Being the first African American member of an institution as momentous as the Federal Reserve is by itself a monumental life achievement, but Andrew F. Brimmer will possibly be better remembered around these parts for his role in saving the District from fiscal ruin.
Brimmer, who died Sunday at 86, was the first chairman of the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority — better known as the Control Board. He led the body through its earliest and most contentious period, when it was caught between the Congress that created it in 1995 expecting swift and sweeping changes, and local officials led by Mayor Marion Barry who swore to resist on most every occasion.
To navigate those waters, Brimmer made scorched-earth decisions that included cancelling contracts, slashing budgets and firing agency heads (including, most famously, Human Services chief Vernon Hawkins, who is now under scrutiny for his role in Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign). He also assumed an imperious style that alienated not only most local leaders — “the mayor is the source of the problems, and the city council is part of the problem,” he once said — but also his colleagues on the board. He announced that he would step down in 1998 after several fellow members let it be known that they would resign if he stayed on.
Brimmer was replaced by former White House budget director Alice Rivlin, who had a softer touch made possible in no small part because she assumed the board’s helm just as Anthony A. Williams assumed the mayoralty from Barry. Since the Control Board disbanded in 2001, Rivlin has remained active in city affairs though her post as a Brookings Institution scholar, while Brimmer quietly enjoyed retirement at his longtime home in Forest Hills. But in his three years in the spotlight, and though the fiscal successes he helped make possible, he earned a brief but important chapter in the District’s political history.