Alice Rivlin turned visions of Washington into a reality

Below is a tribute by Anthony Williams that appeared in the Washington Post on May 15, 2019

Alice M. Rivlin, who died Tuesday at 88, was not some callous budget maven or austere fiscal hawk who cared only about balanced budgets and financial austerity. She wanted government to work and investment to flow back into the District in order for the city to meet its responsibilities to educate our children, to heal our sick, to protect our families, to restore our community.

Early in 1998, I was the District’s independent chief financial officer on my way to visit Alice at the marble temple of the Federal Reserve, where she was vice chair. Alice’s reputation certainly preceded her. She was only an acquaintance then, and yet I knew she was something special, a person of national prominence with real interest and expertise in local Washington. In 1990, as chair of the Rivlin Commission, she had laid out a diagnosis of the District’s fiscal predicament, detailing how bad management and federal law created a perverse combination of extensive budget obligations without the resources to fund them. In 1994, as the first woman to direct the White House Office of Management and Budget, she worked with local leaders and Congress to create the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority — a.k.a. the control board — to guide the District out of insolvency.

With the backstop of the control board, we cleaned up the District’s books and balanced the budget two years ahead of schedule. On top of this, the work of the Rivlin Commission provided the blueprint for the District’s Revitalization Act of 1997, which, in exchange for eliminating the yearly payment the city received from the federal government, relieved the District of responsibility for its federally mandated pension system, its court system and the infamous Lorton correctional facility.

Therefore, on the day I visited her, the future looked bright, and I was excited to tell her of my plans to run for D.C. mayor and, I hoped, get her support. From the expression on her face — a kind of “Did I order this?” look — I might as well have told her I was building my own spaceship to Mars. She knew political ability; after all, she had worked closely with President Bill Clinton, one of the best political talents in a generation. She was quite skeptical of my political chops.

Nevertheless, she didn’t have her assistant interrupt us or beg off due to an elective root canal. “Assuming,” she said, “you can make this work, here are the problems the city faces.” What she saw in me that day is anyone’s guess. What I saw, in physically diminutive form, was a giant — a powerful, determined leader. With a world of experience and an ace economist’s talent, she described an economic future for the District and the way to get there.

Alice and I quickly became working partners and good friends. She offered support, upon my election in 1998, to reverting governmental authority back to D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp and me. She provided wise counsel, during phone calls and her regular visits to my office to discuss fiscal matters and, yes, astronomy and her grandpa’s career as a famous solar scientist. She acted as head coach, always asking questions, always urging me to think boldly and sketch out an ambitious goal of 100,000 new residents as a way to begin restoring the District’s economy and finances.

Alice Rivlin was at once both a fierce advocate and a gracious and attentive listener. She sat in countless meetings where D.C. officials and residents questioned her competence in government budgeting, all while giving each person the respect she would bestow on any central banker or finance minister. She treated everyone with respect, whatever their station, whether they commanded it or not.

In the din of shouted voices and in the chaos of innumerable discussions and conflicting priorities, she never lost track of a goal. I saw this determination when she steadfastly supported our initiative to convert the subsidy for our failing public hospital into one of the country’s first statewide health plans. As a child who started life in the foster-care system, I appreciated her deep understanding that the right budget choices and oversight would ultimately lead the District’s public-service agencies out of court receivership.

It’s tough being a city. An urban community travels a hard road. Alice M. Rivlin was the rare person who could turn vision into reality, and she got an often rowdy group of self-interested D.C. pols to see things we never imagined and perform in ways we never expected. She made us better. We have lost her, and we must press on without her. But because of her, we have never been better equipped to keep making progress on the road to that better place.