October 14, 2011

LOCATION: Bryan Cave, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City
THEME: Coffee and cupcakes with a former mayor

Ed Koch is a busy man.

When I walked into the corner office of the former mayor of New York City, 37 floors high in a lush office building at the law firm where he works, he was writing out a future opinion piece in longhand. During our interview, the phone rang a couple of times, including someone else trying to get a few questions with him. Add to that his weekly movie reviews, television and radio shows and that’s one packed calendar.

So I was grateful to get just under an hour to chat with him, as the “Occupy Wall Street” rallies continued downtown — a movement that Ed thinks is looking for closure over misdeeds by corporations that he believes could be achieved by jailing some CEOs.

I’d have had more time to delve into that issue and others over a dining table. After all, the gist of my site is to take random strangers to dinner.

But Ed’s packed calendar meant we met at 3pm, too late for lunch and too early for dinner. Instead, he suggested that I bring something to his office at the law firm Bryan Cave, just steps away from Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.

Mercifully there’s a Magnolia Bakery also located nearby.

I had never been to one of these apparently famous bakeries, but they’re clearly popular. The line for cakes, pastries and cupcakes stretched out the door. It was bananas inside, with a disorganized scrum of tourists — I’m lumping myself in that category — trying to figure out what to get and how to order it.

Inside the bakery, countless cooks ice freshly made cupcakes and stack the glass cabinets with beautifully crafted concoctions like Key Lime cheesecake and miniature blueberry pies. I grabbed a box of four cupcakes — vanilla, red velvet and chocolate — and headed off to meet the mayor.

Ed got us coffee, I flipped open the cupcake box, and we dug in to our afternoon snack. I’d been working that morning, so the sugary treat was my first bite of the day.

Ed’s from New York City, born there in 1924. He served in the army and after his honorable discharge got a law degree, embarking on a career practicing law.

Fast-forward to 1969 when he became the Democratic representative in Congress for New York’s 17th district, covering parts of the Bronx, a position he held until 1977. That year he was elected the 105th mayor of New York. He developed a reputation as a brash and forthright mayor, and even crafted a catchphrase, “How’m I doing?” which he asked New Yorkers to get feedback on his performance.

He’s written plenty about his experiences as mayor, and has never been shy about his love for his hometown. He won a four-year term in 1977, beating four other candidates in a complicated and dramatic election. He lost his bid for a fourth term in 1989, losing his party’s primary to David Dinkins, which some observers attribute to Ed’s very public criticism of Jesse Jackson, who back in 1988 ran unsuccessfully to be the Democratic party’s presidential nominee.

In the years since, Ed became a partner at Bryan Cave, where he advises the firm’s members on regulatory matters at the city, state and federal level. In addition, Koch is a former judge on the popular and long-running TV series The People’s Court. The self-proclaimed movie lover also regularly broadcasts his web video show Mayor at the Movies and has appeared in more than 60 films, including The Muppets Take Manhattan. He’s also written more than a dozen books, and continues to offer commentary and lectures on politics and current events.

Ed’s Wikipedia page says that he also writes restaurant reviews. But he said that fact is not true, which underscored his criticism of the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit — something that he thinks is “incredibly stupid.” And no, he’s never read his Wikipedia page.

Ed goes to restaurants but he doesn’t do reviews. But he was happy to give me tips on places to go during my visit. “I happen to like Chinese food and the best Chinese restaurant I’ve ever been to, and I go to it very often, is called the Peking Duck.” It’s on Mott Street in Chinatown. “I’ve been going there maybe for 40 years,” Ed said.

Other must-visit restaurants on his list include the pricy Four Seasons, the relatively cheap Italian restaurant Trattoria Dell’Arte, the oyster bar in Grand Central Station and Peter Luger’s steakhouse in Brookyln. Alas, my weekend schedule prevented a visit to any of those locations.

Instead, I made do with a first-time visit to Magnolia Bakery. It’s an expensive bakery, and I wondered if it’s the kind of business that could have existed in New York decades ago, when the city had a reputation as a rough, crime-ridden place.

Ed said that Magnolia Bakery could have existed in the midtown Manhattan district where his law firm has its office. “This neighborhood has not changed in the last 20 years. It’s been the heart of, so to speak, downtown New York. Rents have always been high here and continue to be high here.”

