Andrew F. Brimmer, Fed governor and head of D.C. control board, dies at 86

Andrew F. Brimmer, who became the first African American member of the Federal Reserve Board in 1966 and headed a panel that managed the spending and financial practices of the D.C. government during a fiscal crisis in the 1990s, died Oct. 7 at George Washington University Hospital. He was 86.

His wife, Doris M.S. Brimmer, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

(MIchael Williamson/WASHINGTON POST) - Andrew F. Brimmer was first African American member of the Federal Reserve Board.

Dr. Brimmer, a Harvard-trained economist, had worked in academia and for the Commerce Department before President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the seven-member Federal Reserve Board of Governors, which sets the country’s monetary policy and interest rates.

Time magazine dubbed Dr. Brimmer “the Federal Reserve Board’s Jackie Robinson,” after the first African American player in major league baseball. Unlike many members of the Fed board, Dr. Brimmer used his position to advocate for wider educational opportunities in the country’s inner cities and warned that racial discrimination damaged the economy by marginalizing valuable workers.

After leaving the Federal Reserve Board in 1974, Dr. Brimmer taught at Harvard’s graduate business school and, in 1976, established a lucrative consulting business in Washington.

His greatest public recognition — and reproach — came in the 1990s, when he was put in charge of a federally mandated panel that took over financial management of the District. At the time, under Mayor Marion Barry, the city had $3 billion in long-term debt, soaring budget deficits, decaying public services, rising crime and a high school dropout rate of more than 50 percent.

As part of a financial rescue package approved by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, the city turned over control of most of its government operations to the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. Dr. Brimmer was named the unpaid director of the authority, which was often called the D.C. financial control board.

“Clearly, this is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced,” he said at the time.

The brickbats began to fly. Dr. Brimmer took away the decision-making authority of the D.C. Board of Education, fired several agency heads and described the city’s personnel and contracting practices as “dysfunctional.”

Ultimately, nine city agencies — including schools, housing, public works, health and the police and fire departments — were placed under the control of Dr. Brimmer’s board.

Forbidden to make any significant appointments, Barry denounced the financial takeover as “the rape of democracy.” When asked at a news conference how residents could complain about potholes in the streets, Barry said, “Call Dr. Brimmer” and gave his phone number.

Many residents feared the loss of home rule. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was an early supporter of the financial takeover, later complained of the control board’s “imperial” and “deeply adversarial” manner.

Near the end of Dr. Brimmer’s three-year term, other members of the board charged that he had a secretive, autocratic style and threatened to quit if he was reappointed. He stepped down in 1998.

“He took on a really thankless job in 1995,” Alice Rivlin, an economist who later took over the D.C. financial control board, said Wednesday. “He was deeply unpopular. His office was picketed, and he was called all sorts of names. But he stuck to it and turned things around. He did the really tough work.”

Under Dr. Brimmer’s authority, the District’s huge deficit had turned into a surplus of more than $300 million. Public services began to improve, crime subsided and the city became a more desirable place to live.

“I have tremendous respect” for Dr. Brimmer, Anthony A. Williams, who was elected mayor in 1998, told The Washington Post that year. “I think we ought to be giving the man the key to the city instead of the key to the dungeon.”

Andrew Felton Brimmer was born Sept. 13, 1926, in Newllton, La., where his father was a sharecropper and warehouse worker. Dr. Brimmer attended segregated schools and grew up picking cotton and raising hogs before moving to Bremerton, Wash., after high school.

He served in the Army during World War II, then used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the University of Washington, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics in 1950 and 1951, respectively. After studying in India on a Fulbright fellowship, he received a doctorate in economics from Harvard in 1957. He taught at Michigan State University and the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Washington in 1963 to work at the Commerce Department.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Doris M. Scott, and a daughter, Esther Brimmer, an assistant secretary of state, both of Washington; and a grandson.

Dr. Brimmer, who lived in Washington, was a past president of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, served on many corporate boards and was a longtime professor at the University of Massachusetts. He was also a board member at Tuskegee University in Alabama for more than 40 years, and the Tuskegee business school is named for him.

In 1997, after two years of running the D.C. financial control board, Dr. Brimmer decided he would no longer talk about his relationship with Barry.

“I do not discuss the mayor anymore,” he told the New York Times in 1997. “I don’t engage in public debate. I don’t need the drama. Why should I produce drama when I can produce action?”