Roger W. Johnson, who as a high-ranking Republican in the Clinton administration led the U.S. General Services Administration from 1993 to 1996, has died. He was 70. Johnson, the former chairman of Western Digital in Irvine, died Friday at his Laguna Beach home of lung cancer.
The wealthy entrepreneur made national headlines in 1992 by becoming one of eight prominent Orange County Republicans to endorse Democrat Bill Clinton for president over the incumbent, George H.W. Bush. After Clinton was elected, he appointed Johnson as administrator of the GSA, the federal government’s massive procurement agency, and enlisted him to help “reinvent government.”
Johnson later said the GSA job gave him a bird’s-eye view of government waste, inefficiency and bad management, fodder for his book, “It Can Be Fixed! Your Unmanaged Government,” which was published in July.
He was the highest-ranking Republican to serve in Clinton’s first term. Republican Sen. William S. Cohen became Clinton’s second-term secretary of defense.
Johnson’s relationship with Clinton began in 1991 when he mused to a Times reporter that, as a longtime Republican, he was disillusioned enough with Bush that he would consider voting for the right Democrat. Clinton took him up on the challenge and lobbied Johnson, then a member of an influential Orange County GOP fundraising group, for support.
A year later, Johnson discombobulated the GOP establishment when he co-sponsored a breakfast for Clinton in Newport Beach with several prominent Orange County Republicans. He and seven others later declared their support for Clinton, becoming the first of many notable Republicans to back the Arkansas governor’s successful campaign for the presidency.
Johnson resigned as chief executive of Western Digital to lead the GSA, a $10-billion agency with 20,000 employees. He boasted three years later that he had reduced the number of workers by 4,000 and lowered the agency’s operating costs by 17%. But he also complained that his management approach set him at odds with longtime bureaucrats, who initiated a string of investigations into his use of public property and alleged improprieties.
He left the GSA in March 1996 and was cleared of all allegations a year later. An earlier GSA audit, requested by Johnson, concluded that he owed the government $72 for improperly using a government credit card and mixing personal and official business on trips.
A spunky leader who sang in the car on the way to work, Johnson loved opera and hated conflict -- especially during his Washington days. He loudly vented frustration over what he described as bureaucratic backstabbing by managers and politicians who resisted needed reforms.
“The way the system works, it allows a very small minority to cause a great deal of trouble,” he said in an interview in 1994, a year after taking office. “It’s a system that destroys people’s lives by innuendo. It’s a bipartisan disease.”
During Johnson’s time in Washington, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) led the battle to move the country in a conservative direction. As Johnson was leaving Washington, he lashed out at what he called the Republican Party’s extremist leadership. He moved back to Laguna Beach and officially became a Democrat.
Wylie Aitken, chairman of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County, praised Johnson on Saturday for his political courage. He said Johnson was a man who got involved in politics “for all the right reasons. He was comfortable with the decisions he’d made.”
Johnson was born June 24, 1934, in Hartford, Conn., the son of an AFL-CIO organizer. By age 10, he was walking picket lines with his father. Despite that early influence, Johnson recalled that he became a Republican after the first time he paid taxes.
He was class valedictorian at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., where he graduated in 1956 with a business degree. At one time, he considered a career as a professional baseball player, but on the advice of a batting coach, he took a job as a manufacturing manager at General Electric.
Johnson rose through company ranks from 1956 to 1969, leaving GE for a series of jobs in the growing computer industry, including heading the disk drive division of Memorex Corp.
In 1982, Johnson moved to Orange County to take control of Western Digital, which then had annual sales of $25 million. He was credited with shifting its focus to more elemental products and reviving the sagging company, which grew from 811 to 7,600 employees. It topped out at $1 billion in sales in 1990, then struggled in the recession of the early 1990s.
After returning to Orange County in 1996, Johnson remained active in philanthropic and social circles. He was chairman of the UC Irvine Foundation; vice chairman of the American Business Conference, a Washington business lobby; a member of the board of the Orange County Performing Arts Center; chairman of the honorary board of the AIDS Services Foundation of Orange County; and a longtime board member of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra. His wife, Janice, remains on the symphony board.
He also served on the boards of several Fortune 500 companies and taught graduate-level courses at UC Irvine and Claremont Graduate University.
The Johnsons donated $500,000 to endow a chair in social ecology at UC Irvine.
Long after Johnson left Washington, he continued to raise funds for Clinton’s defense in several legal matters, and in 2000 the Johnsons held a fundraiser at their beachside home for the New York Senate campaign of then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, which netted more than $90,000.
In December 2000, Johnson joined the board of directors of SRS Labs Inc. in Santa Ana. He was named chairman and chief executive in October 2001 of Collectors Universe Inc., which provides services to collectors and dealers of coins and sports memorabilia.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Marek Johnson Cantor of New York; sons Eric of Los Gatos and Daniel of Sacramento; and three grandchildren.
Memorial services are planned for 3 p.m. March 7 at the University Synagogue in Irvine. Instead of flowers, the family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Johnson Chair for Government at UC Irvine.