Lessons from a transit savior
To understand New York, you’ve got to understand the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And to understand the state-controlled M.T.A., it helps to understand Richard Ravitch.
Ravitch is the ‘80s-era M.T.A. chairman who helped save New York by helping save its subways and buses. He didn’t do it by knowing all that much about transit. Instead, he knew what keeps the trains running (sort of) on time: money.
And what keeps the money coming in? The ability to pull in powerful politicians—and firmly push them right back out, too, when necessary. Ravitch's whole life was training for how to manage the insanity that is the M.T.A. and its role in state politics.
Ravitch is a real New Yorker, the grandson of a Russian Jew who came to America to escape the late-19th-century pogroms. He grew up on Central Park West, “in the block where they still inflate the balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.” His family won his childhood home—four apartments at 81st Street—when a bank that owed money to the Ravitch construction firm, which made manhole covers, went bankrupt during the Depression.
Ravitch ventured out into the world beyond the West Side Highway when he went to Ohio for the first year of college, to “meet real people.” He didn't like it so much.
“For one thing, it turned out that most of the students were Republicans,” he recalls in his newly published memoir, So Much To Do: A Full Life of Business, Politics, and Confronting Fiscal Crisis.
But life made the decision for Ravitch to return ahead of schedule. When his father died, Ravitch returned to New York to be with his mother, doing his last three years at Columbia.
Ravitch is smart, crucially, in a number of the ways in which people can be smart. Some people know books but not people. Some people know how to manage a railroad below them but don't have the faintest clue of how to manage the governor above them. Ravitch is good at all of these things.
He credits some of this knowledge to Columbia, where he studied politics and history “with the country's greatest scholars.” Lionel Trilling and George Orwell taught him the obvious “incompatibility between democracy and political absolutism.” Trilling, in particular, “loved the ambiguities of democratic politics.”
Ravitch adeptly applied theory to practice. He absorbed, for example, that Tammany Hall wasn't aggressive about registering Democrats to vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Why? As a Tammany boss told him, too many voters might then come out for an off-year vote. Low turnout benefits machines. And when Stevenson lost, despite Ravitch's and his fellow Students for Stevenson's best efforts, Ravitch didn't grow bitter or entrenched. He instead determined that his ideal would be getting something done rather than sticking to a losing cause.
Working on Capitol Hill after Yale Law School in the mid-Fifties, Ravitch learned another critical lesson. After putting out a report on missile defense that “gathered dust,” he decided to watch and learn—and what he learned was that power doesn't lie with politicians, but with the people who are powerful enough to tell politicians to go stuff it. As a mid-twenty-something, then, he determined that “the financial circumstances of an honest public life can be punishing, and … it is not a bad idea to have something in the bank before embarking on such a career.”
Ravitch, who worked in the family construction and development business, says he was “thoroughly naïve about New York City politics” when he jumped in. But … he planned his first big project on 138th Street between Fifth Avenue and the river, where, he notes in passing, the city had “a sanitation garage [it] intended to close.” It must have taken a close reading of city government to know the garage was closing.
In fact, the family business, under Ravitch, become a business of exploiting “the vast field of government housing policy, an interconnected web of programs, incentives, and subsidies from federal, state, and local governments.”
“If you mastered the details,” he writes, you could do something “both profitable and socially useful.”
From the ‘50s through the ‘70s, Ravitch recounts, city governments all over the country, and particularly the northeast, were flailing. The interstate highway system had encouraged “white flight.” People couldn't get private financing to get a mortgage to live in the city or build city housing, and not many wanted to anyway.
Though some builders “did not want government looking over their shoulder,” Ravitch and his partner, cousin Saul Horowitz, Jr., took advantage of federal, state, and local subsidies to keep people in cities. They navigated bureaucracies from the city planning department to the U.S. Congress to build projects such as Waterside Plaza, a four-tower housing development near the U.N., to Manhattan Plaza, a high-rise for artists on the West Side. (For 12 years, I've been looking at the latter from my window as I eat dinner.) Two decades of home-building taught Ravitch how to wring government subsidies—and how to use subsidies to pay for other subsidies.
In the mid-’70s, New York began to crater. The city lost half a million jobs in the early part of the decade, and welfare spending was soaring. The state-created Urban Development Corp., which used government financing to build apartments that residents couldn't afford to live in, was the first to fall. Gov. Hugh Carey tapped Ravitch to help fix U.D.C., having found him through his housing-development experience. Ravitch had had an opportunity to do a deal with U.D.C., but had turned it down after determining that the corporation's numbers just didn't add up.
Ravitch instead sought to address the corporation’s problems, famously, by standing up to the banks, placing an unfiled bankruptcy petition before each of the city's major bankers until they blinked. But the real, longer-term solution he crafted was a complex state bailout, which counterintuitively required the creation of yet another state authority to alleviate the obligations of the first.
This rescue provided a model for the similar state and federal bailout of New York City less than a year later in 1975—for good and ill. The Carey administration did insist on real long-term fixes to New York City government, including the preparation and release of a four-year financial plan. But the type of structured-finance alchemy that the state used both for UDC and for New York City has also allowed local and state governments in New York and around the country to borrow more than they should.
It was in 1979 that Ravitch got a chance to try out all these lessons at once. The M.T.A., starved by state and local government for decades, was “rapidly disintegrating.” Carey tapped Ravitch to take the helm, where he “started to learn just how desperate the M.T.A. was for money.” Ravitch, as a New Yorker, knew that “a great city depends on public transit.”
What Ravitch needed was permanent government subsidy—enough tax dollars from Albany to help the MTA borrow money to make badly needed investments in new trains, buses, and tracks. But first, he had to call in his contacts—convincing the city's top business leaders that transit was in desperate trouble. Then, he had to manage appearances. Before his confirmation, he asked a state senator to ask him at the hearing if he would ever raise fares.
