Commentary: Remembering Dick Ravitch, New York's civic treasure

Ravitch was the most consequential New York public servant in the past five decades. His life exemplifies the true meaning of “giving back.”

Richard Ravitch, then chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, speaks to the press about ongoing union negotiations on March 29, 1980.

Richard Ravitch, then chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, speaks to the press about ongoing union negotiations on March 29, 1980. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

The first time I met Dick Ravitch was during the 1989 Democratic mayoral primary race, and he was running but not getting much traction.

I was a 27-year-old editor of a weekly newspaper, The West Side Spirit, and because my entire editorial team consisted of me and my three-day-a-week associate editor, I often did double duty as a reporter, in this case covering the Democratic primary.

That year’s election was a four-ring circus: the cocky incumbent Ed Koch, the courtly clubhouse insider David Dinkins, the shrewd city Comptroller Harrison Goldin and Ravitch, New York’s fiscal savior.

I recall interviewing Ravitch in his office. He was clearly brilliant and had a resume filled with relevant experience that would have made him arguably the most qualified for the job. He was full of ideas and rattled off ways he could fix New York City, just like he had fixed its finances a decade earlier and the Metropolitan Transit Authority a few years after that. 

But Ravitch was not an eager campaigner. He wasn’t a skilled fundraiser and didn’t have a built-in base of support like the two front-runners, Koch and Dinkins.

He finished a distant third in that race, while Dinkins went on to make history that November, defeating the tough-on-crime Republican Rudy Giuliani (in his saner days) to become the first African-American mayor in New York City’s history. 

Many years later, when I reconnected with Ravitch, he told me that I was the only reporter who took his 1989 mayoral campaign seriously and treated him fairly. That made me feel good, especially since I experienced a similar lack of respect from the media during my own quixotic run for mayor in 2013.

Despite his electoral failure, it’s hard to think of a more consequential figure in New York’s 20th century than Ravitch. His public service helped rescue the city’s finances in the late 1970s and the state’s MTA in the 1980s. From President Lyndon Johnson to Gov. David Paterson, Ravitch was the guy elected leaders summoned to public service when things went awry and needed the deft touch of an economic whiz. 

Time and time again, without fanfare or princely sums of money, Ravitch heeded the call to return to public service for one reason only: he cared deeply about his city, the metropolis that had given so much to him and his family. He truly knew the meaning of “giving back.”

Outside of the political realm, Ravitch had a wildly successful career as a builder and developer of large projects, many of which were affordable housing units that provided shelter for New York’s growing middle class. Waterside Plaza on the East Side and Manhattan Plaza on the West Side are just a few of Ravitch’s permanent housing legacies that will benefit New Yorkers for generations to come. 

It’s a humbling experience to read Ravitch’s lengthy New York Times obituary, which is impressive even by the standards of successful elected leaders and prominent New York developers and other highly accomplished people. One realizes how much a single person can pack into a long, remarkably productive lifetime. He even had time to write an engaging memoir and teach classes at Yale. I thought to myself after reading it: hurry up, you’ve got a lot of work to do over the next three decades to get even half as much done as Ravitch accomplished in his nine decades in New York. 

There were perilous times in his public service career. In 1980, the year he turned around the financial fortunes of the state’s multi-faceted transit system and weathered an acrimonious 11-day strike, Ravitch wore a bulletproof vest and lived with a police escort after someone trespassed at MTA headquarters and shot his police bodyguard. 

In the early 21st century, when he was already well into his 70s, Ravitch was called back into public service by the accidental Gov. David Paterson in the wake of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation. After being tapped to be Lieutenant Governor, Ravitch made that normally vestigial job into a powerful perch as he helped Paterson guide the State through the Great Recession of 2008.

Once again, Ravitch was the right financial seer at the right time.

I was happy to get close to him these past few years, in the twilight of his successful life. When I was setting up “Mayor Classes” for then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in 2019, one of the first “guest lecturers” I brought in was Ravitch, who adeptly schooled the attentive candidate on budget issues and the city’s relationship to the MTA. It was inspiring to see Ravitch impart his hard-earned wisdom to the future mayor that day.

In early 2022, when I told Ravitch I was starting a new think tank, The 5BORO Institute, he eagerly asked if he could be co-chair of this new non-profit. He loved the idea of creating a policy shop to work on concrete and implementable ideas that could help current and future mayors and governors solve chronic urban problems.

He jumped in, rolled up his sleeves and worked diligently with me to get this ambitious initiative off the ground. He became our Yoda, happily advising our small team and regaling them with his many war stories.

About a month ago, I helped set up a meeting for Ravitch with Adams to discuss future budget issues and the city’s looming deficits. Ravitch was eager to help the new mayor on this topic, as he had done with every City Hall leader going back to Abe Beame in the early 1970s. Each new mayor would summon Ravitch early in their term to get his invaluable input on complex financial and budget issues.

A few days before his planned meeting with Adams, Ravitch’s secretary called to cancel because he wasn’t well and would need to reschedule. That’s when I suspected something was gravely wrong. Ravitch wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to help the mayor unless he really wasn’t up to it.

Alas, with his passing, that meeting was never rescheduled and he won’t be able to offer his analysis of what to do in the coming years if the feared budget deficits materialize.

Like so many civic-minded New Yorkers, I am grateful that we had Dick Ravitch in the arena to rescue our city and our state in tough times the past five decades.

We need more leaders like Dick Ravitch to emerge in the coming years to fill his very big shoes.

Let’s hope we can find them.