But the city of New York has changed, he said, in particular in the Bronx where Ed was born. When he came into office as mayor, graffiti was a widespread problem — particularly on subway trains where he said it was overwhelming. Nowadays there’s some graffiti but not much. Ed said it was difficult to fight the graffiti problem, but nevertheless he did it.

One trick was to scrub parked subway cars clean of graffiti before they went back out into service. Vandals would break into the train yards at night and spray the carriages, but the Koch administration took steps to ensure the cars were cleaned before they went out, depriving the graffiti artists of the chance to see their handiwork on display. “With the passage of time those who put graffiti on decided they no longer could see their product, and they stopped,” he said.

So how does current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg measure up?

Ed had praise for Bloomberg and Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “We’re lucky to have Bloomberg and Cuomo. They both bring a expertise, an intensity, a knowledge that’s been very helpful. I think Bloomberg’s familiarity with the economic sector has helped New York City so that we do better than the rest of the country when it comes to jobs and the economy.” Although unemployment in New York City is 8.7 percent, that’s still below the national average.

As for the governor, the son of Mario Cuomo — Ed’s primary opponent for his first mayoral bid in 1977 — Ed said, “Andrew Cuomo has exhibited a very strong sense of self-confidence that allows him to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do, you can count on it and I will not give way,’ whether it’s to the unions or anybody else, and he’s carried out that commitment. And that’s very necessary.”

Though he’s knowledgeable about the current mayor, Ed doesn’t miss the position. “I was mayor for 12 years and my nature is such that I enjoy new challenges, and I think 12 years is probably the maximum that anyone should ever serve. I tried to serve for four terms, which would have been 16 years, and I was defeated in my fourth term and the people were right to do so.”

He doesn’t track New York City politics at the micro level anymore, for example parsing the city’s budget, but he’s still in the political arena because people seek his endorsement in campaigns. And he stays involved in current events through his writing and lectures.

The most recent lecture subject was on the Arab spring revolutions in the Middle East, Israel, and President Obama’s position on those topics. That got us talking about the recent deal between Israel and Palestine to exchange an Israeli soldier captured by the Palestinians in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinians jailed in Israel. “It’s a wrenching experience for Israel because it is releasing people who have killed, I think, and who are expected to kill again. But if you’re asking my personal opinion, I think that they have no recourse,” he said.

Our conversation covered a few other political issues, none of which Ed hesitated to offer an opinion on, including New York’s recent law allowing same-sex marriage — something he supports, comparing bans on gay weddings to defunct bans on blacks and whites getting married. But Ed’s not critical of opponents of gay marriage. “I can understand the opposition and I don’t condemn them, I simply believe we have to educate them.”

He did have criticism for how partisan Congress has become, saying it differs drastically from a more congenial atmosphere when he was a New York representative. A far cry from decades past when lawmakers of opposing political parties would frequently go out to dinner together. By way of example, he cited Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comment that the Republicans’ top priority is preventing President Barack Obama’s reelection. Ed’s take: “To me that’s incredible, and it’s also why the Republicans will lose. I think people are incensed by that.”

Ed, who recently endorsed Obama’s reelection bid, said the president is not a “shoo-in” to win in 2012, but said that with the exception of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, no other possible Republican candidate can win against the president — in part because of the far-right Tea Party wing of the Republican party that Ed thinks will doom whoever ends up challenging Obama.

“I don’t denounce Tea Party people. They have wackos, so do the Democrats. That’s not new. But I think that they’re so right wing in philosophy that the American public will hold it against the Republican candidate because they know he couldn’t have gotten the Republican nomination without strong support by the right wing of the Republican party.”

The United States is a moderate center-right country, according to Ed. The former mayor describes himself as a center-left moderate. “I’ve always referred to myself as a liberal with sanity,” he said. “A ‘liberal with sanity’ means a thinking person, not an ideological person.”

“I’m not ideological so you really can’t expect what my vote will be simply knowing who I am and what I am. I believe that the death penalty is liberal. Most liberals don’t believe that. I believe it should be used in a small number of cases but nevertheless available. That gets the usual liberal angry with me. I don’t care and I’ve never cared, because I believe that what I stand for — using that as an illustration — is what the public understands involves common sense,” Ed said.

