Economist has his hands full in D.C. rescue effort Andrew Brimmer, 70, serves as de facto mayor of Washington

December 31, 1997|By John Aloysius Farrell | John Aloysius Farrell,BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON -- In the District of Columbia, there have been days when the water here was unsafe to drink, or downtown was closed by power outages, or the streets were clogged with snow and potholes that approached the size of canoes, or 911 failed to summon police, or the schools were closed because of leaking roofs.

There have been times when the entire homicide squad was dismissed in an overtime pay scandal, or autopsies were botched, or ambulances didn't arrive ...

So it is hard not to feel sympathy for Andrew F. Brimmer, 70, an economist and University of Massachusetts professor who now serves as de facto mayor of the District of Columbia.

It is up to Brimmer, a Louisiana sharecropper's son, to fix the nation's broken capital and revive the fading promise of home rule for its residents.

Two years into term

Brimmer heads the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, the financial control board imposed on the district government by Congress and President Clinton as part of a multimillion-dollar federal bailout.

Two years into a three-year term, Brimmer and the control board have balanced the District's budget and identified its problems with a series of eye-opening management reports. Yet the District's ills remain formidable, and critics say Brimmer has dawdled in his attempts to overhaul the city government and improve services.

"This is business as usual. You've recycled the same people. There's nothing new," said Don Folden, a district activist and former mayoral candidate who expressed the views of many when the board held a public hearing in the impoverished Anacostia section of the city recently. "Don't blow smoke in my face and say it's fire."

By all accounts, Brimmer is a man of great learning and grace. His life story -- from the Newellton, La., cotton fields to a Harvard doctorate to membership on the Federal Reserve Board, the first black there, to the directorship of such corporate giants as United Airlines and Mercedes-Benz -- speaks of his drive and energy.

'Moving in right direction'

Brimmer has his supporters, most notably Representative Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the House committee that oversees the district.

"Whether he's moving too fast or too slow, he's moving in the right direction," Davis said. "You are talking about a city with no information technology, a bankrupt management culture. You are not going to solve this overnight. It's going to take time."

Yet Brimmer's critics span the political spectrum and include Democrats such as Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., who had much of his power stripped by Congress and handed to the control board; Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting representative to Congress; and Republicans such as Representative Charles Taylor of North Carolina, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District.

Barry and Norton say Brimmer is too aloof, doesn't work with the District's political leaders, and moves too quickly to usurp the home rule government's authority. Although quick to take power, Norton says, Brimmer and his small army of management consultants have not made enough progress in improving services in a city that has seen 10 percent of its population flee to Maryland and Virginia since 1990.

A confidential report by Taylor's staff concluded that the control board is too hesitant, "dysfunctional, and can't get anything done."

If Andrew Brimmer is bothered by his critics, he doesn't show it.

In an interview, Brimmer spoke of how he found self-confidence in the segregated US Army at the end of World War II.

He was based in Hawaii the summer and fall of 1945, and white officers and black sergeants were being sent home at such a rate that he was put in command of two companies of rowdy, hardened soldiers.

"I'm 19 years old, either the youngest or next youngest in a group of soldiers that, typically, were from the streets of Chicago New York. And I'm a country boy, grown up in Louisiana," he said with a smile.

So he performed some elementary math and offered the grizzled soldiers a proposition he still recalls: If 80 percent of the men averaged 7.5 hours of work during the 4.5 days a week needed to meet their duties, he would abolish reveille, postpone lights-out, relax discipline, get them three-day passes and use of the Jeeps.

The old hands thought it over and agreed, and Brimmer's system worked until a new, white captain arrived. After a few days, Brimmer was called into the captain's office.

"You've done a good job," Brimmer recalled the captain saying. "But I think we ought to go back into the Army now."

The experience, Brimmer said, boosted his confidence and showed his talent for management and leadership. With the benefit of the GI Bill, he enrolled at the University of Washington and completed his undergraduate work in three years. More honors followed: a master's degree, a Fulbright grant to study in India, and a Harvard doctorate in economics in 1957.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.