So Much to Do

A Full Life of Business, Politics, and Confronting Fiscal Crises


By Richard Ravitch

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Every city and every state needs a Richard Ravitch. In sixty years on the job, whether working in business or government, he was the man willing to tackle some of the most complex challenges facing New York. Trained as a lawyer, he worked briefly for the House of Representatives, then began his career in his family’s construction business. He built high-profile projects like the Whitney Museum and Citicorp Center but his primary energy was devoted to building over 40,000 units of affordable housing including the first racially integrated apartment complex in Washington, D.C. He dealt with architects, engineers, lawyers, bureaucrats, politicians, union leaders, construction workers, bankers, and tenants — virtually all of the people who make cities and states work.

It was no surprise that those endeavors ultimately led to a life of public service. In 1975, Ravitch was asked by then New York Governor Hugh Carey to arrange a rescue of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, a public entity that had issued bonds to finance over 30,000 affordable housing units but was on the verge of bankruptcy. That same year, Ravitch was at Carey’s side when New York City’s biggest banks said they would no longer underwrite its debt and he became instrumental to averting the city’s bankruptcy.

Throughout his career, Ravitch divided his time between public service and private enterprise. He was chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 1979 to 1983 and is generally credited with rebuilding the system. He turned around the Bowery Savings Bank, chaired a commission that rewrote the Charter of the City of New York, served on two Presidential Commissions, and became chief labor negotiator for Major League Baseball.

Then, in 2008, after Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal and New York State was in a post-financial-crisis meltdown, Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson, appointed Ravitch Lieutenant Governor and asked him to make recommendations regarding the state’s budgeting plan. What Ravitch found was the result of not just the economic downturn but years of fiscal denial. And the closer he looked, the clearer it became that the same thing was happening in most states. Budgetary pressures from Medicaid, pension promises to public employees, and deceptive budgeting and borrowing practices are crippling our states’ ability to do what only they can do — invest in the physical and human infrastructure the country needs to thrive. Making this case is Ravitch’s current public endeavor and it deserves immediate attention from both public officials and private citizens.



“Dick Ravitch has been making impossible dreams come true for millions of Americans for over half a century. His book is a riveting trip through the bone-crushing political and fiscal crises he’s handled, and a refreshing reminder that—with dedicated and street smart leadership—politics and government can work for all the people.”

—Joseph A. Califano Jr., top domestic aide to President Lyndon B.

Johnson and former US secretary of health, education, and welfare

“In schools of business, government, and politics, So Much to Do should be required reading. It is a textbook for everyone interested in leading a full, purposeful life: A primer and testament to how one can do well while doing good. And given what it has to say about the fiscal challenges to cities, states, and the federal government, it couldn’t be more timely.”

—Dan Rather, journalist

“How does government actually get things done—when it does? How do fiscal crises get resolved? How do subway systems get fixed? How do dreams of urban development turn into new centers of civic vitality? Dick Ravitch knows, not just because he has seen it happen, but because he has made it happen. Anyone who wants to know how public servants really serve will enjoy the ride with this amazing entrepreneur.”

—Richard Tofel, president, ProPublica

“One of the penalties of good men’s refusing to participate in politics is that they end up being governed by their inferiors.”


“A democracy can exist only until the majority discovers that it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.”


“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”




IN THE SPRING OF 1951, I staged what passed in my family for a rebellion. Having just graduated from high school in New York City, I was supposed to be headed for the Ivy League, or at least one of the big state universities. Instead, I chose Oberlin College, thirty-five miles southwest of Cleveland, Ohio. I thought I was going to rural America, where I would meet real people. I wanted to transcend my New York roots.

I should have known they couldn’t be shed so easily. They were planted too deep.

IN 1885 MY GRANDFATHER, Joseph Ravitch, emigrated from Russia at the age of seventeen to escape the pogroms and went into the business of making sidewalk gratings and manhole covers. He prospered in the 1920s, and in 1925 he founded a small-time contracting business for his son, nephew, and son-in-law. It became the HRH Construction Corporation. When the Great Depression came, my grandfather went bankrupt and never fully recovered, financially or emotionally. But he left a durable legacy for the family and New York City. One day in the 1960s, I was walking on Allen Street in Lower Manhattan when I came across a sidewalk grating inscribed “Ravitch Brothers, 17 Mangin Street.” I had it removed and installed at Waterside, a project I built in Manhattan almost fifty years later.

