POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 09, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. - Edward I. Koch, 85, thirsty for a Dairy Queen milkshake and ready for a nap, was fuming.
"Throw the bums out!" the former mayor of New York City shouted from the steps of a city hall 400 miles from his Greenwich Village home.
The bums in question were four local politicians who had failed to sign on to what could be Koch's most difficult campaign yet: to remake the ineffective state government in Albany, N.Y. In front of a lone local news camera and a few curious onlookers, he called out each offender with a jumbo mug shot.
"You're either on the side of the angels, or you're a bum," Koch said with customary bluntness, the Buffalo wind muffling his words. "And if the angels betray their pledges, I'm going to run around the state screaming, 'Liar, liar, pants on fire!"'
For the first time since 1982, when he lost a bid for governor after describing the lifestyle of upstate New Yorkers as "sterile," the irrepressible elder of New York City politics was back in Buffalo.
Koch, who estimates that he will live only two or three more years, calls the endeavor his "last hurrah." His tombstone has been set, he has endured a stroke and a heart attack and he underwent quadruple bypass surgery last summer. So he is devoting himself to a task many have tried and failed to accomplish, with a group he calls New York Uprising. His mission is to shame - and oust - lawmakers he labels "enemies of reform."
Any of the 210 state legislators who fails to sign on to a series of reforms - tightening ethics rules, overhauling the budget process and appointing an independent commission to redraw legislative districts - earns a spot on the enemies list. So far, the tally is 91.
The campaign is tough going. It is difficult to get attention. And while most of the state senators and many Assembly members have signed on, powerful Democratic leaders have resisted.
Asked in a recent television interview about Koch's efforts, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, 66, replied tartly: "I respect the elderly."
In addition, Koch is constrained by a budget of about $160,000 in donations and a mostly volunteer staff.
"I'm one guy, 85 years old, who has been out of office for 20 years," he said. "I thought, 'Who's going to cover this? Who's going to come? Who's going to care?"'
There are other challenges: The former mayor these days has trouble keeping his balance, suffers from spinal problems and sometimes bungles the names of well-known politicians. "What's that bozo's name?" he said recently, trying to recall the name of Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx, the state Senate majority leader. He settled on "Espa-ra."
Still, at stops last week in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, he roared as much as ever, denouncing, imploring, inventing a catchphrase or a punch line at every turn.
"You have to campaign as though it's the first time," Koch said. "Nobody wants to hear you're tired, or you can't hear, or your spinal stenosis is acting up." (As if to prove his vigor, in Buffalo he ordered a 32-ounce steak that waiters call the Brontosaurus; he gave up after seven bites.)
Since leaving office in 1989, Koch has built a lucrative empire on his no-nonsense reputation. He maintains a law office, appears regularly on television and radio and reviews movies. (He recently panned "Inception" as "nothing but hype, hype, hype.") Every Sunday, he lies in bed and produces a 1,300-word opinion piece that he e-mails to 6,000 people, and he is an avid Twitter user (an aide does the typing).
In total, Koch said, he earns close to $1 million a year.
It helps that he has an opinion on nearly everything. Bagels: "Plenty of butter, no cream cheese." Barack Obama: "He blew it." Michael R. Bloomberg: "so bland" that he has calmed the city considerably. "There is no racial anger that I can see in the city of New York, and it's a result of Bloomberg's personality," the former mayor said.
The idea for New York Uprising came to him in March.
"I went to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and everyone was talking about a dysfunctional Legislature," Koch said. "I thought, 'Somebody has to take this on,' but nobody did anything."
Some close friends tried to talk him out of it. "I was just worried about his health," said Diane M. Coffey, his former chief of staff. "It takes a toll on you."
But Koch has not held back.
In five months, he has made his case to dozens of elected officials, candidates, editorial boards and civic clubs. So far, 282 politicians have signed on.
"This is a time like no other in my life," he said, "when you can actually perform miracles politically because everybody is so angry."
Koch dreams of plastering his enemies' faces on highway billboards, but he laments what he calls a "shoestring" budget. He has collected 99 donations, from people like Peter J. Solomon, a Wall Street financier and a deputy mayor under Koch, and Thomas J. Tisch, an investor. Two of his former rivals, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mario M. Cuomo, have endorsed the cause, though their support has not been particularly visible.
To many in Albany, Koch is an unwelcome agitator. A lifelong Democrat -though he crossed party lines in 2004 to endorse President George W. Bush's re-election - he has angered his brethren by labeling Republicans the "party of reform" because a larger proportion of Republican candidates have signed his pledge. And he has called for the defeat of the Legislature's two top Democrats, Silver and Sen. John L. Sampson.
Asked how he felt about Silver's "elderly" crack, Koch grinned. "When we're next on the bus," he said, "I hope he stands up and gives me a seat."
There has been blowback from other Albany forces. Thirty minutes after Koch's fiery speech on the steps of Buffalo City Hall, an aide's phone rang. It was Jane L. Corwin, a Republican assemblywoman from Clarence, in Erie County, whom he had just identified as an enemy of reform. Livid, she threatened to take legal action.
"You shouldn't be trying to get rid of people just because they didn't sign your piece of paper," Corwin said in an interview.
And not everyone had forgotten the famous insult he delivered 28 years ago, in a Playboy magazine interview published five months before the Democratic primary for governor that he lost to Cuomo. His off-the-cuff musings on upstate life confirmed a suspicion that his loyalties were with the city.
"This rural America thing," Koch said at the time, "I'm telling you, it's a joke."
On Thursday in Rochester, when an editor at The Democrat and Chronicle raised the topic, Koch said he never really wanted to be governor anyway. "Wasn't I dumb?" he asked. "I said silly, stupid things by way of jest."
Nearly three decades later, little seemed to have changed. Leaving The Buffalo News, he suggested a visit to the Erie Canal. When an aide motioned in the general direction of the famous waterway, Koch declared, "I've seen the Erie Canal, and now we can go back to the hotel."
The next day, even as he continued his crusade, the demands of his Manhattan-centric world intruded. In Syracuse, within minutes of arriving at the Sheraton, he was yelling into a cell phone, arguing with The Villager, the newspaper that publishes his film reviews, over reimbursement for two $9.50 movie tickets. Koch was threatening to quit.
"Listen, if you don't pay, I don't write," he said. The paper succumbed, and Koch let out a grunt. "Workers of the world unite."
No battle is too small, he said, even if you are on your way out.
"I'm ready to go. I've led a good life," he said. "But if there's time for a second last hurrah, I'm available."