3 1/2 Years — A Long Walk for a Lame Duck

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, June 24, 1986

Everybody talks about it privately. Newspaper stories mention it softly in passing. But it makes so many different people nervous for so many different reasons that few want to say it loudly and clearly.

The “it” is the fact that Mayor Edward Koch and his administration have been severely weakened by the still-unfolding municipal corruption scandal. And the seriousness of this debility is probably not going to diminish in the coming months, as the criminal trials of former officials, politicians and city contractors proceed — and as more indictments are handed up by grand juries.

What has happened, in effect, is that Koch has become a lame-duck mayor only six months into his third term.

Koch has tried to lay the blame for this perception on the press, comparing the media to a school of sharks smelling blood. But in truth, the perception is based on a reality the press did not create. It is the reality of Koch’s inattentive stewardship over his first eight years in City Hall and his constant crowing that his administration was the purest this city had ever seen, when in fact much of what was going on was deal-making as usual.

Yet the awareness of the lame-duckism does not depend on whether one is a Koch fan or a Koch critic. All it takes is a casual reading of the newspapers these days. The key public officials who used to tread lightly during the years when Koch was seen to be invulnerable are now challenging him with strong shorts to his midsection.

Peter Vallone, the new City Council majority leader whom Koch helped win office, has flexed his muscles on the latest Koch budget and on Koch’s policies on the homeless. Andrew Stein, the City Council president, has forcefully criticized Koch’s management of the city’s hospital system.

And David Dinkins, the new Manhattan borough president, has taken sharp issue with the mayor on housing policies, contending that Koch is selling off city land solely for the revenue, with no consideration of the need for better planning that could preserve and produce low-income and moderate-income housing. Yesterday, Dinkins named a black woman to the Board of Education and urged her to seek the board presidency over the mayor’s nominee, Robert Wagner Jr. 

Gov. Mario Cuomo and the leaders of the State Legislature have also indicated, by their recent independent behavior, their belief that Koch has been damaged by the corruption scandal.

Criticism has come from these quarters before, but not until now has it fundamentally wounded the mayor. No longer does his imprimatur on an initiative guarantee its passage by the City Council or Board of Estimate. On the contrary, he has been forced to withdraw at least one development proposal, for the Clinton district, that was headed for Board of Estimate rejection. He has also had to pull back on several other ideas that were tainted by suggestions of conflict of interest or of favoritism related to large campaign contributions. (The shadow of campaign donations seems to do the Koch administration at every turn.)

The mayor and his inner circle insist that the work of government is proceeding normally, but others who deal with City Hall describe his administration as uneasy and distracted, driven to delaying decisions and practicing damage control.

It must be noted that some of the people who are remarking on the mayor’s fading fortunes have private agendas to grind, such as possibly maneuvering into positions to run for mayor themselves in 1989. But none of these can obscure the actual waning of Koch’s authority.

The obvious questions is what will happen next. Virtually everyone agrees that, given the mayor’s combative personality, it is highly unlikely that he would step down voluntarily. Members of the civic, political and financial establishment who stepped in to impose controls on the administration of Abe Beame to stem the city’s fiscal crisis do not seem to have the stomach at this point to confront the Koch administration over its diminished ability to govern.

Yet if the indictments continue to flow and the authority continues to wane, it will become an issue that the establishment will not so easily be able to turn its face away from.

This is not a destructive thought — the city would not collapse if a mayor stepped down — but it should not be entertained unless those who would seek to right the listing ship have a strong, independent candidate to fill the vacuum. The City Charter says that if a mayor resigns before Sept. 20 in any year, the voters will choose a new mayor in the November general election of that year (and if it happens after Sept. 20, in the general election of the following year). 

There is no need to regard this alternative as a personal attack on Mayor Koch, but merely as an acknowledgement of an unhappy reality. And then, maybe the mayor can turn things around, maybe he’ll be spurred by the fear of falling to change his ways and do the things he ignored in his first two terms.

But if this doesn’t happen, it would not be healthy or constructive for the city to have a lame-such mayor for 3 1/2 years. 

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