The senator thought Ravitch was blundering. Why walk into a hard question, when he was sure to be confirmed? But Ravitch's answer to the question—he said at the hearing that if he didn't get another source of money, he would have no other choice but to hike fares—clearly staked out his independence from the governor who had appointed him. The “governor's staff was furious,” Ravitch recalls. Carey had already promised no fare hike. But, says Ravitch, Carey “knew he shouldn't have promised that.”
Ravitch said things publicly when it suited him (and the M.T.A.), but he also did backroom deals, telling legislative leaders, for example, that while the M.T.A. board would vote on two fare hikes, if they approved his tax subsidies, they'd go ahead with only one such hike.
Over the next two years, Ravitch got the money New York needed, and put the M.T.A. on track to, well, where it is today. Without a functional transit system, New York never could have reversed its pre-1980s population losses.
“My four years at the M.T.A. were the most exhilarating of my life,” Ravitch recalls.
The fun never stopped. Ravitch dealt with an assailant (never caught) who tried to shoot him, lawmakers in Washington who wondered if “you people up there in New York are Americans” for buying train cars from Japanese manufacturers for financing advantages and the biggest problem of all: letting down real constituencies he wanted to help, like people with disabilities who demanded accessible subway stations, because there wasn't enough money.
He understood the value of stagecraft—and its limits. He writes that he and Transport Workers Union chief John Lawe had had a plan to avert the 11-day transit strike of 1980, whereby Ravitch would propose something “unacceptable,” and Lawe would throw him out. Then Ravitch would come back and Lawe would accept the new offer. But Lawe never called Ravitch back because, says Ravitch, half the union's executive committee “had been [too] drunk” to listen.
That strike also involved a maneuver that “backroom” doesn’t begin to describe. During the strike, Mayor Ed Koch filed a motion in Brooklyn court to levy huge fines on the T.W.U.—possibly bankrupting them shop and making way for the stronger Teamsters to take over. Ravitch "had an M.T.A. police car” take him to Brooklyn to see Milt Mollen, a "friend," and the appeals court judge who wouldn't directly hear the case, but who knew the trial judge well. The trial judge went with a smaller fine.
Ravitch's most contemporarily relevant tale, though, speaks to the supposedly “independent” public authorities such as the M.T.A. and the bistate Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that are currently in such trouble. Theoretically, they have some insulation from raw politics; while governors appoint their board members and chairmen, those officers serve fixed terms, not at the governors' will. But they've ceded much of that independence over the years to the governors who make the appointments.
When Gov. Mario Cuomo succeeded Carey in 1983, he “never took a phone call from me,” says Ravitch. Instead, the governor wanted state lawmakers to give the governor direct control of the M.T.A. Ravitch let the Times know that this was a terrible idea—and legislative leaders told the governor it wasn't going to happen. “He had been politically humiliated,” Ravitch writes of the elder Cuomo. Giving up control “was not and is not the Cuomo style.”
Of course, elected officials will do exactly what they can get away with, and the problem today is that politicians like Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo ask for too much, and too often get it.
Three decades after helping to save transit, Ravitch is still serving the cause of long-term systemic stability, warning the public about the impossibility of state and local government finances. (He grew interested in the issue when he served as lieutenant governor for David Paterson nearly half a decade ago, and learned what a mess the state is in.)
But although he explains the numbers well enough and talks plenty about shared sacrifice, he never comes right out and says that the city's public-sector workers must take real and permanent cuts to their retirement benefits. Ravitch admits that these benefits are unaffordable, but that's the furthest he's willing to go. This is consistent with his course of action in 2009, when he helped design a bailout for the M.T.A.—a new $2 billion annual tax package—without adequately sounding the alarm on the M.T.A.'s labor costs.
For a book billed as his account of a “full life,” it's short on personal detail. Ravitch deserves his privacy when it comes to the specifics about how the death of his toddler son to cancer in 1966 and how the death of his “partner, cousin, [and] best friend” Horowitz in the Eastern Airlines plane crash at Kennedy in 1975 affected him.
But it would be nice to learn a bit more about Ravitch's personal relationships as well his political ones. It's obvious that, like George Clooney, he's attracted to strong, smart women. His mother was an educated, smart, “beautiful” woman (she studied Chaucer). As a college student, he was bold enough to ask Eleanor Roosevelt to lunch. As a young Hill staffer, he met his wife, Diane Silvers, a Houston kid who ended up at Wellesley and whom he picked out immediately as having “little experience but enormous talent and ambitious.” Diane Ravitch, the education scholar, is just as accomplished as Ravitch in her own right, yet he doesn't mention her for another 159 pages, until he notes offhandedly that “a few years earlier, I had been divorced.” He mentions his new wife, Kathleen Doyle—another independent woman. Even the most innocuous revelations—what does he do for fun?—are scant.
Ravitch promised “little gossip” in the book, and that's fine. But it might be useful to younger people who aspire to a public life to know whether Ravitch thinks it's at all possible to have a healthy work life and a healthy life. Then again, the answer is probably in the book. Work, for many powerful people, is all-consuming.
But no one is perfect, and anyone who can still work up real outrage over great civic issues at the age of 80 is doing pretty well.
Said Ravitch to me last week of Gov. Hugh Carey and Mayor Ed Koch, as well as the appointees they trusted: “All of those people would never think of Bridgegate. It's not not in their nature, not in their being.”
Sometimes, it's just that simple.
Nicole Gelinas, a Chartered Financial Analyst charterholder, is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a weekly op-ed columnist at the New York Post. Her first reported article for the New York media market was on the M.T.A., and the first person she interviewed for that piece was Dick Ravitch. @nicolegelinas on Twitter.
Ravitch’s book is available here.