Ed Koch surely had a role in the development of city government in Britain. The omnipresence of New York in the world's media provides a global platform for its mayor, and it was Koch more than any other who blagged his way into the headlines of the world's newspapers.
His charismatic, aggressive, noisy personality was a living metaphor for New York. His observation that "I'm not the type to get ulcers … I give them" was typical of his self-conscious, in-your-face, style of government. He was mayor at a time of massive financial and social pressure, but understood the media: it provided him with a means to project his views, and on leaving office he became a commentator for TV.
The mayor of New York is the city's emperor. It is an amazingly powerful position, comparable in London terms to having virtually all the responsibilities of the mayor and boroughs added together, plus police, health, criminal justice, colleges, universities, rent control and water supply.
It was this supercharged model, in particular, that must have been in the mind of Tony Blair when he championed mayors for English cities in the 1990s. Leading Conservatives such as Michael Heseltine and David Cameron shared Blair's taste for presidential, US-style, city leadership.
Koch made city government look both challenging and magnetically interesting. Following the weak financial management of the John Lindsay and Abraham Beame administrations, Koch's brought fiscal stability and balanced budgets to New York, though the city did come to look threadbare by the start of the 1980s. He was also relatively successful at managing the coalition of interests that continuously battered on City Hall's doors.
The cinematic qualities of Koch's government ensured it was understood well beyond New York. Many British politicians must have wished they could wisecrack like Koch. Ken Livingstone embodied a London version of Koch's "from the soil of the city" authenticity, while Boris Johnson plays the media with skill akin to Koch's. Koch showed that big-city government prospers with big personalities who can generate sufficient interest in themselves to focus wider attention on the myriad challenges that face a vast metropolis. In the process, he showed British politicians what mayors might be like.
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