February 01, 2013 at 15:39 PM EST
You did good, Mr. Mayor
Ed Koch used to say that he gave the city back its spirit. Now, with crime low, years of balanced budgets behind us, an economy bristling with the energy of young tech entrepreneurs and the city a magnet for more than 50 million tourists annually, the dark days of the 1970s and early 1980s seem like distant memories. New York was reviled then, held up as the poster city for profligacy and weird ways, a place many were afraid to visit or to send their children to work or go to college. It was a city in steep decline, with few ready to posit that it could be turned around. Ed Koch had few doubts, and he put his enormous energy, intellect and force of will to making it happen. He balanced the budget one year ahead of the schedule mandated by a state law basically putting the city into receivership. He made all New Yorkers feel part of his team by asking, "How'm I doin' "? He directed an ambitious plan to salvage derelict housing by turning it into affordable apartments. He sponsored incentive programs to expand business in the outer boroughs. He increased the police department as rapidly as resources allowed. He was a relentless cheerleader for the city he loved. He used to say that "public service is the noblest of professions if done honestly and done well." As a member of his team for more than seven years, I know how much he meant it. He hired me as budget director in 1981 as the result of a search he asked three business leaders to undertake. He didn't know me, and never asked about my political affiliation. After three and a half years as his budget director, he asked me to be his deputy mayor for finance and economic development. On what I remember as my first day on the new job, he took me with him to the opening of a vertical mall at Herald Square. On one of the top floors there was a carousel that mall officials asked him to ride—all alone, while cameras flashed. He did it gamely. In the car later, he instructed me: "See, Alair, childlike but not childish." It was yet another in a series of lessons from the master. As a professional, what meant the most to me and, I believe, others who worked for him was the fact that he gave us responsibility and authority. He thanked us both privately and publicly, feeling that our success enhanced rather than diminished his stature. After all, he had selected us. In meetings deliberating tough issues, he sought all our views. More than once I offered an opposing view to the emerging consensus but was never ridiculed for it. Whatever the decision, I could sleep untroubled, knowing I had called it as I had seen it and done my job. I saw firsthand his political courage and learned from it. Ed Koch was the right leader for the challenges the city faced, and we see his legacy all around us today.
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