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Richard Ravitch, hero of 1970s fiscal crisis and former lieutenant governor, dies at age 89

Former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch.
Matt Ryan
CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch.

Richard Ravitch, the hero of New York City’s 1970s financial crisis and a former lieutenant governor, has died at age 89.

Ravitch, born in Manhattan in 1933, was the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father ran a construction company, which built some notable New York City landmarks, including a former site of the Whitney Museum, and New York University Hospital. His mother was a sculptor.

After graduating from Columbia Law School, Ravitch focused on building low- and middle-income housing, and he was drawn into politics, where he espoused liberal views in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Former Gov. Hugh Carey appointed him to a key post, the head of the states’ Urban Development Corporation, where he helped pull New York City out of bankruptcy in 1975.

Ravitch described how he did that in a 2010 interview with “This American Life.” Ravitch had devised a means for the city to raise short-term cash to pay its bills, and he told host Ira Glass that Carey asked him to intervene when Albert Shanker, the then-president of the United Federation of Teachers, said his union would not invest $150 million in municipal bonds that were needed to keep New York solvent.

Ravitch, who was friendly with Shanker, convinced him to change his mind.

“I met Al in his apartment at 11:30 at night. I said to Al, I understood his reluctance, that I respected his dilemma,” Ravitch explained. “On the other hand, this is one of those unique circumstances in life where the consequences of going into bankruptcy was so disastrous that you had to take some risks.”

By the next day, Oct. 17, 1975, Shanker asked for a private meeting with Ravitch and Carey, and the union president agreed to buy the bonds, avoiding a cascade of events that would have led to the city’s bankruptcy.

Ravitch also ran the MTA for a time and is credited with saving it, and he later worked for Major League Baseball.

In 2009, at a time when many people might think of retiring, Ravitch accepted the appointment to lieutenant governor by then-Gov. David Paterson and helped avoid a state constitutional crisis. Paterson explained his reasoning in July of that year.

“I thought that the best public policy was to go out and find the best person that I could think of who could govern in my absence, and that person is Richard Ravitch,” Paterson said.

Paterson had been lieutenant governor, but he became governor when Eliot Spitzer resigned. That left the lieutenant governor’s position vacant. In those circumstances, the leader of the state Senate serves as lieutenant governor. But the Senate was in disarray after a faction rebelled, and its leadership was in dispute.

“There are two, if not three senators, that lay claim to that post,” Paterson said.

The appointment was so urgent that Paterson sent state lawyers to have Ravitch take the oath of office at the famed Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn, where he was dining with his wife and friends.

When Ravitch’s and Paterson’s terms ended, neither sought election to their posts.

In the years after, Ravitch wrote a memoir, and served as co-chair on a State Budget Crisis Task force with former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker.

Many leading political figures and civic organizations expressed condolences.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was herself a lieutenant governor, said Ravitch was a “titan of New York's civic world who left an indelible mark on our State,” and will be greatly missed.

“He became a good friend and adviser of mine. We had lunch together not all that long ago,” Hochul said at an unrelated event at Penn Station in Manhattan.

“He told me all the things I need to do,” Hochul said with a smile. “As he always would.”

Ravitch is survived by two former wives, Diane Ravitch, an influential voice in education policy, and Betsy Perry, and his current wife, Kathleen Doyle, as well as two sons.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.