My professional life has been indelibly shaped by a remarkable group of individuals over the past several decades. These people have played multiple roles in my career. Some have been true mentors, acting as objective sounding boards on decisions large and small and selflessly opening up their rolodexes, virtual and otherwise, to help widen my circle of innovative thinkers and doers. Some have acted as private tutors, passing on their wealth of substantive knowledge and sharing their disparate approaches to solving problems and driving impact. Some have served as close colleagues and collaborators, co-writing or co-editing books and articles and helping me move projects from concept to execution. All have given their time generously and offered their advice freely and in confidence.
As this difficult year comes to a difficult close, I wanted to pay homage to six exceptional people who are no longer with us. They shaped not only what I have done but who I am. In the order of when we met…
Herb Sturz was an indefatigable social entrepreneur. He moved effortlessly between government, philanthropy, journalism and the nonprofit sector, experimenting with novel ways of addressing some of the most intractable challenges facing our country and the world. Among many accomplishments and career twists, he was a member of the New York Times editorial board, co-founder of the Vera Institute of Justice, and the founder of the Wildcat Service Corporation (the country’s first organization to implement a transitional work program for unemployed persons with criminal convictions). Sam Roberts brilliantly captured Herb’s wide-ranging interests and influence in his 2009 book, A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s Toughest Problems.
I was introduced to Herb by Bobby Steingut, a former member of the New York City Council, with whom I interned during high school. Bobby (who remains a friend to this day) helped me secure two coveted summer positions with Herb when I was in college, first as an intern with the Arson Strike Force when he was Deputy Mayor for Criminal Justice, then as an intern in his executive office when he was Chairman of the City Planning Commission. Herb was a whirlwind of ideas, pushing me to consider community approaches to arson prevention, tax incentives to boost urban regeneration (e.g., he directed me to study the then nascent UK experiment with empowerment zones during the City Planning summer) and emerging efforts around supported work for welfare recipients. Herb taught me, at a very young impressionable age, to think broadly and globally about solutions and always — always — ground policy action in local realities. Over the decades, the list of Herb’s interests continued to grow and evolve, particularly around housing in the US and beyond, and we stayed in periodic contact. One of the proudest moments of my time at Brookings was to host a dinner in Herb’s honor, to discuss Sam Roberts’ portrait of a true innovator. Herb Sturz died in June, 2021 at the age of 90.
James (“Jim”) Johnson was a Washington power broker, to use a phrase from an earlier time. Like most Washington insiders, he was originally from somewhere else, Minnesota to be precise. In the political sphere, Jim gained national prominence as Executive Assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale (also from Minnesota) and later campaign manager of Mondale’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1984. (I was very aware of Jim’s role in the Mondale campaign since I had taken a year off from law school to work for Mondale’s principal rival, Senator Gary Hart). I first met Jim during my time staffing the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Affairs, when he was Chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae. We then came into contact when I served as Chief of Staff to HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. As Chairman of the Brookings Institution, Jim played a critical role in establishing the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy (actually funding the Center through the Fannie Mae Foundation), encouraging me to apply to be its founding director and then (I’m sure) helping ensure that I actually got the job.
It is impossible to capture fully the impact of Jim on the evolution of Brookings Metro, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. He pushed all of us (particularly Amy Liu and myself) to focus and deliver not just quality research but also concrete ideas for tangible action at all levels of government and across all sectors of society. The Blueprint for American Prosperity, our multi-year effort in advance of the 2008 elections, was deeply informed by Jim’s campaign expertise. It produced seminal research on the role of metropolitan areas in the US economy and yielded policy solutions that continue to be implemented. Further forays into the global role of metropolitan economies and the trading relationships between US cities and their counterparts in other parts of the world benefitted from his deep insights and broad networks.
Jim and I shared a deep love of politics, in the end, a people business. We met regularly for breakfast (often with Carrie Kolasky) to discuss rising stars in the American political firmament and assess opportunities for policy impact. These sessions informed how Brookings ultimately built and nurtured a powerful network — a “pragmatic caucus” — of public, private and civic leaders throughout the US and beyond. Many of the ideas for The Metropolitan Revolution and The New Localism were hatched in those conversations. I owe Jim an enormous debt for giving me the latitude to follow my instinct and grow into the position at Brookings and beyond. James Johnson died in October, 2020 at the age of 76.
