Ed Koch: You're Either on the Side of the Angels, or You're a Bum

08/17/2010 02:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Blake Fleetwood Former reporter for the New York Times and Daily News; taught Political Science at NYU

I have always admired the blunt wisdoms of the very old (and sometimes the very rich or the insane). Like the court jesters in Shakespeare's plays, they have nothing to lose and often speak truths that no one else dare utter.

Which is why I am intrigued by former Mayor Ed Koch's Don Quixote campaign to rid the New York State's dysfunctional legislature of all the crooks and bums. Koch, at age 85, is like the child who cried out "The emperor has no clothes," a truth that everyone knew, yet none dared voice. Koch calls his quest, New York Uprising, and it deserves the support of us all.

Koch is determined to shame scoundrels in the legislature into pledging support for simple and obvious non-partisan reforms, reforms that anyone who believes in democracy should support:

• Legislative redistricting through an independent and impartial commission.

• New ethics rules that include a comprehensive annual financial disclosure form.

• New guidelines for adopting the perennially late state budget that include creating an independent budget office to report and comment on the state's financial health.

Those politicians, who don't support his minimal reforms, earn a spot on Koch's enemies list and deserved to be ousted.

The underlying mission is to encourage New York legislators to rise above the political process as far as sleaze is concerned. If our elected officials can't agree to do away with corruption, procrastination, financial chicanery, and non-partisan redistricting, what on earth will they ever agree on?

Koch says "Over 200 candidates have done just that. But far too many candidates clearly want to keep the state exactly the way it is."

"And if the angels betray their pledges," Koch says, "I'm going to run around the state screaming, 'Liar, liar, pants on fire!' "

The problem is that 91 state legislators are still holding out and are still on Koch's enemies list.

The Republicans, not always the most obvious reformers, have all signed on at the urging of their leaders who are anxious to capitalize on the "throw the bums out" tsunami that is sweeping the political landscape.
But the Democrats, who now control the legislature, and are usually the more reform minded, are waffling. They don't want to give up the power that they have waited so long to wield.

Assembly leader Shelly Silver and Senate leader John Sampson are patronizing and smug toward Koch's simple and obvious reforms.

Silver's spokeswoman, Sisa Moyo, emphasized the speaker's "great respect" for the institution known as Ed Koch. But she listed major reservations according to an article in the Buffalo News.

"For decades, Republicans controlled the State Senate and blocked every single piece of reform legislation proposed by the Assembly and Democrats in the Senate -- campaign finance reform, election reform, ethics reform and budget reform," she said. "For Ed Koch to call Senate Republicans 'reformers' and ignore our record undermines the credibility of the pledge and his entire campaign."

Koch has been joined by most of the good government groups including Citizens Union, and former city Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who heads New York Civic. Koch said he received signed pledges from all three GOP gubernatorial candidates and a letter from presumptive Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo.

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Gov. Mario Cuomo are among the nine trustees of New York Uprising.

Koch kicked in $10,000 of his own money to start the group. He said others have contributed as much as $160,000 and they have a goal of $250,000.

The only way this noble mission will work is SHAME, SHAME, and more SHAME.

Every newspaper and television station in the state should prominently publicize the scoundrels who are feeding off the public troth. With massive media support, this could actually work.

For decades State legislators have had a "personality disorder", defined as a deeply ingrained maladaptive pattern of behavior, that has destroyed even the pretense of honest government.

Voters are ready and eager for non-partisan movement; they are disgusted with politics and the gridlock and corruption it has spawned.

Last summer Koch went though quadruple bypass surgery, and expects to live no more than three years, but so far he is active and traveling around the state to fight the enemies of reform.

Thanks for this last Hurrah Ed Koch.