch’s gubernatorial plans.
One of the dissenters, however, was no less a personage than Republican chairman George Clark. He claimed that Koch had promised not to run for governor in return for the GOP endorsement during his runaway mayoralty victory in the autumn. Incensed that
'That was between God and me. If God wants to punish me, he’ll make me governor of New York state’
Koch had gone back on his word, Clark accused him of lying to “everybody, including God”—a reference to yet another occasion, at the Wailing Wall on a visit to Jerusalem, when Koch had sworn not to move on. But Koch was more than ready for that one. Tagged by pressmen at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s East River residence, he fired back: “That was between God and me. If God wants to punish me, he’ll make me
The Koch guessing game, which provided vivid color for New York’s normally drab midwinter political foliage, began six weeks ago when Democratic Gov. Hugh Carey announced that he would not seek re-election. That proved to be just enough daylight for an old running back like Koch, although his first reaction was that he would not run because New York would “need me to protect you from whoever wins.” Ten days later, after a trip to Spain, Koch conçeded coyly that he “hadn’t put a lock on the door.” The same day, the New York Daily Post (with a circulation of 900,000) started its coupon “draft Koch” campaign.
By mid-February, after sounding out friends and pundits and conducting a series of careful polls, Koch was beginning to sound more like a candidate. Ronald Reagan’s New Federalism—the plan to transfer $47 billion to state control—he said, was an “added incentive to run.” Later, he further fuelled speculation when he vowed to solve the problem of the state’s overcrowded prisons by setting up a system of labor camps— surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by dogs—for people convicted of minor crimes. Local TV stations and newspapers, whose endless polling put Koch 2 to 1 ahead of the other Democratic hopeful, Lt.-Gov. Mario Cuomo, fastened on to the pledge with glee.
Against the Republican top dog, IvyLeague state comptroller Ned Regan, Koch is favored by 55 per cent to 27 per cent in an independent survey of 800 registered voters. “But it’s far from wrapped up,” said pollster Bill Johnson after last week’s announcement that Koch would run. “It could be a real close race if they are the two candidates.”
Some Koch critics point out that, while he barnstorms for votes in a campaign that drags on from April to November, the city of New York will get short shrift.Others claim that, although Koch has been a flamboyant mayor, he does not have the attention span necessary for long-range state policy or the patience to negotiate with the state’s legions of assemblymen and senators. However, insiders suspect (and Koch himself has not ruled out) that Hizzoner has long-range plans of his own— a vice-presidential spot on the 1984 Democratic ticket. Traditionally, the job of mayor in any American city has virtually hexed any further political ambitions of the office holder. But the mayoralty of New York has been used before as a launch pad for national power—John Lindsay, the Kennedy look-alike, tried it in 1971. Should Koch’s aspirations pan out better than Lindsay’s, one thing is certain: even Ronald Reagan’s one-liners will pale by comparison.
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