My father, Saul, built some of the landmarks on Central Park West, including the famous double-towered Beresford and San Remo apartment buildings. Many of his projects were owned by the Bank of United States, a bank founded in 1913 by Jewish immigrants that served many newcomers to the country. Its customers may have thought that the name signified government backing, but in fact the bank lacked not only the backing of the US government but also the support of the rest of the banking industry. When the bank crashed at the beginning of the Depression, Wall Street’s other bankers refused to bail it out.

When it failed, the bank owed HRH thousands of dollars, which the bank didn’t have. In place of the funds, our family was granted four apartments at 15 West 81st Street, where we never had to pay rent. I spent my childhood there, on the broad street overlooking the American Museum of Natural History, in the block where they still inflate the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. One street west on Columbus Avenue, the El, one of four New York pre-subway elevated trains, rumbled its way from Lower Manhattan to Harlem.

We kids had the neighborhood wired. We knew the Good Humor man, the cops, the guy who sold newspapers and comics, the deli man, the candy man, and everyone else of critical value to a child in the streets of New York.

More than a half-century after playing in those streets, I climbed into a rented limousine at 6:00 one morning on my way to a board meeting in Princeton, New Jersey. The driver took a look at me and yelled, “Dickie! Don’t you remember me?”

I didn’t.

“It’s Ziggy! Alan Ziegenfeld, Dickie! We played stoop ball on 82nd Street!”

Now I remembered. Ziggy and Dickie reminisced all the way to Princeton. There are a lot of Ziggies in my life. As I write this, I am eighty years old; I know a lot of New Yorkers.

My mother, Sylvia Lerner, grew up in Dodgers territory—Flatbush, Brooklyn. We visited her family on weekends. My grandfather Samuel Lerner took me to Coney Island on Sundays. He was a gregarious man with many friends to show for it. He began his career as a postman and was promoted to the cavernous US Post Office on Eighth Avenue and 34th Street. On the late shift one night, he got a phone call from a man who introduced himself as Otto Abraham. He was a stockbroker, Abraham said. His firm had mistakenly put an envelope of bonds in the US Mail. They were bearer bonds. They could be turned into cash by anyone who laid hands on them. Could my grandfather find the envelope?

He found it, hand-delivered it to Abraham, and ended up moonlighting in Abraham’s office as a stockbroker. My grandfather turned out to be a great customer’s man and started working for Abraham & Co. full time. He and grandma moved to a nice apartment on the Upper West Side.

My mother lived several generations before her time. She got her BA from Hunter College, then a master’s degree, writing her thesis on Geoffrey Chaucer. She was a beautiful woman who played the cello and sculpted. My father was different; he loved his building business, his golf, and his family. After a hard day at the office, he wanted nothing more than to relax in the living room with us. He came to my high school baseball and basketball games and took me to see the Yankees and Dodgers play. He occasionally brought me along when he played golf with his buddies, though the game would hold no interest for me until sixty years later.

On December 7, 1941, a cold Sunday when I was eight years old, Dad took me to a Giants football game at the Polo Grounds. As the game went on, the Giants fell further behind the Brooklyn Dodgers—yes, there were football Dodgers back then—and a kind of murmuring swept through the stands. The radio reports had leaked into the stadium, and by halftime most of the 55,000 people in attendance had a lot more than football on their minds. The announcer began calling for generals and admirals to contact their offices, but many had already heard the news: just before the kickoff, at dawn in the central Pacific, Japan had launched its raid on Pearl Harbor.

My father, who was then forty-one, volunteered. He was commissioned as a Navy officer and assigned to the 55th Naval Construction Battalion, the newly formed Seabees. Across the Pacific, this new force of engineers and builders landed right behind the Marines to construct runways, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure needed by the invading US troops.

While Dad and his comrades worked their way toward Japan, we waited at home. My mother found a job at a news magazine. I was attending the Lincoln School, a progressive educational experiment in Harlem run by Columbia University Teachers College and funded by the Rockefellers, who enrolled several of their children in the school. My parents sent me to Lincoln from kindergarten through my freshman year in high school. My classmates were a socioeconomic cross section of New Yorkers—rich and poor, black and white. Lincoln’s was an “experience” curriculum. To study botany, we grew flowers. To study math, we made grocery budgets. I thrived, making a diverse group of friends for life.

But Nicholas Murray Butler, then president of Columbia, wanted the school’s endowment. Accordingly, Columbia claimed that the school had fulfilled its original purpose and closed it, not without incurring years of litigation. With my father home from the war, I finished high school at Ethical Culture Fieldston in the Bronx, still liberal but much more traditional. Then, in the fall of 1951, I set out for the wilds of Oberlin, Ohio.

