James A. Johnson, a powerful Democratic operative who served as the chairman of Walter Mondale’s failed 1984 presidential campaign, has died at the age of 76.
The passing was confirmed by Johnson’s son, Alfred. He told the Wall Street Journal that his father died from complications that resulted from a neurological condition.
Political power player
Johnson was born in Minnesota, where his father, Alfred, was a major political figure. Alfred was a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1941 to 1958, and, from 1955 to 1957, he served as the state house’s speaker.
Johnson, in some sense, followed in his father’s footsteps. Although he never held political office himself, he played a role in trying to help other Democrats get into office.
Early in his career, he participated in the 1968 presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy. He went on to work for Sens. Edmund Muskie and George McGovern. Then, he joined up with Walter Mondale, heading the 1984 presidential campaign that Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan.
He remained a powerful political player in Washington for much of his life, chairing the vice-presidential selection committee for the presidential campaign of John Kerry, and leading the vice-presidential selection process for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. However, Johnson resigned from Obama’s campaign in 2008 after coming under scrutiny for his business dealings.
Johnson’s other side
In addition to politics, Johnson was known for his tenure at Fannie Mae, a government sponsored enterprise that financed mortgages and was later infamously taken over by the government when the housing market crashed in 2008.
In the 1990s, Fannie Mae head David O. Maxwell hired Johnson to be vice chairman of the company. There, Johnson helped the company to resist privatization efforts by Reagan’s administration.
This earned him a promotion to CEO. In that position, he used his political background to keep Fannie Mae free of burdensome government regulations. .
In 1992, he also helped to get a law passed by President George H.W. Bush, that, according to the AP, was “aimed to reduce the chance of an expensive taxpayer bailout if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had bad loans on their books.”
A prominent figure
Johnson stayed with Fannie Mae until retiring in 1998. But, even then, his career wasn’t over. He proceeded to serve on the boards of several companies including UnitedHealth Group, KB Home, and Target, among others.
No wonder he was once described by Harold M. Ickes, President Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, as “the chairman of the universe.”