The Last (Good) Man Standing

On the morning of Monday, March 8, Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch placed a call to Kathryn Wylde, president of the civic-minded business group Partnership for New York City, with a request.

Mr. Ravitch, who was working on a plan to reform the state’s dismal system of budgeting, needed support—and fast. He wanted Ms. Wylde, a power broker among the Manhattan business set, to corral some of her members for a meeting with Mr. Ravitch. She obliged. “He’s going to try and bring together leadership from around the state, from business, from labor,” Ms. Wylde said, “because there’s no other way to accomplish this.”

In New York, the odds are never great for anyone attempting to easily pass a budget. But they’re particularly daunting now, with Governor David Paterson on the brink and the state $9 billion in the hole. So the pressure is on for Mr. Ravitch, the 76-year-old longtime fiscal lifeguard, who is charged with cleaning up the Capitol. As the state’s political classes consider his ascension in the event of Mr. Paterson’s resignation—the state’s current political obsession—Mr. Ravitch no longer has the luxury of operating behind the scenes. And the key question, which may soon be answered in very public fashion, is whether his idealistic and non-confrontational style can work in the Albany of 2010, where most any attempt at rational policy becomes quickly tangled in a thick web of dysfunction.

Mr. Ravitch’s reputation as a civic rescuer has a long history. Governor Hugh Carey tapped him from the private sector in the 1970s to save the fiscally struggling Urban Development Corporation. During the city’s fiscal crisis in 1975, he worked behind the scenes to avert municipal bankruptcy. He ran the M.T.A. from 1979 to 1983, bringing the beleaguered agency a new flow of revenues and turning it around from an era marked by derailments and track fires. After the stint in government, he helped turn around the Bowery Saving Bank, and occasionally popped up as a reasonable voice in various public fights, be it the battle over a West Side stadium (he opposed it) or the rescue of the M.T.A. in 2008 and 2009.

And until about eight months ago, he seemed content to stick to his life as an occasional adviser in the public sector, spending much of his time serving on the boards of a long list of charities and nonprofits. But Mr. Paterson, seeking to break a deadlock that had gripped the State Senate, pulled Mr. Ravitch back into the limelight, appointing him as lieutenant governor through an untested legal route that was ultimately upheld by the courts.

Spending his time at the top of a particularly troubled Albany administration is most certainly not how Mr. Ravitch imagined the capstone to his career in public service. (“I didn’t sign up for this,” he told Ms. Wylde bluntly, speaking of the complex political context that surrounds him.)
He clearly is no natural politician, nor does he have the appearance or manner typical of the state’s second-highest-ranking official. He speaks with a hoarse voice and takes deep, almost gasplike breaths as he talks. He dives quickly into budget-speak, and often appears tired, closing his eyes for seconds at a time. (His devotees point out he has had these traits for decades, and they proved something of an image problem when he ran, very unsuccessfully, for mayor in 1989.) He is blunt, he swears and he speaks with a candor rarely seen in a politician, espousing sometimes unpopular views without hesitation. At a lengthy talk at N.Y.U. in October, for instance, he advocated for taxing gasoline “much more heavily,” took a swipe at Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation policy and pledged that plans for East River bridge tolls would come back again.

He looks at politics as an idealist, a good-government type who believes— despite all evidence to the contrary—that rational policy is within reach, and he deeply respects the value of public service.

It is a belief shaped decades ago, when the involvement of business leaders became a hallmark of New York City’s aversion to bankruptcy in the 1970s. Well-known civic giants like landlord Lew Rudin and banker Felix Rohatyn, along with labor leaders, became heavily involved in discussions about the city’s fiscal picture. Ultimately, Mr. Rudin and other big-name landlords volunteered to prepay hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes to help bail out the city.

“Dick believes very much in civic engagement, and he thinks to get any major reform actually accomplished in the New York political framework, you need a broad base of understanding and support from business, labor and the major groups,” said Peter Goldmark, a former state budget director in the fiscal crisis. The challenge for Mr. Ravitch is that his notions of we’re-all-in-this-together New York politics are antiquated—forged in a different era. The New York in which high-profile elites stand up as prominent civic participants is no more. The city’s banks and other industries are far more global in their reach than before, less grounded in New York. Further, the dysfunction of Albany is widely believed to be at an all-time high, as the Legislature goes through excruciating pain to pass anything even remotely controversial.

The Last (Good) Man Standing