65 Minutes With Richard Ravitch

Photo: Seth Wenig/AP Photo

In a corner office high above midtown, Richard Ravitch is settling into purgatory. The room, equipped with an I [HEART] NY poster of a lighthouse in twilight and a government-issued brown couch, used to belong to his new boss, David Paterson, who got a bigger space when he became governor. A couple of weeks ago, after he was sworn in as lieutenant governor, Ravitch moved in. “I’m not going to decorate,” he says. A phone on a table rings, but apparently not for him. “They have to cut off that phone,” he tells a secretary.

At the age of 76, Ravitch is a squarely built man with a thin thatch of white hair that has lost its curls. His new post has upended his normal schedule of corporate and charitable board meetings, Hamptons golfing, investment work, and playdates with his grandchildren, but it’s not clear how long he’s going to have it. Republicans contend that his appointment was unconstitutional. In the next few weeks, an appeals court will settle Ravitch’s fate. He puts his chances at 50-50. “It’s hard not knowing,” he says. “I feel a little bit like I’m part of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. You’re a little bit like Pooh-Bah in The Mikado. You have a title, but you’re really not lieutenant governor,” he says.

Besides four photos of the Ravitch family (his third wife, Kathleen M. Doyle, two sons, and many grandchildren) perched on a bookshelf, the most visible sign of occupancy is a rapidly accumulating heap of charts, graphs, and policy memos on his desk—an encyclopedia of fiscal calamity that has been Ravitch’s July reading. For Ravitch, his mission is obvious—to steer New York and its governor away from the brink. While the battle for control of the Senate was still raging, Paterson said he wanted a lieutenant governor to establish a line of succession and to cast tie-breaking votes. But Paterson, an embattled governor with a depleted staff and a popular attorney general eyeing his job, had other needs. He wanted a protector, an advocate, a guide. When he phoned Ravitch about the job, the governor was unambiguous as to what he needed: “We’re facing fiscal problems that are growing, and I need help. You can be very helpful to me,” he said, according to Ravitch.

The territory is not totally unfamiliar. Ravitch, a Yale-educated lawyer, has a long history of running into flames and rescuing institutions: the Urban Development Corporation in the seventies, Bowery Savings Bank in the eighties, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, both as chairman during Mario Cuomo’s administration (they butted heads) and as the architect of the bailout plan approved by lawmakers in the spring. Occasionally, he’s gotten burned. His role as chief labor negotiator for the baseball owners during the 1994 labor dispute ended in failure and frustration. “How Did Dick Ravitch Get Into This Mess?” was the headline in the Times. Now there’s this mess. After Paterson announced his appointment last month, Ravitch says he got a message on his phone from his friend Ken Shapiro, an Albany lobbyist who used to work for Stanley Fink, the late Assembly speaker they both idolized. “I spoke to Stanley in Heaven last night, and he asked me to deliver a message to you: Ravitch, you’re out of your fucking mind,” Shapiro said.

Ravitch doesn’t think so. “I’m trying to help David Paterson make the best possible decisions in a set of lousy circumstances, and I believe if he does make them, he’ll get reelected,” he says. Ravitch lost a bid for mayor twenty years ago and is not running for office next year. Those Paterson-saving decisions have yet to be finalized, but one insider said Ravitch is looking into using pension funds to help insure municipal bonds.

“I know this sounds corny, but five generations of Ravitches have benefited from being New Yorkers. I’ve had a wonderfully eclectic life. I owe this community a hell of a lot.” So he’s pitching in.

But Mr. Fix-It can’t shake off a growing sense of despair. “Obama comes up with a proposal. It’s praised by Paul Krugman, all the liberals, all the people who believe in health care, and every day it seems as if it’s running into more opposition. Why is that? Because people are worried about the tax burden.” America, he says, is waking up to a troubling reality about its place in the world. “It certainly means that we’re past the apogee of American power and American hegemony.”

Exiting his office, Ravitch walks through a hallway adorned with photographs of Paterson in various regal poses. “I’m here to help him in a public as well as a private way. That’s probably true whether I’m lieutenant governor or not. It’s a hell of a lot easier, and I could be a lot more helpful, if I have the title,” he says.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.

65 Minutes With Richard Ravitch