PAYING THEIR DUES

My conversion to a liberal with sanity

By Ed Koch

I believe that one of the secrets of success of this great country is that the vast majority of Americans think of themselves as moderate liberals and moderate conservatives. Moderates, liberals and conservatives apply the rule of common sense to their political decisions. On most issues, we are not very far apart.

I wasn’t always a liberal with sanity. Once, 38 years ago, I was just a plain liberal. In Congress, I would vote for any measure offered which proposed a better life for Americans. I never asked the cost; cost was unimportant. Until those costs started coming out of the New York City budget.

When I became mayor, I discovered that the costs of most programs I had voted for, mandated by Congress to be carried out by the cities and states of this country, were to be paid for not by the federal government, but by the cities and states themselves. I once said, after my election as mayor of a nearly bankrupt city, that if I could, I would sentence every member of Congress to serve as mayor for one year to punish them for the financial burdens they had imposed on the cities of this country. My administration prepared a memorandum on federal burdens so imposed upon cities, called “The Mandate Millstone,” which was referred to by President Reagan in his first State of the Union address.
Before becoming mayor, I had an epiphany that led me to my political position of a liberal with sanity. That occurred in 1973, in what became known as the Forest Hills controversy. Mayor Lindsay had decided that he would place low-income housing projects in middle-class communities, calling it scatter-site housing.

Mayor Lindsay sought to place a large housing project in an Italian neighborhood and was strongly rebuffed by the community. He decided to move it to a Jewish community where he thought there would be less opposition. He was wrong. When the community learned there would be three, 24-story buildings housing 3,000 people, many of whom would be on welfare, they picketed and protested. The whole city became alerted to the community’s anger.

I went out to the community, talked to the residents and decided they were right in their opposition. Their fears were not unreasonable.

I received a number of calls from political associates and friends, who told me they were shocked that I opposed the project. One call came from an old friend and supporter whose name was Stanley. He said, “Ed, I understand that you’re against public housing.” I said, “No, Stanley, I’m not against public housing. I’m against the Forest Hills project because it’s too big. It’s got to be scaled down.”

He said, “You can’t be against public housing, no matter what the size.” I said, “No, no, no Stanley. That project, if it’s built that way, will destroy that neighborhood, and the Jews will move out. It’s got to be scaled down.”

He said, “I don’t care if the Jews move out. The Jews in Forest Hills have to pay their dues.” I said, “Stanley, you’re such a nice guy, and we’ve known each other for such a long time, and you’re a rich man and you’ve used your money for good causes. In fact, you’ve helped me. For that I’m very appreciative. And you have this brownstone in the Village, and I wish I had one like it. And you have this marvelous home in the Hamptons with this near-Olympic-size pool, and you’ve invited me there, and I wish I owned one like that. On the day your kids were born, you registered them in private schools. And you’re telling me that the Jews of Forest Hills have to pay their dues. I am telling you they are willing to pay theirs; they are just not willing to pay yours.”

Of course, many immediately branded that opposition to the project as racism. I’m sure some who opposed it were racists. But most of those in opposition truly believed it would destroy their middle-class community if 3,000 people irrespective of race were placed in their community on welfare and without jobs. It was a matter of class, not race.
Later, when I became mayor, I saw another example of that same behavior when the famous Nehemiah group—which received free city land and financial assistance to build one-family homes for the working poor who were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, in the borough of Brooklyn—asked the borough president and me to provide them with another square block on which to build. The borough president proposed an empty block adjacent to a low-income housing project. When we offered it to Nehemiah, they said no, they didn’t want their future homeowners living next to a housing project. It would reduce property values. Rich, middle-class or poor, common sense governs.
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