Andrew Brimmer, who died Tuesday at age 86, is best remembered nationally as the first African-American appointed to serve on the Federal Reserve Board.
In the District of Columbia, though, he’ll be most remembered as the embattled first chairman of a controversial agency that Congress put in place to fix the city’s financial woes — and to whom the momentum surrounding D.C. budget autonomy might, in part, be owed.
“He made the difficult decisions necessary to get our city back on track and was instrumental in transforming the District into the world-class city it is today,” D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans (D) said in a statement.
Former Mayor Anthony Williams also had high praise, calling Brimmer “one of the unsung heroes in this whole saga.”
“He was an outstanding individual, and it was an honor to serve under him,” said Williams, who at the time was the city’s chief financial officer.
“He was a stern taskmaster. He didn’t suffer fools,” Williams added. “I think we should have given him the key to the city. [But] he made some unpopular decisions and pretty much got the key to the dungeon.”
In 1995, as the District spiraled deeper into debt, Congress voted to take away the city’s authority over its finances and day-to-day operations and to place them in the hands of a new independent entity called the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority or, colloquially, the “control board.”
Brimmer was tapped to spearhead the board and essentially take over several major city agencies and their budgets, a move D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) endorsed.
"The District of Columbia came close to insolvency and required a financial control board to be able to borrow," she said in a statement released today. "Dr. Brimmer will always be remembered as a taskmaster who administered tough love to this city and gave it the creditability that allowed the District to conquer its deficit and return to today’s record of annual budgets with record surpluses."
Many other local leaders and D.C. activists, however, bristled at the decision to create the control board, considering it a usurpation of the city's autonomy.
Marion Barry (D), then the mayor and now a councilmember, famously called the control board’s rule “a rape of democracy.”
Brimmer’s three-year term ended, and he was succeeded by former Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairwoman Alice Rivlin, but his contributions were significant.
The board was disbanded in 2001, and the city regularly produces balanced budgets each fiscal year. Experts say District finances are now run better than most cities.
D.C.’s financial turnaround has played a crucial role in the movement to unlink the local budget from the Congressional appropriations process.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been a leader on Capitol Hill in the budget autonomy movement. When asked last year whether he would have proposed budget autonomy in the days leading up to the control board, he said, “No.”
“I would have proposed the control board when we proposed the control board, and now I am proposing budget autonomy that mirrors other states,” Issa said.