His common sense approach to politics also underpins his plan to hold a meeting early next year to convene a group of people to support a constitutional amendment to limit expenditures in elections, saying it’s the only way to resolve two Supreme Court rulings that allow unlimited funding of campaigns by candidates, corporations and unions. “I think it’ll probably be the easiest amendment ever adopted, frankly,” Ed said, criticizing the millions of dollars being spent on elections — including Bloomberg spending millions of his own money to win a third term. “I don’t blame Bloomberg, it’s both moral and legal. That’s the law. But I would like to change that law.”

The amendment would give authority to cities, states and the federal government to set limits on election spending. Ed’s optimistic for its ratification.

Given his ongoing interest in political issues, I kept wondering whether he might have an inkling to be back in the mayor’s chair. But he’d already told me that wasn’t the case.

So instead I asked him a hypothetical: If he could be mayor again to pass just one policy, what would it be? I didn’t even have to finish the question before he had an answer.

“Well it’s not a mayoral policy, although mayors could speak out. What bothers me more than any other issue is the fact that no CEO, no CFO of any major corporation that I know of has been held responsible criminally for actions taken during the great recession and we know that some of those corporations committed criminal acts but they’re not held responsible in a criminal prosecution,” Ed said. Instead, those found guilty generally get off with civil penalties like fines.

“I would like to see directors, CEOs, others who have participated in the destruction of the economy of the United States and the world be held criminally responsible. Doesn’t have to be a large number. And until that happens there will not be closure,” Ed argued.

He said that kind of closure might be what the Occupy Wall Street movement is looking for. “They don’t evidence it in an agenda, but their actions — their uninformed statements sometimes and informed ones as well — convey that somehow they know that there’s something wrong there. There’s a lack of equity, there’s a lack of justice. I feel that way.”

My pea-sized brain was struggling to keep up with the weighty political issues, so it was a welcome respite when Ed paused to chew on his Magnolia Bakery cupcake.

He went for a cupcake topped with whipped cream, which he said was delicious. Likewise, mine seemed to be topped with generic white frosting but it was wonderfully made. Sweet, moist and dangerously moreish. It’s a good thing there were only four in the box.

They were also sticky and gooey. Ed ended up with some frosting on his desk, and the stuff coated my fingers, but thankfully he came to my rescue with a bundle of napkins.

Still, I’m not sure the cupcakes warrant the $3 price tag, or $3.50 for the red velvet variety. Cheesecakes at the place are even pricier at roughly $6. I’m sure a lot of work goes into making them, and they do taste great, but I can’t help but feel they’re a little over-priced.

As we sipped on our coffees and munched on our cupcakes, I transitioned to the less complex topic of pop culture and hobbies. Only problem, Ed has few hobbies.

He likes to write, and he likes the movies. That’s it.

In addition to videotaped movie reviews for his website Mayor at the Movies, Ed also writes reviews for a local newspaper, receiving a nominal fee. “I enjoy it. The money is not important. It’s just enjoyable and I think getting paid for it makes it professional.”

He loves movies because it’s cheap entertainment, but he doesn’t have a favorite, confessing that he rarely sees a movie twice. If his typically packed schedule doesn’t include anything in the evenings, he’ll use that free time to go to the cinema or the theater.

The other big hobby Ed has is writing, and he does a lot of it on the weekends.

He’s written more than a dozen books, including eight autobiographies covering different parts of his life as mayor, in Congress, and on general issues. Another book is already in the pipeline. “I’m considering doing another book. It would be autobiographical, my thoughts on serious issues. If I were to write again — which I undoubtedly will — it would be on weighty, tough issues as opposed to anecdotal material concerning my life,” Ed said.

Alas, time constraints meant that I had to wrap up the interview. It was the most professional setting I’ve had to date for one of these interviews, with a desk in between our chairs and both of us wearing suits and ties. I found Ed to be a smart man, thoughtful in his words and highly observant. His demeanor was professional, but broken up occasionally with a broad and warm smile.

He also carries himself and speaks with an assured self-confidence that probably is a prerequisite for anybody interested in a successful political career.

After a handshake and a couple of more formal-looking photos than usual, I got ready to leave, and Ed prepared for the rest of his afternoon.

Busy as ever, Ed said that he was planning to record his radio show later that day. Yet another task on his massive to-do list which continues to keep him occupied. “I enjoy my new life and have new challenges, I don’t look back at all,” he said.

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