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Richard Ravitch, 1933-2023, Friend to NYC and THE CITY

The steadfast and outspoken civic leader, who died Sunday, helped save the city and MTA from financial ruin — then went on to make sure journalists understood and covered money in government.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio with Richard Ravitch at the Citizens Budget Commission’s 88th Annual Dinner, February 26, 2020.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Richard Ravitch, who died Sunday at age 89, is being widely and appropriately praised for his roles in helping save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s, rescuing a collapsing transit system in the 1980s and insisting on financial prudence by governments for his whole life.

But Dick (no one ever called him Richard) should be remembered for one more aspect of his life that seems especially important today: He was a steadfast friend of journalists.

Dick was one of the driving forces behind the creation of THE CITY and the initial chair of the board. Jere Hester, THE CITY’s first editor-in-chief, remembers visiting Dick’s Fifth Avenue apartment in early 2019 with a printout of a PowerPoint outlining plans for the newsroom. 

Dick flipped through the pages quickly until he got to the one listing the journalists who had been hired. “He wanted to know everything about every one of them,” Hester recalled. “He wanted to know everybody’s life story and took genuine delight in every detail I could muster.”

After his stint as New York’s lieutenant governor in 2009 and 2010, Dick became appalled by the superficiality of coverage and overall lack of interest among media outlets on the issue of state and city finances and wanted to do something about it. Some people told him journalists weren’t interested in such training. 

Sarah Bartlett, then dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, said that if a training program were free, with all expenses paid, the reporters would come. She was right.

Over the last nine years, as director of the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program, I’ve welcomed some 900 journalists who have come to New York on Dick’s dime for weeklong deep dives into fiscal policy (budgets, bonds, pensions and tax incentives), local economic coverage (jobs), the Puerto Rican debt crisis, housing and transit. 

After each session, I ask the attendees to send me the stories that they write showing what they have learned. And Dick saw the impressive return on his investment.

I first met Dick in 1989 when I was the questioner at a televised debate among the Democratic candidates for mayor: incumbent Ed Koch, eventual winner David Dinkins, comptroller Harrison Goldin, and Dick, who finished third. When I was editor of Crain’s New York Business, our paths crossed from time to time, but it was in working with him over nearly the past decade that I came to understand his commitment to (maybe love of) journalists and good journalism.

One afternoon, I was having lunch with Dick at his Fifth Avenue apartment when a New York Times reporter called for his advice on delving into a major story that had implications far beyond New York. So many journalists have had similar conversations with Dick, known as a “wise person” among journalists: someone to call for frank talk about issues and insights on how to cover them.

Dick came to his belief in the power of the news media from his efforts to save the MTA. As he told the Ravitch program attendees in dinners we held for every cohort, it became clear to him that it was journalists — then primarily from The New York Times and Daily News in particular — who moved the legislature. 

Needless to say, the media scene is very different these days. But Dick never lost his conviction that journalists are crucial to good public policy, which is why he supported THE CITY from the start (including providing support for the fiscal and economic reporting in his name that helped bring me here).

One story about how Dick learned the meaning of “off the record” captures his relationship with journalists.

In the mid-1970s, while in Albany working on some fiscal issues with Gov. Hugh Carey, he was at the local bar where everyone hung out when a young reporter from The New York Times named Linda Greenhouse approached him with a simple question about another recent governor: “What do you think of Nelson Rockefeller?”

“He is a cross between Robin Hood and Ponzi,” he replied without thinking.

The next day, the Times splashed that quote on the front page and Dick found himself in the middle of a political storm. 

“You young whippersnapper,” Dick said he was told, “he’s the vice president of the United States. Keep your mouth shut.”

Dick never did keep his mouth shut. Greenhouse, who went on to become the Times’ illustrious Supreme Court reporter, became one of his many lifelong friends and one of many journalists whose work he helped make better.

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