City Councilman James Gennaro penned the most sincere and revealing open letter to New Yorkers describing his bond with former Mayor Ed Koch who died today at the age of 88.
Dear New Yorkers:
It is with great sadness and a feeling of deep personal loss that I write today about the passing of my friend and mentor, Mayor Ed Koch. And while so much is known about this larger-than-life, towering leader of our city, it is not well known how he mentored, encouraged and befriended “nobodies” like me who approached him for help and advice. We will hear many glowing tributes today from presidents, governors and mayors. That is most appropriate.
But this man, a mayor who became an international icon, whose approval was sought by the last six presidents, was a man who gladly made time for the Jim Gennaros of the world, people who would never be in a position to do anything for him. I don’t think that is well-known. It should be. Few will read or print what I have to say about Mayor Koch today, but it needs to be said.
I came to city government right out of grad school in 1983, and served as a low-level member of his Administration until he left office. I made only one official presentation to him in a meeting during his last year as mayor. He didn’t know who I was, but he knew that presentation was a big moment for me, and he made me feel at ease and commended me for a job well done. I sent him a personal note at the end of his tenure as mayor, indicating that it was an honor to work in his Administration. I received a most gracious personal reply from him a few days later.
Twelve years later, after working for City Council Speaker Peter Vallone for many years, I decided to run for the Council myself. I was running in a Democratic primary for a Council seat as an “insurgent,” meaning that I was running against the candidate that was supported by the Queens County Democratic Organization. Of course, since I was running as an insurgent, no one in the Democratic political establishment in New York City would give me the time of day, let alone any support.
No one except Mayor Koch, that is.
I asked for a meeting with him to discuss my candidacy, and even though he still didn’t know who I was, he agreed to meet with me. I made my case to him for my candidacy, he asked me alot of questions, was very generous with his time, and he asked me to give him some names of people who had worked with me that he knew so that he could ask them about me.
Over the next week or so I received calls from these people indicating that Mayor Koch had called them about me. I was astonished that he was making the effort to do this for me. I was called back to his office to hear the good news that he had agreed to endorse. Mayor Koch endorsed ME, a lowly insurgent expected to have only a slim chance of victory, because he believed I could well serve the city he loved. And that’s all he ever asked of me – to serve the city to the best of my ability.
And he not only endorsed me, Mayor Koch posed for campaign photos with me, made statements, hosted a fundraiser in my district and recorded campaign “robo-calls” for me. And after my election, he agreed to do me the honor of attending my inauguration and administering the oath of office.
And while he didn’t advise me how to campaign, Mayor Koch did tell me how critically important it was for me – win or lose – to be on the street the morning after the election to thank the voters for their support.
“Jim, you MUST be out there the morning after to thank the voters for what they did for you, you understand?”
“Yes, Mr. Mayor.”
In the years since then, I have reached out to him countless times for advice, or just to say, “Hi,” or for little favors like having him send notes of encouragement to lift the spirits of my mother and father when they were going through their respective medical challenges. And on all those occasions, there was never a time when he did not take my call immediately or return the call within a few minutes. The same with email – he always replied promptly.
And mine is not an isolated experience – this is the kind, generous, gracious, accessible man Mayor Koch was to all his friends, his associates, his people, his public service “family,” be they humble or noble. He changed my life, gave me the opportunity to serve in public office, advised me, comforted my parents in their times of great challenge, and always took my call when I needed him.
And although he always knew that I appreciated his friendship very much, I must, as I write on this morning after, thank him for all he did for me, for all he was to me, and many like me in public service, and for all he was to our city. Thank you, Mr. Mayor. And on behalf of a grateful city, goodbye. May God bless you always.