Tony Downs was one of the most influential and original metropolitan thinkers of the past fifty years. His original work on metropolitan governance and transportation educated generations of budding urbanists. His talks on these and other subjects were legendary, particularly since Tony hired a joke-writing service so he could pepper dry statistics and analysis with humor every few minutes. He was genuinely warm and funny. In many respects, Tony’s vote of confidence in me was the key decision point for Brookings to make a job offer in 1996. I remember well a breakfast we had at the Metro 29 Diner in Arlington, Virginia where we spent hours discussing the state of metropolitan America. In retrospect, Tony could have used his position in academia and at Brookings to be a gate-keeper. Instead, he did the opposite, welcoming Amy Liu and myself into the fold, instructing us on all things metropolitan and becoming a trusted advisor for decades to come. Tony Downs died in October, 2021 at the age of 90.
Robert Lang was a fellow urban obsessive. We originally met when he was at Fannie Mae, where he and Steve Hornburg shepherded the initial grant for the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. After a stint at Virginia Tech, he ultimately joined the Brookings Metro team, heading up the Brookings Mountain West effort based at UNLV. Robert was a student of growth dynamics within and across metropolitan areas in the US, writing influential books and analyses on “Edgeless Cities,” “Boomburbs,” and more. In 2003, he co-edited with me the first volume of Redefining Urban & Suburban America: Evidence from Census 2000. Robert had a profound, lasting influence on Las Vegas, helping the community and Nevada more broadly imagine a high road future of quality job and inclusive growth. I felt a particular kinship with Robert since we were born only a month apart in Brooklyn. His quick sense of humor, straight talk and strong opinions were rooted in the East but translated well to the West. Robert Lang died in June, 2021 at the age of 62.
Robert Katzmann was the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. Before becoming a federal judge, Bob was a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at Brookings, where we met. Bob and other Brookings’ scholars like Bob Litan and the late Pietro Nivola made me feel welcome at Brookings, even though I didn’t have a doctorate in economics or political science. Bob and I shared a deep admiration of US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the personification of the intellectual in politics. As a Banking Committee staffer, I had worked with Moynihan’s staff on the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, putting in place metropolitan governance structures that will now be tapped to help implement the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act. Bob and I shared Moynihan’s understanding that societal change, in a country as complex and diverse as the US, is a long game. I remember Bob’s humble personality, impish smile and deep commitment to public service. Robert Katzmann died in June, 2021 at the age of 68.
John Hills co-founded the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics. I met John through his wife, Anne Power (a leading housing scholar and advocate in her own right) on a study tour of the UK that the British Embassy arranged for me in 2002. I originally met Anne through the incomparable Richard Baron, another indication that networks are the gift that keep on giving.
What began as a study tour evolved into a twenty-year partnership with CASE, John and Anne that is ongoing, with transatlantic collaborations on smart growth, the revitalization of former industrial cities, the transformation of public housing and council estates and more. John and Anne opened up a world for me, at LSE with colleagues like Ricky Burdett, Tony Travers and Becky Tunstall and beyond LSE with public intellectuals like Richard Rogers (who passed away earlier this week) and think tanks like the Centre for London, the Centre on Cities and the Royal Society for the Arts.
In many respects, John was a role model for me. He had advised Gordon Brown as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer before the Labour Party took power, but decided to advance policy change from the outside rather than join the new government. As one of the world’s leading experts on poverty and inequality, John’s imprint on government policy was far and wide, delivered through his research, lectures and stints on key government commissions. I, frankly, have never met anyone with such a vast knowledge of social policy and deep commitment to societal change. I relished time to see John and Anne; they provided a lifelong tutorial on a wide range of topics delivered in a way that was accessible and memorable. John had a profound impact on my work over the past several decades, broadening my education, altering my political views and bringing immeasurable joy and purpose to my professional life. I will fondly remember dinners with John and Anne, where he waxed eloquently on the latest developments in the rollercoaster ride that is distinctly British politics. John Hills died in December, 2020 at the age of 66.
In the end, all of us are dependent on people who help us navigate the complexity of professional life in the modern era. My work past, present and future reflects the imprint of the six individuals profiled here, who took time to guide and advise me at critical junctures. I am fortunate to have known these remarkable individuals and grateful beyond measure.