Documents released for the first time from the FBI file on former New York City Mayor Edward Koch detail one of the more obscure chapters of his storied political career — an unsolved plot to paint the then-congressman as a racist by circulating a forged letter warning the city would become a “ghost town” if voters elected a black mayor.
While the letter episode may not be embedded in public memory, “it’s a window into the period,” Koch’s longtime spokesman, George Arzt, said Tuesday.
The scheme unfolded in January 1977 in the lead-up to a fiercely contested mayor’s race that ultimately unseated Mayor Abe Beame. Besides Koch, Democratic candidates also included future governor Mario Cuomo, Rep. Bella Abzug, Rep. Herman Badillo and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, who was black.
Numerous local politicians got copies of what looked to be a racially inflammatory letter from Koch to Badillo. The letter claimed Beame’s administration had discriminated against Hispanics while allowing “black power groups in the city to run part of his administration.”
“We are now faced with a crisis should the city administration suddenly fall in the hands of a black mayor,” it said, adding that “all of my white constituents” would leave the city, “taking the money with them, and New York City will become a ghost city.”
Koch and Badillo held a press conference to disavow any connection to the letters, and Koch contacted the FBI, suggesting the missives were retaliation for his efforts to increase scrutiny of rehabilitation clinics. “He does not have serious reservations [about] his personal safety, but he is concerned,” the documents said.
FBI agents interviewed a man at the Bronx drug clinic — his name is redacted — who said he didn’t know who sent the letters. But he made it colorfully clear what he thought of Koch.
“I hate him. Any enemy of Koch is a friend of mine, no matter what he does. I’m going to beat [him], and I don’t care if I go to jail,” the interviewee said in the March 1977 interview.
Other strange episodes ensued. Two people turned up at Koch’s Manhattan congressional office in February 1977, circulating pamphlets calling for his impeachment and accusing him of bigotry. The FBI approached two men leaving the building with a stack of the fliers, but they wouldn’t say who provided them.
The next month, a Koch aide was followed home from Koch’s office, recounting a scene that could have been in a spy thriller as he sped up the FDR Drive to shake the apparent pursuer. The next day, the aide found bullets near his car.