News Article

Ed Koch vs. Sharpe James

By Katie Colaneri, WBGO News
February 1, 2013

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Ed Koch at the podium with Sharpe James, right, at a 1987 conferece. Photo courtesy of Sharpe James

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is being remembered as an opinionated leader who never backed down from a fight. Well, almost never.

Sharpe James first met Ed Koch in 1986 at a gathering for mayors at Gracie Mansion in Manhattan. They connected over their Newark roots, having both graduated from South Side High School more than a decade apart, “and we became instant friends.”

But eventually the mayors locked horns over the issue of homelessness. Koch was coming under fire for his decision to send homeless families from New York City to live in a Newark motel. James decided to send them back to New York, arguing Koch should take care of his own.

"And I’m beatin’ up on him in the press and he’s beatin’ up on me like, ‘You don’t need no visa to come to Newark.’”

So, a local TV station arranged for the ultimate showdown: Ed Koch vs. Sharpe James. They’d debate the issue face to face with hundreds of supporters from both sides cheering them on from the bleachers. James thought it was sure to be a knock-down-drag-out with Koch’s cutting one-liners.

But James had a plan.

“So I went to South Side and I got his yearbook, and I found his picture with all this gorgeous curly hair and everything.”

James blew up the photo and brought it with him to the debate.

“And he looked at me and he said, 'Oh my god, what happened to my hair?' He had like handle bars on both sides, and he runs his hands through the middle. ‘My god, Sharpe, did I look that good?’ And he took the picture…There was no debate after that.”

Still, Sharpe James says he’ll always remember Ed Koch as unflappable.

NPR

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