James A. Johnson, who served as CEO of Fannie Mae from 1991 to 1998 and was a Democratic campaign operative, died on Sunday, Oct. 18 at the age of 76.
His son, Alfred, told The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal that he passed away due to complications from a neurological condition at his home in Washington.
A Minnesota native, Johnson graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1965, where he studied political science. In 1968, he earned a master’s degree in public policy from Princeton University.
Johnson was highly active in politics and participated in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s. His father was speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives and he was the chairman of Walter F. Mondale’s presidential campaign in 1984, which he lost to Ronald Reagan.
Johnson was also involved in the presidential bids of democrats Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie and George McGovern. He went on to co-fund a political consulting firm and sell it to Shearson Lehman Brothers. He was working at the banking firm in 1985 when he met David O. Maxwell, the head of Fannie Mae at the time.
Johnson helped Maxwell to prevent Fannie Mae from going private, which landed him a position as vice chairman of Fannie Mae in 1990. He became CEO and chairman the following year.
During his time at Fannie Mae, Johnson worked to maintain the company’s government privileges, expand its portfolio and made an effort to create more affordable housing and help low-income Americans and underserved minorities achieve homeownership.
“Fannie Mae is an instrument for improving the opportunities for Americans that is almost unrivaled,” Johnson told the New York Times in 1997.
Johnson continued to play an active role in politics as he helped shape a 1992 law, the Housing and Community Development Act, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush with the assistance of lobbyists representing Fannie Mae.
At the same time that Johnson was chairman of Fannie Mae, he also chaired the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Brookings Institution think tank. President Bill Clinton’s deputy of staff, Harold M. Ickes, dubbed Johnson “the chairman of the universe.”
Johnson did not end his career as a business leader after he retired from Fannie Mae in 1998. He would then go on to serve on the boards of several large companies, such as Goldman Sachs, UnitedHealth Group, KB Home and Target. He also served as chairman of a private-equity firm called Perseus as well as chairman for the advisory council of the Stanford Center on Longevity.