Mario Cuomo Remembers Sharp, Warm, Combative Koch

Cuomo and Koch first battled in a nasty 1977 Democratic primary for mayor

By Michael Gormley
|  Friday, Feb 1, 2013  |  Updated 6:13 PM EDT
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Mario Cuomo Remembers Sharp, Warm, Combative Koch

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Former Gov. Mario Cuomo with the late former Mayor Ed Koch.

Former Gov. Mario Cuomo remembered late New York City Mayor Ed Koch as a fierce opponent in some of New York's most titanic political battles, which nonetheless led to one of the state's most effective governing partnerships.

Cuomo and Koch first battled in a nasty 1977 Democratic primary for mayor — with Koch winning — and again in the 1982 gubernatorial primary — with Cuomo winning then. Cuomo said his relationship with the late mayor was always better than the headlines made it seem, although it had a nasty start.

The 1977 race was an ugly affair that produced one moment that Cuomo said cut Koch deeply for years: a sign popped up on the streets of Cuomo's Queens that stated: "Vote for Cuomo, not the homo."

Koch, a lifelong bachelor whose sexual orientation was a frequent subject of speculation, was livid, Cuomo said.

"Somebody hoisted a sign and walked right up to the place where the cameras were," Cuomo said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press. "It was something crude," Cuomo said, refusing to repeat the text. "He was furious and his campaign was furious."

Koch, who died of congestive heart failure Friday at 88, held the grudge for years against Cuomo and his son, current Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who back then — still in his 20s — was the intense political adviser, enforcer and operator for his father.

Cuomo said he never ordered anyone to say "such a stupid thing."

"For a long while, Ed just wouldn't let it go," Cuomo said. "But near the end of his life, he said there are some things you have to put aside."

The tension continued after Koch's win into the 1982 governor's race that again pitted the two Democrats in a bruiser of a primary. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called them the Ali-Frazier of politics in their time.

"They were really just beautiful to watch and they were both a high point of the profession," Andrew Cuomo told WGDJ-AM in Albany on Friday. Koch "loved government and was aggressive about what government could do ... he made government fun and cool again."

From the fire of the Koch-Cuomo fights an important working relationship was forged for the city and the state to navigate the ugly economy of the 1980s. Through it, they were bound by a love for the city.

What started as an ugly rivalry softened through time, respect and love for the city they both called home. They shared the stage many times in government and long afterward.

Cuomo said he remembers being a surprise speaker for a testimonial for Koch. With Koch watching from the wings, Cuomo said it was true Koch beat Cuomo for mayor.

"'That's true!'" Koch shouted to the crowd.

Then Cuomo said it wasn't true that Cuomo beat Koch for governor in the 1982 race, in which Koch who was dogged by some disparaging remarks he made about upstate where he joked women still wore "gingham dresses."

"Ed Koch beat Ed Koch," Cuomo joked.

"That's true, too!" Koch shouted from the wings.

Cuomo called Koch "more an institution than a politician" and, like the Statue of Liberty, something that told you unmistakably what city you were in.

"He was a lover. A lover of the world. And especially of the place called New York City," Cuomo said.

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