Jacob Thomas “Jake” Brewer, a White House staffer who had worked at Change.org, the Sunlight Foundation and the Energy Action Coalition, died on Sept. 19 after a cycling accident. He was 34.
Messages flooded social media from distraught friends and people who celebrated Brewer as a loyal friend with a big heart, someone who viewed public service as both a lifelong calling and noble pursuit. In June, Brewer left his role as general manager of external relations at Change.org to work for the Obama administration as a senior policy adviser in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
President Barack Obama released a condolence statement Sunday, describing Brewer as a man with “a brilliant mind, a big heart, and an insatiable desire to give back” and cited him as proof that “today’s younger generation is smarter, more determined, and more capable of making a difference than I was as a young man.”
“Jake devoted his life to empowering people and making government work better for them,” the president said in his statement. “He worked to give citizens a louder voice in our society. He engaged our striving immigrants. He pushed for more transparency in our democracy. And he sought to expand opportunity for all.”
Brewer spent years devoting his energy to organizations promoting social change, including immigration and the environment.
“I remember thinking, 'Huh. This guy does not look like other environmentalists I know,'” Kate Stayman-London wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call, describing their first meeting seven years ago when Brewer was running PowerShift , an environmentalist conference. Brewer's work on PowerShift helped transform the conference into one of the largest youth climate events in history, credited with kick-starting a growing youth global climate movement.
“Every single time I saw him, no matter if he was having a good day or a bad one, he pulled me into a tight hug — and no matter if I was having a good day or a bad one, that hug always put a smile on my face," Stayman-London said. "He didn't make anyone work for his friendship. He gave it freely, because being good to other people made him happy.”
Others spoke of Brewer’s unflagging respect and compassion for people of all ideologies and backgrounds, especially notable in a town defined by polarizing politics. Friends described him as being able to bring out the best in anyone.
“Jake's respect, his belief in people of all ideologies, especially the ones he disagreed with, is a lesson I wish everyone in this town would take to heart," said Adam Conner, a longtime friend.
Many noted that Brewer’s final act included generosity and selflessness on his part: taking part in the Ride to Conquer Cancer event, a two-day bike ride from Washington, D.C., to Mount Airy, Md., to raise money for Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, Sibley Memorial, Suburban and Howard County General hospitals.
“Of course Jake Brewer died fighting somebody else's cancer. Jake Brewer was always fighting somebody else's cancer — whether it was the cancer of political corruption, pollution, or actual cancer that kills you, Jake was out there fighting our cancers for us every day, because that's the kind of guy he was,” said Clay Johnson, who served as best man to Brewer at his 2011 wedding in Lake Anna, Va., to Mary Katharine Ham, editor-at-large of Hot Air and a Fox News contributor.
Michael Silberman, who is a longtime friend and joined Brewer on the Ride to Conquer Cancer ride, said Brewer would move heaven and earth to show up for his friends in ways most people found impossible or unreasonable.
"Most people would train for weeks," Silberman said of the 160-mile bike ride, "but Jake signed up within days when he found out he could do it. He was the type of person who could figure it out and make it happen."
“He constantly inspired me,” said his longtime friend Brad Bauman. “Jake constantly challenged me to think differently about progressive politics, got me to think about the issues in new ways and define the work in a larger context. Every time I spoke to Jake, I was left wanting to do better.”
Silberman echoed the sentiment. "Everyone is astonished at the fact that he touched so many people in so many different worlds, across divides that are normally divides. He was always working one scale above what was possible," he said.
Brewer lived in Alexandria, Va., with his wife and 2-year-old daughter Georgia, with a second child expected this year.
“He was in a good place,” Christina Bellantoni said to describe their final interaction last week, when they texted on Sept. 17.
“We made plans to talk. I am so mad at myself I didn't thank him more often for the encouragement, for flying across the country for our wedding, for being such a good friend to me and people I care so much about,” said Bellantoni, the former editor-in-chief of Roll Call who is now with the Los Angeles Times. She cited Brewer’s encouragement in helping her decide to make the cross-country move this summer.
“For as scary as it was to make a change after 12 years in Washington, Jake helped me celebrate the idea of taking a risk. That's how he was. He was positive not just for positivity's sake but in a deeply contemplative and joyous way. He lived and loved and gave big.”
The family is also encouraging donations to the Travis Manion Foundation . Manion was killed in combat in Iraq in 2007; he and Brewer both attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Brewer's wife also served on the foundation's board.