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Alice Rivlin didn’t need to be bothered with little ol’ local Washington.
The famed economist who lived in D.C. and had a 60-year association with the Brookings Institution held the highest federal and congressional posts dealing with the national economy.
When she died Tuesday at her home in Northwest at the age of 88, the outpouring of national respect was equal to her reputation.
“A relentless fighter for deficit reduction,” said Bloomberg News. “A trailblazer in the field of economic policy and a civil servant of unparalleled devotion,” Brookings said.
Despite that national acclaim, here in local D.C., Rivlin’s commitment to city affairs was equally extraordinary.
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“She really cared about D.C.,” former Mayor Tony Williams tells City Paper in an interview, putting aside his sadness at the death of his friend to credit her local involvement. “She voted in D.C. And mayors would ask her to be on this or that commission and she served religiously. She put her time and effort and soul into D.C.”
Former Mayor Williams should know. In 1998 he was the independent CFO of the city, and Rivlin was then head of the Financial Control Board created to pull D.C. out of its financial mire. Williams, a wonky, shy person in public, was thinking about accepting a nascent “Draft Tony for Mayor” movement. He had established a close relationship with Rivlin, the focused economist.
“I remember going to her office to ask her what she thought [of my campaign],” Williams recalls, “and I’ll never forget the look on her face—looking like she’d seen a three-way accident. What is this man talking about?”
As CFO, Williams had formed a close relationship with Rivlin, but not just for budget reasons.
Known for his offbeat interests beyond public policy, Williams said when he first met Rivlin he found out her grandfather had been a famous solar astronomer. “So that got me going asking all kinds of questions, and she was kind of looking at me in a frustrated way, thinking, ‘Can’t we talk about the budget?’”
Williams is credited with proposing early in the 2000s that the city should draw 100,000 new residents to help its economy. Williams says it was Rivlin’s initial idea and they helped make it happen. As the head of the Control Board until 2001, Rivlin helped guide Williams’ first administration and turned full financial control back to the city earlier than expected. Williams says her “unbelievable” focus got the city out from under the Control Board years earlier than many expected and “helped make sure we don’t see a control board again. I mean, she was unbelievable.”
Their professional and personal bond remained strong after both were out of public office. And Williams had a sadness and a joy in his voice Tuesday as he talked about his late friend.
“I can’t think of another person who combined at a top level both the national interest and local D.C. Can you?” Williams mused. “She was not just an economist. She was an economist who understood that government was best when it worked powerfully to change people’s lives. She deeply, deeply believed that everything she was doing was to make government work better for the people. She was a great lady.”
Sherwood covered Rivlin and the Financial Control Board era as a reporter at NBC4.