OBERLIN COLLEGE wasn’t what I had expected. For one thing, it turned out that most of the students were Republicans. Every four years, the college held a mock presidential convention, and prominent politicians paid visits. Early in 1952, the students nominated Earl Warren, then Republican governor of California, for president. We few Democrats rallied around Wayne Morse—still a Republican, albeit one who had begun his idiosyncratic shift toward the Democratic Party.

Oberlin wasn’t all I had hoped for academically, either. I was increasingly interested in American history and government, and there were stronger programs at other schools. My rebellion at an end, I applied for a transfer to Harvard.

Personal circumstances made a different decision for me. During my freshman year, when I arrived home for Christmas vacation, my father was looking thinner and weaker. He was often fatigued. My mother told me not to worry. She said he was just getting over mononucleosis.

She was trying to protect me from the truth, but she didn’t succeed very well. Two months later, back at Oberlin, I was sitting in class when I saw my father’s best friend walk into the room. I knew instantly what had happened. My father had died of what turned out to be a virulent form of lymphoma. I thought my mother would need me. I went home to New York and spent the last three years of my undergraduate life at Columbia College.

It was an immensely fortunate change for my intellectual development. In the aftermath of World War II, young people my age had grown up with an increasing awareness of the war itself and the unfolding horrors of the Holocaust. The early Cold War years were the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his attacks on Communists, real and imagined, in the ranks of the US government and public life. We were fully aware that politics was a serious business.

In that climate, I studied with the country’s greatest scholars and exponents of Western liberal democracy. Their ideas inspired much of what I would do in my life.

The course in intellectual history was taught jointly by Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. Like others in the class, I was inspired by Trilling’s 1952 introduction to the first American edition of George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia, an account of his experience in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s, Western intellectuals were enamored of the socialist ideals of the Spanish Republic and its fight against right-wing fascism. Orwell had joined the war and discovered how readily those ideals could be corrupted by an equally totalitarian fascism of the left. His book was the era’s great caution against the notion that high ideals of the left or right could save people from having to engage in the messy work of coming to grips with opposing points of view in a democracy.

Trilling, like Orwell, had a clear view of the incompatibility between democracy and political absolutism. Trilling loved the ambiguities of democratic politics; he gloried in its quotidian and commonplace aspects, antidotes to the pernicious effects of unfettered ideas.

In addition to Trilling and Barzun, the list of critics, historians, and political scientists with whom I studied at Columbia—including Richard Hofstadter, William Leuchtenberg, Henry Steele Commager, and David Truman, a theorist of political pluralism—was a roster of the best in American academe of that or any other time, made up of great teachers with an extraordinary depth of knowledge. Each in his way, taught a profound and lasting engagement with American political life. I was and have remained very much their student.

When I transferred to Columbia in the fall of 1952, the US presidential race was nearing its climax. The Republican candidate was Columbia University’s own president, the former general and war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. Most Columbia people liked Ike, but I came from a family of Democrats. I stayed true to our tradition and worked for the about-to-be-trounced Democratic presidential nominee, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson.

Wanting to campaign for Stevenson, I joined the local Tammany Hall club, part of the New York State Democratic political machine. But despite the campaign’s slogan—“Madly for Adlai”—I couldn’t find anyone in the organization actively working for Stevenson, madly or otherwise. The Tammany club leader, Dennis “Denny” Mahon, held court once a week. Ordinary club members could see him then, if they lined up. I joined the queue.

When my turn for an audience came, I asked Mahon why I couldn’t find an organized Stevenson campaign to join. He looked at me with bemusement but then decided to give me my first lesson in local politics. If too many Democrats voted in the 1952 presidential election, he said cryptically, too many Democrats might vote in the 1953 primary.

Dismissed, I was left to figure out Mahon’s delphic utterance, which I finally did. If a lot of strangers—Democrats who weren’t controlled by Mahon’s machine—registered to vote for Stevenson in 1952, the same non-machine voters might show up the next year to vote in a contest Mahon considered much more important, the New York City mayoral primary race. From Tammany’s point of view, they would inject much too much unpredictability into the proceedings.

This was my introduction to the reality that politics is complicated and that campaigns, for better or worse, are not necessarily driven by idealistic fervor or loyalty. The revelation did not discourage me. I became cochairman of Columbia’s Students for Stevenson.

Our group had the nerve to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, then living in New York on East 62nd Street, to invite her to speak at one of our rallies. About a week later, Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary wrote to ask that I call to work out a convenient date and time. I was thrilled. We scheduled a 2:00 P.M. appearance for her on campus.

