James A. Johnson, Democratic Energy Dealer, Dies at 76


In 1988, James A. Johnson, a Democratic operative, was serving to Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, put together for his debate with Senator Dan Quayle, his Republican opponent. In reviewing the analysis, Mr. Johnson seen that Mr. Quayle ceaselessly in contrast himself to John F. Kennedy and instructed Mr. Bentsen and his crew to anticipate him to take action on the debate.

When Mr. Quayle stated onstage that he had as a lot expertise in Congress as Kennedy had when he sought the presidency, Mr. Bentsen pounced. “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” he said in a devastating riposte that is still one of the memorable debate moments in American political historical past.

“Jim Johnson was clearly the explanation the senator was ready for that trade,” Jack Martin, a longtime Bentsen aide who was within the room on the time, stated in an interview.

A pillar of the Washington institution, Mr. Johnson would parlay his intensive political expertise right into a second profession in finance and emerge as a serious energy dealer who concurrently led three distinguished establishments: Fannie Mae, the Kennedy Middle and the Brookings Establishment.

Mr. Johnson died on Sunday at his residence in Washington. He was 76. His son, Alfred, stated the trigger was problems of a neurological illness.

Mr. Johnson was so properly linked and held so many highly effective posts that Harold M. Ickes, additionally a Democratic operative and President Invoice Clinton’s deputy chief of employees, instructed The Washington Put up in 1998 that he was “the chairman of the universe.”

Even Mr. Johnson had a tough time describing what he did for a residing. When folks would ask, he stated in a 2016 oral history, he would say, “I do some sort of mixture of public coverage, politics, authorities, philanthropy and enterprise.”

At one other juncture, he defined his work this fashion: “I discuss.” However by no means out of faculty. In 2004, as he declined to reveal particulars of the vice-presidential search he was main for Senator John Kerry, he told The New York Times, “I might discreetly characterize myself as discreet.”

Nonetheless, he ran among the most influential establishments within the nation’s capital. Probably the most consequential was Fannie Mae, the mortgage-finance large that he helped construct into one of many dominant monetary establishments on the planet.

As chairman and chief govt, he led Fannie Mae to report income; its web earnings greater than tripled to $3.91 billion in 1999, the 12 months after he retired. Mr. Johnson made an estimated $100 million himself in eight years with the corporate.

He proved an aggressive lobbyist for Fannie Mae — making strategic monetary donations to congressional regulators, hiring former public officers from each events and paying for tutorial research that blunted criticism of among the firm’s riskier monetary practices. He was lengthy gone earlier than the subprime mortgage disaster hit, however he was faulted for encouraging practices that contributed to the 2008 housing meltdown.

Mr. Johnson was the “nameless architect of the public-private homeownership drive that just about destroyed the financial system in 2008,” Gretchen Morgenson, then a enterprise journalist at The New York Occasions, and Joshua Rosner, a monetary analyst, wrote in “Reckless Endangerment” (2011), which explored the origins of the monetary disaster.

They added that Mr. Johnson was “particularly adept at manipulating lawmakers” and “eviscerating regulators.”

Within the 2016 oral historical past, Mr. Johnson skirted the controversies of his tenure at Fannie Mae. As an alternative he centered on the corporate’s objectives of serving to low-income households, immigrants and younger folks acquire mortgages and personal their very own houses, which he stated was a part of the American dream.

He additionally shared a bit of recommendation that he had obtained whereas working Fannie Mae: “By no means say you’re within the secondary mortgage market; say you’re within the American dream enterprise.”

Certainly, all through his profession he supported racial and financial equality, beginning along with his participation within the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., whereas he was in school.

Later, when he was chairman of the John F. Kennedy Middle for the Performing Arts, he and his spouse on the time, Maxine Isaacs, created and underwrote the Millennium Stage, which gives free concert events and different performances 12 months a 12 months, making the elite Kennedy Middle extra accessible.

And as chairman of the Brookings Establishment, a liberal analysis group, he recruited students, writers and thinkers to check demographic tendencies in city areas and the intersection of race and public coverage. With funding from the Fannie Mae Basis, he began the establishment’s Middle on City and Metropolitan Coverage, now the Metropolitan Policy Program.

James Arthur Johnson was born on Dec. 24, 1943, in Benson, Minn., a small city alongside the Chippewa River the place his Norwegian grandparents had settled. Inside two blocks, there have been 14 homes stuffed along with his aunts, uncles and cousins.

His mom, Adeline (Rasmussen) Johnson, taught Latin and German on the native highschool. His father, Alfred Ingvald Johnson, owned a grocery retailer and was an actual property dealer. A member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Social gathering, he was elected to the state legislature and have become speaker of the Home within the late Fifties.

Jim attended the College of Minnesota, the place he was elected pupil physique president in his sophomore 12 months. He graduated in 1966 with a level in political science.

After incomes his grasp’s diploma in public coverage at Princeton in 1968, he signed on with Eugene J. McCarthy’s antiwar presidential marketing campaign. He would go on to work for a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls over the subsequent 4 a long time, together with Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and Senator Kerry.

None turned president, however Mr. Johnson maintained a popularity as a practical, shrewd and trusted insider.

When Mr. Mondale was elected vice chairman in 1976, Mr. Johnson turned his govt assistant.

“He and I each had been from Minnesota,” Mr. Mondale recalled in an interview, “and we spoke the identical language.”

After Mr. Mondale’s time period resulted in 1981, Mr. Johnson fashioned Public Methods, a political consulting agency, with Richard C. Holbrooke, who turned a high diplomat in a number of Democratic administrations.

Mr. Johnson returned to politics to handle Mr. Mondale’s ill-fated marketing campaign for president in 1984. Mr. Mondale stated within the interview that his landslide lack of 49 states to President Ronald Reagan was no reflection on Mr. Johnson. “I wasn’t an excellent candidate,” he stated.

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Holbrooke bought Public Methods in 1985 to Shearson Lehman Brothers, the place they each turned managing administrators within the funding banking division. Mr. Johnson left in 1990 to affix Fannie Mae as vice chairman; he turned chairman and chief govt in 1991.

He stayed out of presidential politics whereas at Fannie Mae. After leaving, he returned for delicate duties, serving to Democratic candidates with their vice-presidential choice, debate negotiations and transition planning.

He briefly led the vice-presidential choice course of for Senator Barack Obama in 2008, however he stepped down following a Wall Street Journal report that he had obtained preferential mortgage charges from Countrywide Monetary, the mortgage firm on the middle of the subprime lending disaster.

Along with his son, Mr. Johnson is survived by his spouse, Heather Muir Kirby, a managing director at Deutsche Financial institution; a sister, Marilyn LaMourea; and a grandson. His marriages to Katherine Marshall and Ms. Isaacs resulted in divorce.

After leaving Fannie Mae, Mr. Johnson joined the boards of a number of firms, together with Goldman Sachs and Goal. Since 2011, he had been chairman of the advisory council of the Stanford Center on Longevity, which seeks to implement technological advances to assist older folks stay wholesome and rewarding lives.


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