ALBANY—Richard Ravitch called me from somewhere between Albany and New York. He had been with David Paterson in Rochester the night before, speaking to an annual gathering of the Business Council. He was heading to a forum alongside the governors of Texas and Vermont. I asked him what he's been doing.
"Just working on the budget," he replied.
Ravitch's Constitutional legitimization by a split ruling of the Court of Appeals set him into motion. Paterson had envisioned him as a strong right hand, "an extension of the governor," for budgetary matters and legislative relations, but over the last week Ravitch has, without qualification, taken the lead on creating a budget plan. (The Paterson administration had all of August to develop a concrete plan to reduce the deficit—during which time Ravitch’s appointment as lieutenant governor remained in a legal limbo—but could not make any headway.)
As one prominent lobbyist put it: "I'd say he's become the executive director of our government, and Paterson is now kind of like the chairman of the board.”
Earlier this week, Ravitch traveled with Paterson to the 17th floor of the Park Avenue offices of J.P. Morgan Chase for a meeting of bankers, real estate machers and the heads of trade associations from Rochester to Long Island convened by the Partnership for New York City and the Citizens Budget Commission.
Paterson gave a speech that stuck to his increasingly emphatic message of fiscal restraint–which he hopes will be his political redemption. Then he left, with Ravitch staying to sit on a panel and shmooze before the business leaders did break-out sessions. They were excited to see him.
"I think what David was doing was trying to get somebody that has credibility with the Legislature, credibility with business and labor, but who's coming to these conversations without a political agenda," said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York. "He has political vulnerability—Ravitch does not. So I think he brought in somebody who's a little larger than life. Governor Paterson is not going to get blamed for whatever Ravitch says or does."
And vice-versa. Ravitch can knock heads and get things done, being the "tough guy" who gives Paterson "deniability," as Wylde put it.
Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos put it to me this way: "I think the lieutenant governor is the person who he felt could come up with a plan based on his expertise in finance, and the fact that he has a certain respectability within the finance community. So we're waiting to see what he comes up with."
So how does Ravitch see himself?
"Well, I don't like to characterize myself under any circumstances—I would leave that to others—but I'm certainly very involved, and the governor is fully aware of what I'm doing and I'm in close touch with him," he said. "Of course, I'm in touch with staffs with the legislative leaders on a continuing basis."
And having spoken to business leaders, next week's agenda holds labor groups. While a traditional Democratic constituency, their relationship with Paterson has been frosty.
"I expect to have an adult conversation with them about the problem and see what ideas they have," Ravitch said. "I've spent a good part of my life with the labor movement, and so I suppose it's possible in some of these situations to characterize me as the bad guy. But I hope they don't, but if they do, I can't prevent people from calling me names. It doesn't change the fact that revenues are going down and the expenses are going up. That's the reality. That's the reality for this governor, for any other governor, and for any member of the legislature. People who are elected to office are the ones who have the burden of having to decide how to resolve these issues. I can be helpful in the process, but it's ultimately elected officials who have to make decisions."
"The press should start asking the people who want to replace them what they should do under similar circumstances," he added, prompting me to ask if he was taking a shot at any person or group who he didn't want to name.
"No, not at all. Not at all," he said. "And I'm sure they all will. It's not a criticism at all. I mean, there's not reason for anybody who doesn't have to make a decision to speak out on it."
Ravitch refused to offer any specifics on what he might propose on behalf of the executive branch or when it might be proposed. Every number shows things are getting worse.
The budget, he told me, is "evolving."