With the chutzpah of youth, I told the secretary that it would be an honor for me to take Mrs. Roosevelt to lunch before the rally. The secretary thought that was a delightful idea. She suggested that I call for Mrs. Roosevelt at noon. I asked my mother to recommend a convenient restaurant, and she suggested a little French place on East 60th Street.

But how would I get Mrs. Roosevelt to the restaurant and then to the Columbia campus on the Upper West Side? I couldn’t see myself hailing a taxi with a former First Lady in tow. So I borrowed my mother’s car, an old Buick, and called for Mrs. Roosevelt at her home. She strode out of her building precisely on time, the familiar proper lady in a sensible dress, and greeted me warmly. I drove us to the restaurant in something of a daze, realizing as we approached that I had no idea what I would do with the car. I couldn’t drive around with her, looking for a garage.

I decided I had to double-park, notwithstanding the ticket I was bound to get. But I had some luck. A doorman at a nearby building recognized Mrs. Roosevelt and, I’m sure, saw my awkward discomfort. He gave me a wink and said he’d keep an eye on the car.

It was an unforgettable lunch. Mrs. Roosevelt spoke graciously and directly, telling me why it was so important that Stevenson be elected. She described her work as a US delegate to the United Nations, where she was promoting global human rights and her commitment to racial equality in America.

We left the restaurant, found the car unticketed, and drove to Columbia, where, once again, I parked illegally. Students for Stevenson had managed to turn out fewer than a hundred students for our rally. I was embarrassed, but Mrs. Roosevelt seemed indifferent to the size of her audience, her behavior an object lesson in political grace. As she spoke, she inspired us to further efforts to make Stevenson president. We held enthusiastic rallies. We enjoyed the sense of acting on our convictions. We had absolutely no impact on the 1952 election.

Things look different from today’s perspective. In the culture I came from, Stevenson was a hero. He was an eloquent speaker and writer, an agent of change who evoked a liberal, progressive future beyond the stolid years that Eisenhower seemed to promise. Unfortunately for us Stevenson partisans, postwar Americans were not about to gamble on Stevenson’s kind of change at a time of prosperity at home and a growing Soviet threat abroad.

Stevenson once said, “All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.” In his case, unpopularity trumped the promise of progress. Today, I understand that Eisenhower—a Rock of Gibraltar, derided by intellectuals but a consummate practitioner of what the political scientist Fred Greenstein would later call the “hidden hand presidency,” who played with an astuteness that outsiders could not see—may well have proved to be the better leader for the America of that era.

The subject of the senior year thesis I wrote in 1955 was the New York State Progressive Party of 1912. Its leaders were frightened by what they saw as the threat of vast immigrations from Italy and Eastern Europe. They opposed the growth of unions and collective bargaining. In the name of reform, they worked hard to limit access to political power by those whose views they saw as too radical.

They failed, of course, in their bid to halt history. Some of them ended up in the Liberty League, an organization that tried to stop Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms in the 1930s. Once again, they failed. “Their Armageddon,” my thesis concluded, “was never reached. Industry, labor unions, and political machines grew as the twentieth century swept on. The Progressive Party failed to solve the conflict with which we are struggling today—how to make Democracy work in an industrial society.”

The thesis bore the hallmarks of its time, including the idea that industrialism, with the increasing scale of the business and labor enterprises it required, would be the great historical force with which democracy had to contend. The postindustrial society was not even a glimmer on my—or anyone else’s—intellectual horizon. But the thesis did recognize the limitations of a Progressive ethos unwilling to accommodate democratic change.

That was more or less the end of my academic career. Professor David Truman thought I should stay at Columbia and get a PhD in American history and politics. But the civil rights movement was building in the South, the fear of nuclear weapons was troubling our sleep, and anyone who could sense the pulse of the times knew that the quiet of the Eisenhower years would soon give way to something more dramatic. History was again picking up speed and momentum. I wanted to be an actor, not an observer.

I ENROLLED IN Yale Law School. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with a law degree, but I knew Yale was the law school for people interested in public service. It had faculty members committed to the idea of law as a tool for change, not just an instrument for resolving disputes or a process for setting limits on human behavior. It seemed like my kind of place.

But even law school, valuable as it proved to be, was too cloistered for me. I was a middle-of-the-class student. When I fantasized about my future, I saw a cabinet room, not a courtroom. One summer I interned at a Wall Street law firm; another summer I was a construction laborer at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, then being built in the Bronx. I stripped forms. More experienced men made the forms and poured the concrete into them, and after it dried my job was to tear the wood away. It was backbreaking work.

