City Sage: Richard Ravitch

The  first thing Richard Ravitch said to me when he walked into the LCA pressroom was: “What about that dinner you promised me?”

I was floored. I had made that invitation six months earlier, after he had generously helped with a series of radio programs on city finances. I wanted to thank him, so I plucked up the courage to invite him to dinner when I was next in New York City—an invitation I had every intention of making good on. But I was surprised that he remembered. I have no doubt that Ravitch, whose counsel has been sought by senators, governors, judges and bank presidents, has no shortage of dinner dates. So for me the moment was just more evidence of what I already knew.

Ravitch is not only a great man but a damn nice guy.

Ravitch was in Albany to promote his new memoir, So Much to Do: A Full Life of Business, Politics, and Confronting Fiscal Crises. I was to interview him on The Capitol Pressroom, and then again before an audience at the Rockefeller Institute. During the course of the day, one idea struck me over and over again about the book and about Ravitch. He is genuinely concerned about the future of American cities.

While much of the advance press for the book has focused on his comments regarding the tail end of the Paterson administration and Andrew Cuomo’s pre-election maneuvering, there are other more substantive ideas that Ravitch is eager to impart to readers: that elected officials have promised more to the people of this country than they can afford. That while those promises may have been made in good faith, the electorate should recognize that without paying more in taxes, they may not get what they’ve been promised.

“The political system has, for the moment, decided that cutting taxes is more important than reinvesting in the future,” Ravitch said. “That decision was made openly and democratically, and therefore you can’t ascribe any evil motives to it. You can disagree with it.”

His assessment of the tax cuts in the recent state budget is not quite as measured.

“I was, frankly, flabbergasted!” he said. “I didn’t see any voices in the Legislature at all questioning that priority in the recent budget discussion!”

Ravitch’s book takes the reader from his boyhood on West 81st Street, where his New Deal parents sent him to a progressive school in Harlem, to his enormously frustrating experience as lieutenant governor under David Paterson. In between, the chapters of Ravitch’s life unfold seamlessly as particular themes emerge. This “quintessential participant observer,” as he calls himself, consistently followed a path that allowed him to work on projects that spoke to his values—like affordable housing at the Urban Development Corporation and public transportation at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

While municipal finance can be dry, Ravitch manages to infuse his book with a blend of anecdotes, humor and detail that gives the reader a sense of being in the room. Such as during his retelling of the story of the New York City fiscal crisis: After the deal to rescue the city was finally clinched, and handshakes and congratulations had gone around, Ravitch, alone in his apartment, suddenly realized that the banks might not stay open long enough to assure that the necessary payments could be made.

The story of his frantic phone calls to track down the person who could authorize the banks to stay open brings a human element to the tale. While writing about a particularly tough negotiation with the transit union, he squeezes in this nugget of wisdom he received from Mayor Wagner:

“Remember that what’s most important to the union leader is to come out looking like a winner; let him do that, and you’ll save the public a lot of money.”

Not surprisingly, while speaking at the Rockefeller Institute Ravitch was asked about the recent contract agreement between the MTA and transit workers. His concern was evident.

“The MTA, for reasons that I can only imagine, voluntarily offered to reduce its revenues recently, which I think breached their fiduciary obligation, their board’s obligation,” Ravitch said.

“Second of all, I don’t know, after this last labor settlement, whether they will have enough revenue to finance their next five-year capital plan—and that’s of great concern, I know, internally to the professional people there.”

But during this visit to Albany, Ravitch spoke most passionately about the financial state of cities. He is bewildered that we haven’t learned from the mistakes of the past. Discussing his role in the deal that saved New York City from default, he stressed how it almost went to pieces several times, but that the threat of bankruptcy was sufficient to bring the parties to an agreement.

He’s not sure such a threat will be enough now.

“Some people think the way to solve the problem is to reduce the benefits, retirement benefits, to public employees,” he said. “I know governors who have argued for that very vigorously and who want to do it on a nonconsensual basis. You have people who think the federal government should be able to write unlimited quantities of checks to solve the problem. It’s a much more complicated problem than that. And it’s only going to be resolved if the people in politics are willing to ultimately come to some kind of consensual arrangement about how we deal with this great physical crunch.”

When Ravitch was asked what he thought New York State should do to help upstate cities, his explicit reference to Gov. Hugh Carey may have revealed what he thinks of the current governor’s lack of action.

“Governor Carey always recognized that the cities and local governments, whereas they had individual responsibilities, were still children of the state, and that one had to bear in mind that the credit of the state … had to be used to the extent that it was financially feasible to help,” he said.

Ravitch has two priorities at this point in his life: to ensure that reporters understand how to write about municipal finance, and to urge good people to run for office, as he did back in 1984. While he says he was a lousy candidate, he also claims, “I am an Emersonian in every sense of the word. The only way you make things better is through politics.”

Lest you think that Ravitch is just another a gray-haired eminence issuing nonbinding judgments from the sidelines, think again. Our former lieutenant governor was just named a court advisor by the judge overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy to help evaluate the city’s debt-cutting plan. Detroit is lucky to have him.

We are too.