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One On 1 Profile: Political and Business Maven Richard Ravitch Continues to Influence Governments After 40 Years

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If you wanted to sit with someone and have a cup of coffee and talk about New York government and politics over the past forty years, Richard Ravitch would be a pretty good start, and Ravitch wants to apply the lessons learned in the past to cities and states now. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

Richard Ravitch likes to create buildings. Advise state and city governments. Make furniture.

"I just made the regretful decision not to go to the American Woodturners Convention this year," he says.

Aside from making furniture, Ravitch is best known as a New Yorker who has served the city and state in a variety of roles over 40 years.

He was part of the group of leaders who helped steer New York away from the fiscal crisis in 1975. He ran the MTA under Governor Hugh L. Carey and briefly served as lieutenant governor under Governor David Paterson.

Now Ravitch and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker serve as independent consultants to state and city governments, advising against the bad accounting practices of the past that have gotten cities like Detroit into dire straits.

"I'm fascinated with the subject because I think it's the biggest problem, domestic problem that we have, that states and cities are running out of money," he says.

"The consequences of the path we are on are as serious, if not more serious, than what the city faced in 1975," Ravitch said in 2010.

Ravitch says his work in government started with a phone call in 1975. He was in the family construction business, building several properties, including the vast waterside complex on the East River. When then-Governor Carey needed someone to shore up the finances of New York State's public housing program, the Urban Development Corporation, he was told to call Dick Ravitch.

"I had never met Hugh Carey," Ravitch says. "He asked me to help, and that phone call changed my life."

Working with the Urban Development Corporation led to a string of appointments and positions in which Ravitch wielded tremendous influence on New York. When the city faced bankruptcy in 1975, meetings were held out of the public eye at Ravitch's apartment. There were calls to heads of banks and their skeptical secretaries.

"The governor and Mr. Shanker just left my apartment, and Mr. Shanker is providing the money, the city will not go into bankruptcy. She says, 'And who are you?' and I said, 'My name is Dick Ravitch,' and she said, 'I don't know anybody by that name,'" Ravitch says.

Soon enough, everyone in New York government would know his name. In 1979, Governor Carey surprised Ravitch by asking him to become chairman of the MTA.

"I said, 'Gov, are you crazy? You don't ride the subways. I ride them every day to work. They're falling apart.' He said, 'That's why I want you to become chairman of the MTA,'" Ravitch says.

Ravitch did well enough in the family business to be able to accept the MTA job without a salary.

As Ravitch was about to take over, former mayor Robert Wagner offered some advice.

"'It's critically important to any union leader that they look as if they came out of it a winner, and it's important to you only if what you care about is your public image, but in terms of your responsibility to save the public money, be prepared to bow your head and say you lost,'" Ravitch says.

Under Ravitch, the MTA began the trend of buying graffiti-resistant subway cars. There was an 11-day subway strike in 1980, when people walked and biked to work over the Brooklyn Bridge. Because of death threats, Ravitch even had to wear a bulletproof vest in public.

"I'm essentially not the bravest guy in the world, but when I thought about this at night, I said, 'I can't do anything about it. I'm not going to quit,'" Ravitch says.

In 1989, Ravitch decided to run for mayor. In the Democratic primary, he won 4 percent of the vote.

"Even though I was an appallingly bad candidate, it was a great experience. It was an exhilarating experience," Ravitch says.

There was one stop along the way that had nothing to do with building, or city or state government. Ravitch was the first negotiator for the owners during the 1994 baseball strike.

Ravitch: It probably was the least useful thing I ever did in my life. It was fun. It was frustrating.
Mishkin: What was the frustrating part?
Ravitch: The owners lied to each other constantly.They weren't unified. They didn't mean what they said all the time.

His memoir "So Much to Do" is chock full of many of the events that shaped New York over the past 40 years, but Ravitch writes only briefly about some powerful personal moments in his life, like the death of a 2-year-old son from leukemia in 1966.

"The death of a child is the worst possible experience you can have," Ravitch says. "And I just decided that my grief was a very private matter and it had no place in this book."

Ravitch's story started on the Upper West Side in the 1930s, but his family's physical connection to the landscape of the city dates back to his grandfather.

"He made sidewalk gratings and manhole covers, and I found this embedded on Allen Street, 50-odd years ago, had it dug out and replaced," Ravitch says.

Ravitch's parents worshipped President Franklin Roosevelt. This rubbed off on Ravitch.
While at Columbia University in the mid-'50s, he invited Eleanor Roosevelt to speak at the school, and also to join him for lunch.

Ravitch: She talked about civil rights, but she loved young people.
Mishkin: Pretty heady stuff.
Ravitch: Yeah it was. For a 19-year-old kid from the west side of New York, it was a thrill.

Ravitch went to Yale Law School, served in the army, worked on Capitol Hill and married Diane Ravitch, who would go on to have a distinguished career in the field of education.

Wanting economic security for his young family, Ravitch came back to work in the family construction business in the early '60s. He was sitting on an East River wooden pier one day after receiving a letter that indicated a need for housing for UN personnel.

"We said, 'How about right here in the river?'" Ravitch says.

"The first time I proposed it to the city, the chairman of the planning commission patted me on the head and said, 'Dicky, you've got a marvelous future. Don't waste your time on this.'"

After more than a decade of legal and financial and construction challenges, Waterside was built, carrying on the tradition of his father, who died when Ravitch was in college.

Mishkin: Do you recall moments of, "Man, I would have wanted him to see this"?
Ravitch: Yes. It's a sensitive question, and believe me, I have thought about it. He and my grandfather.

With children and grandchildren to enjoy, and cities and states to advise, Ravitch is too busy to be living in the past, but the stories are always there to be told, lessons to be imparted, from the builder, banker, businessman, lawyer, negotiator, public official.

"Because I've never figured out what I really wanted to do when I grow up, I've done a lot of interesting things, and I love politics, and I believe, as you can gather, that politics is the only way you change anything in a democratic system," he says.

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