I commuted from Manhattan in my mother’s Buick—that same Buick. At first I was worried about what would happen if my fellow workers saw me, a common laborer, showing up each day in a fussy sedan. But when I graduated to having beers with the guys, I learned that the Buick was nothing compared to the Cadillacs and other fancy cars that some of my fellow workers drove. Thus, I was introduced to another fundamental principle of modern political and economic reality: Karl Marx, with his theories of the immiseration of the working class, was thoroughly useless if you wanted to understand labor and the labor movement in America.

In the spring of 1958, about to graduate from law school, I had to decide where I wanted to go next; and in those days before the volunteer army, I had to decide what to do about military service. The “where” was clear: I wanted to go to Washington. Having been taught the paramount importance of making democracy work, I needed to understand just how democracy did work. I wasn’t much attracted to New York politics; Denny Mahon of Tammany had put a chill on that idea. Instead, I would explore national politics and government.

This plan, in turn, dictated my military career choice. I joined the Army reserve, which required six months of active duty. I spent those six months at Fort Dix, southeast of Trenton, New Jersey. During the first three months of service, you couldn’t leave the Army base. After that, I started visiting Washington every time I got a weekend pass.

I had no contacts and no introductions that could help me get a job. Friends who had graduated from law school a year ahead of me said the best thing to do would be to date Washington secretaries, because they were the best available source of information about job openings. I did just that. Eventually one of those secretaries introduced me to Representative Chet Holifield, a Democrat representing Pasadena, California.

When I met him, Holifield was fifty-five years old and had represented his congressional district for fifteen years. He chaired both the Subcommittee on Military Operations of the House Committee on Government Operations and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Amused that I had negotiated my way into his office by way of his secretary, he began by asking me a question: What did I think of Franklin Roosevelt?

I gave the right answers.

Chet was born in Kentucky and lived in Arkansas before moving to California, where he worked in the dry-cleaning business and sold men’s clothing until his enthusiasm for Roosevelt drew him into politics. After we established our common ground, he offered me a job as assistant counsel to the military operations subcommittee. I accepted the offer on the spot. Two weeks after I was released from active duty, I drove down to Washington to begin my new life.

I DIDN’T KNOW much about the nation’s capital but quickly discovered that I was making a home in what amounted to a small southern town with an overlay of government and politics. There were only two good restaurants, both on Connecticut Avenue. Arbaugh’s, my favorite, offered a rack of ribs and a big beer for eight or nine bucks. Duke Zeibert’s, four blocks from the White House, attracted more of the political class, from presidents on down, for its steaks and good deli food. After dinner you could take your date to concerts like the Budapest String Quartet playing at the Library of Congress.

Famous performers would occasionally pass through—Ella Fitzgerald singing on a barge in the Potomac near the Lincoln Memorial, Edith Piaf appearing at the Shoreham Hotel. We junior staffers used to scan the Washington Post for the list of embassy receptions and crash them for free food and drink. It was not exactly cutting-edge entertainment.

The military operations subcommittee occupied a walk-up office in the Washington Arms, a rickety structure southwest of the Capitol that would eventually be demolished to make way for today’s Rayburn House Office Building. Our little office—a few researchers working in dingy quarters without air-conditioning, sometimes in the swampy heat of a Washington summer—bore no resemblance to the massive congressional staff operations of today. Still, we were part of the action; that was the lure of Washington. During my last year of law school, in October 1957, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the little beep-beep of a satellite that shattered American complacency about its scientific and military superiority. Now, in my first year out of school, I was a tiny part of one of the many teams that were gearing up the nation’s readiness for a more competitive stage in the Cold War.

Americans immediately understood the challenge of Sputnik. As a 1959 congressional report later put it, “A space vehicle with enough propulsion to carry a large payload into orbit for science might also be able to deliver a payload of death and destruction to America’s heartland.” I had a small part in producing that report. My job was to help the subcommittee’s general counsel prepare for congressional hearings on the separate ballistic missile programs then being pursued separately by the Army, Navy, and Air Force.


On Sale
Apr 29, 2014
Page Count
280 pages

Richard Ravitch

About the Author

Richard Ravitch has been chairman of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, chairman of HRH Construction Corporation, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, chairman of the Bowery Savings Bank, lieutenant governor of the State of New York, and co-chair, with Paul Volcker, of the task force on the state budget crisis. He lives in New York City.

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