ALBANY - Anyone looking for public signs that Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch is preparing to step into Gov. David A. Paterson's shoes has been in for a disappointment.

Even Friday, as Common Cause joined those calling for Paterson to go, Ravitch's schedulers were assuring the Long Island Contractors Association that he still plans to give the keynote speech at a March 19 gathering on infrastructure finance at the Uniondale Marriott.

It's yet another sign of message discipline from the "adult in the room," a term so often used here for Ravitch, 76, it might as well be his nickname.

Low-key presence

As the state's budget gap looms above $9 billion, and out-year shortfalls inspire shudders, the lieutenant governor has been a peripatetic, if low-key presence here in the city, quietly lunching, consulting, phoning and touching base with lawmakers, budget staff, business officials and any number of others on the very long list of people with a stake in the budget.

$imageCaption

When he talks to reporters, it is generally to repeat that he's not interested in Paterson's job and to plead with the media to pay more attention to the budget crisis. "I hope very much that . . . [Paterson] does not resign," Ravitch said last week.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

All anybody else in either party has to say about the lieutenant governor is how much they admire him - even, or especially, some of his loudest sometime adversaries.

"He's outstanding," said state Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), who campaigned against the payroll taxes in the "Ravitch Commission's" MTA bailout plan last year until school reimbursements were built in.

To be sure, Johnson wants Paterson to quit. But Ravitch is the one who helped New York City avert bankruptcy in the 1970s, saved the Urban Development Corp. from insolvency, rescued the Bowery Savings Bank and, as MTA chairman in the 1980s, reorganized that agency with a long-term capital plan - only to return at Paterson's request to rescue the agency again.

Ravitch's specialty, some say, has been executing unpalatable but necessary decisions that elected officials didn't want to make themselves.

"His endeavors have always had tremendous complexity," said Paterson's former top aide William J. Cunningham III, who watched Ravitch hammer out that detailed recipe to fix the MTA's woes. "He basically puts together a quilt of patches that will address a whole series of interrelated problems."

'No clash of egos'

Said a Republican lawmaker, "He knows running an agency, cash flow, payroll, bills coming due. . . . He knows how to convene quiet, frank discussions, with no press releases, no public schedule. There's no clash of egos."

But how eager can Ravitch be to take over as a lame-duck governor in an unprecedented financial crisis, in a watershed election year when the Senate is teetering, probes abound and every incumbent has a well-founded fear of becoming unemployed? Some think Ravitch's distaste for Paterson's job is unfeigned.

"How do you negotiate? What are the leverage points?" wonders Michael Balboni, former state Homeland Security director.

That's why for all his skill, whether governor or not, Ravitch is unlikely to get much more done this year than a stopgap budget that buys time, said SUNY New Paltz political science professor Gerald Benjamin.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Meanwhile, the lieutenant governor's diligence has in some eyes served to highlight the vacuum left by a governor fighting for survival three weeks before the budget is due.

Paterson's spokesman, Morgan Hook, said the two men have been in close contact on the budget. What form their collaboration has taken, he could not immediately say.

"The governor's focused on the budget right now," Hook repeated Friday evening.