Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs
With the New York City mayoral primaries a week away, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the 1977 mayoral election and how Ed Koch’s campaign commercials helped lead him to victory. This was a bleak year for New York City, which was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and could not borrow money on its own credit. Thousands of police officers, firefighters, teachers, CUNY faculty and other municipal workers had been laid off. A blackout had led to mass looting in many neighborhoods, Son of Sam was wreaking his terror upon the city, and crime in general was on the rise.
As the election season began, Congressman Koch was polling at the bottom of a large group of Democratic candidates that included Mayor Abe Beame, former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, N.Y. Secretary of State Mario Cuomo, Congressman Herman Badillo, and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton. Running as a “liberal with sanity,” Koch endorsed the death penalty, attacked the municipal unions and their leaders, and “poverty pimps.” Koch ended his advertisements, crafted by campaign manager David Garth with the tagline, “After eight years of charisma [John Lindsay] and four years of the clubhouse [Abe Beame], why not try competence.”
With his conservative message, Koch catapulted to second place in the primary. He then defeated Mario Cuomo in the runoff and the general election, when Cuomo ran as the candidate of the Liberal Party. In a city where crime appeared out of control, municipal unions were striking, and the fiscal outlook was bleak, Koch had sensed that a more conservative candidate would appeal to a large portion of the electorate. His election was a watershed and ushered in years of austerity and a more limited view of what government could or should do.
The dominant issues in this year’s Democratic primary are very different as the Bloomberg era comes to a close. Crime is at a historic low, but the stop and frisk policies of the NYPD have come under fierce criticism. The shimmering towers that have risen in Manhattan and on the waterfronts of Queens and Brooklyn are symbols of both increasing prosperity and the rising inequality of New York City. Whether these themes augur a new watershed for New York’s politics remains to be seen until after primary day and beyond when future historians analyze the campaign advertisements of 2013.
P.S. To learn more about voting in New York City, check out the Archives’ curriculum, “City Government and You: Voting Rights and Citizenship.”