October 11, 2012

AS THE DISTRICT of Columbia enjoys budget surpluses, improving schools, a decline in crime and a surging population, it is hard to recall the dismal condition of the city in the mid-1990s. So mismanaged was the government that the District was on the brink of bankruptcy and the notion of city services was a cruel oxymoron. Into that chaos entered Andrew F. Brimmer. His astute leadership of the federal control board and his willingness to make difficult decisions that others ducked were instrumental in the city’s rebirth.

Mr. Brimmer, who died Sunday at George Washington University Hospital at age 86, already had a distinguished record in academia and public service, which included being the first African American on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, when he was tapped in 1995 to chair the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. Given sweeping authority by Congress to get the city’s house in order, the Harvard-trained economist served as de facto mayor until he stepped down in 1998. “Clearly, this is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced, ” he said at the time. Thankfully, he and his four colleagues on the control board proved more than up to the task.

By the time he departed the board, which continued for another three years, he had succeeded in bringing order to the city’s finances, right-sizing a bloated workforce and establishing a culture in which performance and results mattered. It was, as Alice Rivlin, who later took over the control board, observed, a thankless job. Mr. Brimmer endured unceasing — often racially tinged — attacks from the likes of then-Mayor Marion Barry, who fought Mr. Brimmer all the way and once likened the actions of the control board to those of Hitler’s Germany. Mr. Brimmer’s thick skin, cool competence and perseverance proved to be more than a match. “I do not discuss the mayor anymore . . . ,” he told the New York Times in 1997. “Why should I produce drama when I can produce action?”

In announcing his departure from the board, Mr. Brimmer said it was time to say goodbye and “thank you very much.” It was one of the few things he got wrong; it was the city that needed to thank him.