Born to Polish immigrants in the Bronx in 1924, Koch grew up in Newark and was drafted into the Army in 1943, serving as a combat infantryman and earning two Battle Stars with the 104th Infantry Division in France.
After the war, Koch enrolled in NYU's School of Law, recieving his degree in 1948 and going into practice the following year. By the early 1960s, Koch was interested in seeking political office, unsuccuessfully running against an incumbent Democrat for State Assembly in 1962. However, he would serve two years on the New York City Council before successfully running for congress in 1968.
During his time in Congress in the early 1970s, the New York Democrat described himself as transitioning from a liberal to what he called a "liberal with common sense" after hearing a number of complaints from his constituents over proposals from then-mayor John Lindsay- including a ham-fisted attempt to place a 3000-person public housing project in a middle class Queens neighborhood. In 1973, Koch resigned from Congress to run for mayor of New York, but didn't even last through the Democrat primaries.
However, by 1975 New York City had to lay off a number of NYPD officers among other city employees- causing an uptick in street crime accompanying a decline in services. In July 1977, there was a citywide blackout- criminals took advantage of the power outage and an NYPD short on manpower and embarked on a looting and arson spree. In response, Koch positioned himself as a 'Law and Order' candidate and was elected mayor of New York City in 1978.
The city's fortunes gradually began to turn around under Koch and in 1981, he was re-elected in a landslide, running on both the Democrat and Republican Party lines. The following year he briefly entered the race for governor but lost to primary challenger Mario Cuomo.
In 1985, Koch ran for a 3rd term and won by a margin of 78%. However, his third term was also wracked by scandals within City Hall and health problems after suffering a stroke in his office in 1987. During the 1988 Presidential primary, Mayor Koch publicly fueded with Democrat candidate Jesse Jackson. Some speculated this feud with Jackson angered black voters and led to his downfall in the 1989 mayoral election, where he lost to challenger David Dinkins.
After his three terms as mayor, Koch remained in the public eye appearing as a judge on The People's Court and hosting his own radio talk show in the 1990s. More recently, he appeared in a weekly online video segment called Mayor At The Movies as well as appearing as himself in cameos on a number of TV series and films such as The Muppets Take Manhattan and Saturday Night Live.
He also remained involved in politics and would often cross party lines to endorse Republican candidates like George Pataki, Rudy Gulliani, George W Bush and Bob Turner. The former mayor was also something of a foreign-police hawk and staunchly pro-Israel.
In a 2010 forum, Koch said he felt the highlight of his time as mayor was during a 1980 transit strike when he felt the need to do something brash and public.
He strode down to the Brooklyn Bridge to encourage commuters who were forced to walk to work instead of jumping aboard subway trains and buses.A lifelong bachelor with no known romantic partners, Koch's sexual orientation was the subject of rumor and speculation. During the 1980s, Koch signed off on gay rights ordinances approved by the city council. When pressed on the issue, Koch famously stated “My answer to questions on this subject is simply, ‘Fuck off.’ There have to be some private matters left.”
"I began to yell, 'Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We're not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!' And people began to applaud," the famously combative, acid-tongued politician recalled at a 2012 forum.
His success in rallying New Yorkers in the face of the strike was, he said, his biggest personal achievement as mayor. And it was a display that was quintessentially Koch, who rescued the city from near-financial ruin during a three-term City Hall run in which he embodied New York chutzpah for the rest of the world.
Koch was survived by his sister, Pat Thaler, and many grandnieces and grandnephews. He will be buried in a plot in the Trinity Church cemetary- his headstone will reportedly have an inscription that were the last words of journalist Daniel Pearl- a US Journalist who was murdered on videotape by Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan in 2002:
“My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”