Exclusive Interview With 'Proud Democrat' Former New York Mayor Ed Koch: 'There's Always the Chance That Romney Could Convince Me'

Ed Koch was one of the first prominent New York Democrats to break ranks and endorse Republican Bob Turner in this week’s election to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner. Koch’s early endorsement of Turner set in motion of a chain of events, culminating in the election of a Republican to represent parts of Queens and Brooklyn. Turner is the first Republican to represent this area since the 1920s. Today, I spoke with the former mayor about the campaign.

BG: Given that Israel is a “national” issue, why did you get involved in the race in New York’s 9th district, in particular?

Koch: There were only two special congressional elections in the whole country–here and in Nevada. The election in the 9th congressional district was the only election in the City of New York. And I thought, and I expressed myself publicly, that it would be a good place, being the largest Jewish district in America–something like 300,000 Jews lived in that district, and the Jewish vote would be somewhere around 30% or more–it would be a good place to have a referendum on whether the President’s position on Israel, which I have described as hostile to Israel, was one representative of the voters of that district.

And I got a call from Bob Turner, who wanted to see me. I had never met him before. We talked, and I said, “I want to send a message to the President on Israel,” and he agreed, and I also said, “I want to send a message to the Republicans in Washington that you disagree with their effort to privatize Social Security and Medicare.” He said, “I do disagree.” I said, “Let’s put it in writing.” And we did, and I endorsed him, and I framed the issues carefully so people could understand them.

Bob Turner was a marvelous candidate. Without a good candidate, you can’t prevail, even if you’re on the right side. He’s honest, intelligence, courageous, and he’s got a good sense of humor.

So we went out there. I campaigned for him, and the Democratic Party took the district for granted up until the last, probably, ten days, and then they realized from the polls that Turner had turned it all around. He was now six points ahead, a week before the election. So they brought in Bill Clinton, Charles Schumer, and Governor Andrew Cuomo to do robo-calls. And we did robo-calls–myself, and Assemblyman Dov Hikind–and clearly, we prevailed, since Bob won with an eight percent message.

Was that a challenge, to frame that dual message?

No, it was easy.

Weren’t there voters who had problems with one side or the other of that message?

I’m sure there were–there always are! But he prevailed.

Do you think President Obama got the message you were sending?

I hope so. I want you to know that if the Obama administration takes the position, as I believe it does, that there’s a misunderstanding, that they agree with me–that’s what I’ve been told by people close to him within the Democratic Party in Washington–if that is so, and the President makes it clear publicly, that will dissolve of the problem. But as of this moment, I don’t see that that has happened. If it does, I will be happy to join his campaign, and do what I did for him before, which he asked me to do when he ran in 2008, and talk to the Jewish communities on his behalf in Florida and elsewhere.

Do you object to specific policies, or to his stance in general?

There are specific policies–which I referred to in my two letters to the New York Times [published and unpublished]. One of my major complaints was that he put the onus unfairly on Israel with respect to the settlement negotiations by saying you have to go back to the table with the pre-67 lines as the basis from which you talk, with agreed-upon swaps. He said nothing to the Palestinians. And the Palestinians are made up of the Hamas terrorist organization, which has been declared a terrorist group by the United States. And their position is that they will not renounce terror–they are at war with Israel, and if they win the war they will expel every Jew who came to historic Palestine since 1917. And what I have said is that the President should require and demand of them, before Israel has to negotiate with them, that they should renounce terror and the expulsion of Jews, and recognize Israel and its legitimacy as a state, and say that if there is an agreed-upon outcome, after negotiations, on two states that Hamas will recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Are you concerned that President Obama has made too many concessions on Social Security and Medicare?

No. The President’s position is my position–and I know it’s Bob Turner’s position. It is to keep Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid as entitlements, but to deal with the insolvency problems. The looming insolvency of Social Security is easily cured by dealing with the retirement age, moving it upward over an extended period of time. There are different suggestions–another one is removing the wealthy from coverage, so they don’t draw on the Social Security funds of the government. It’s not a difficult job to do. Similarly, internally, you can correct the solvency problems of Medicare. And what you don’t want to do is turn Medicaid into a block grant, because if you do that, no matter how many people become eligible, the amount of funding is the same, so there’s less funding less available for each person needing health care. Those are the positions of President Obama, so we’re not in any different position. The difference is with the Republican leadership, which wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare, and turn Medicaid into a block grant. And Bob Turner stated in the election that he disagrees with the Republican National Committee.

Is there a Republican candidate in the 2012 election who is close to your positions?

No. The only one who avoids the description of “wacko” is Mitt Romney. If the President is unable to change his positions–which, as I view them, are as hostile to Israel–if he’s unable to make those changes I probably will stay home and not vote for president. I hope he will accept the advice I’m giving him. But if he does change, I will make myself available.

Is there anything Mitt Romney could do to win your endorsement?

Sure. It will have to play out. I’m hopeful that President Obama will read the tea leaves and make the appropriate changes. If he does not, I expect to stay home, but there’s always the chance that Romney could convince me.

Some have said that today’s Democratic Party is not the party of their parents and grandparents.

Neither is the Republican party! Everything changes. Let me just say this: I’m proud to be a Democrat. I cross party lines when I think it is appropriate to do so. But on balance, I believe the Democratic Party is preferable because its philosophy is that if you need a helping hand, and you are deserving, we will help you. The Republican philosophy, in my judgement–simplistic, I’m sure–is, “I made it on my own, and you have to as well.”


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