The Magazine

Citizen Ravitch

The good, the bad, and the future of New York.

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Richard Ravitch is an extraordinary man. He’s an intelligent, indefatigable, honest, honorable, accessible, and personable fellow who, for 45 years, has played a key role in rescuing New York’s jerrybuilt fiscal structure from its own failings. Yes, that’s my personal opinion of the man who has just written this autobiography, aptly titled So Much to Do; but it’s an opinion broadly shared by New Yorkers caught up in the political life of the city and state over nearly half of a century.

Richard Ravitch, Edward Koch, Michael Bloomberg (2009)

Richard Ravitch, Edward Koch, Michael Bloomberg (2009)

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The scion of a well-to-do real estate family, and educated at Columbia and Yale, Ravitch served his public sector apprenticeship in the 1960s as a staffer on the House Government Operations Committee and a Johnson appointee to the United States Commission on Urban Problems, where his friendship with the civil rights leader and social democrat Bayard Rustin informed his outlook. On the private sector side, he and a cousin ran the family business, HRH Construction, which was responsible (after years of wrangling with the New York City government over zoning and permits) for the award-winning Waterside Plaza housing project: four towers built on more than 2,000 pylons sunk into the East River just south of the United Nations buildings.

Waterside Plaza was financed in the early 1970s in part by Mitchell-Lama moral-obligation bonds, a program developed by New York State to encourage the construction of middle-class housing by circumventing the limits on the state’s constitutionally authorized borrowing authority. The project also received a federal subvention and support from the newly created New York City Housing Development Corporation, the brainchild of the then-30-year-old Ravitch and Mayor John Lindsay. For Ravitch, Waterside Plaza was an education in the complexities of public/private partnerships.

Just a few years later, a newly elected Governor Hugh Carey turned to Ravitch to salvage the state Urban Development Corporation, which had gone deeply into debt by financing subsidized housing projects through moral-obligation bonds that similarly circumvented the need for public approval. But not even Ravitch could save the UDC, which went bankrupt. The same banks that refused loans to the UDC precipitated the 1975 fiscal crisis when they refused to refinance the mountain of debt that had been piled up by mayors Lindsay and Abraham Beame to subsidize social programs and low-income housing and to increase pay for the city’s public sector workers, who had grown from 250,000 to 330,000 during Lindsay’s second term.

When the bankers balked at financing the city’s out-of-control short-term debt, Ravitch played an important role in salvaging the situation. His plan for reviving the state Housing Development Corporation became the model for the Municipal Assistance Corporation, which reorganized the city’s debt so it could gain federal guarantees. And then, after arduous efforts, Ravitch convinced his fellow social democrat Albert Shanker, head of the United Federation of Teachers and a family friend, to join with the major bankers and other unions in an effort to buy the city’s restructured debt. Aided by the inflation of the late 1970s, which reduced the costs of the city’s obligations, New York slowly backed away from the precipice.

In 1979, Governor Carey called on Ravitch again, this time to rescue the city’s fiscally failing Metropolitan Transit Authority. Relying on his extraordinary negotiating skills, Ravitch again delivered—but at the cost of introducing a regional sales tax. In 2009, he rescued the MTA yet again, creating a regional payroll tax in a state with 8 of the 10 highest county property taxes in the country. 

In 1985, Ravitch, described by the late Mayor Edward Koch as a “renaissance man,” brought the Bowery Savings Bank back from the brink of bankruptcy, but failed to connect with the public as a mayoral candidate. In his last term-and-a-half in office, Koch recapitulated Lindsay and Beame by doubling the city budget. In 1989, when Koch was running for a fourth term, it should have been an ideal setting for a Ravitch mayoral run. But Ravitch was hampered by his integrity—and his inability to schmooze-up the man in the street. Asked if he would ride the crime-ridden subways he had rescued a decade earlier if he didn’t have to, he replied, “No way.” He ended up with a pile of thoughtful policy statements and 4 percent of the vote. 

Richard Ravitch’s last major role in New York came when “Client 9,” the hypocritical and heinous Eliot Spitzer, was forced to resign as governor in 2008 and his successor, David Paterson, also caught up in a series of scandals, was forced (on dubious legal authority) to name Ravitch as his lieutenant governor. Ravitch, who was described as the only adult in Albany, held out the promise of restoring confidence in state government. But despite his best efforts to aid the state, which was hard hit by the national financial crisis of 2008, Lieutenant Governor Ravitch was ignored by Governor Paterson, who limped through the remainder of the term won by Spitzer.

Ravitch’s experience in Albany led him to question the viability of democracy when powerful interest groups, such as the public-sector unions, dominate state government. He was disturbed by the “tone” of public complaints about government, “which are expressed in a resigned, condescending, dismissive, or outraged [voice] that would be more appropriate from the resentful subjects of an authoritarian regime than from citizens of a democracy.” The “amelioration” of these attitudes, he insists, “begins with a respect for the political process.”

For all his strengths, Ravitch is short on introspection. He seems not to have noticed that the informal mechanisms that kept the state on kilter have eroded since the 1975 fiscal crisis. Business and labor were once evenly matched; but costs, crime, and hyper-regulation sent businesses scurrying to sunnier climes so that the state increasingly came to depend on New York City’s financial sector and punishing local taxes to finance the demands of the public-sector unions who dominate the legislature. Almost everyone in the business of government did well; it was the workaday citizenry that was suffering.

Ravitch also seems not to have noticed the deep decline of New York’s upstate economy. Upstate fiscal conservatism had once acted as a check on the city’s unrestrained push for more spending, regardless of results. But here, too, the balance that Ravitch had taken for granted 40 years earlier has collapsed.

And if government seems less and less accountable to the people, that is probably because sitting members of the legislature win elections with the tiny turnout of party primaries and are rarely challenged in general elections. At the same time, New York’s innumerable public authorities have been able to issue debt without public approval. The same authorities that made Ravitch’s Waterside project possible were (like almost all in state government) in business for themselves. The corporatism that might have once seemed benign has left politics to professionals with a personal, full-time interest in an overweening government that barely needs public approval. 

There is no mystery to declining voter turnout and public cynicism: It’s a rational response to the system Richard Ravitch helped shape, in which public/private partnerships, sometimes descending into crony capitalism, call most of the shots, thus sidelining ordinary voters. Why these arrangements deserve “the public’s respect,” as Ravitch suggests, is something that this talented man seems unable to answer.

Fred Siegel, a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class