Death of Nancy McFadden shakes state government

Gov. Brown's top aide, Nancy McFadden, at a 2015 water conference in Sacramento. McFadden died Thursday at the age of 59. (Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

Nancy McFadden, who died late Thursday at 59 from ovarian cancer, was the perfect high-level staffer — discreet, smart, and possessed of a wide range of knowledge along with a keen political antenna.

As unknown to the public as she was important in California’s government,  McFadden literally ran the state day-to-day.

Gov. Brown ordered flags over the Capitol lowered to half-staff.

McFadden, Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff, was involved in just about everything, from extending cap-and-trade to overhauling California’s infrastructure.  She was the go-to person for Brown staffers when they needed the final push toward the governor’s approval.  Brown almost never went ahead with anything unless McFadden was aboard.

“She shapes every major political and policy issue that emerges from the administration and manages the staff to get it done,” Capitol Weekly said of McFadden when naming her No. 1 in their annual Top 100 List of Sacramento heavyweights for 2017, “ (and) nothing happens unless McFadden signs off on it.”

Reaction to McFadden’s passing was immediate and unanimous across a broad range of people and organizations.

“Nancy was the best chief of staff a governor could ever ask for. She understood government and politics, she could manage, she was a diplomat and she was fearless. She could also write like no other,” Brown said Friday in a statement. “Nancy loved her job and we loved her doing it. This is truly a loss for me, for Anne, for our office, for Nancy’s family and close friends – and for all of California.”

Brown ordered flags over the Capitol lowered to half-staff.

In a written statement, the new president pro tem of the state Senate, Toni Atkins, said: “Nancy McFadden was hands-down the hardest-working and smartest person in our state Capitol. Her passing is not only a loss for her family, Governor Jerry Brown, and Anne Gust Brown, but also for all of California. She played a leading role in every major accomplishment during my time in the Legislature. The legacy she leaves behind will be cemented in every corner of our state. In her, the modern women’s movement had an ideal role model – simply put, she was a real-life wonder woman.”

“An extraordinary public servant whose wise counsel I relied upon for much of the last 25 years, including when she was my invaluable Deputy Chief of Staff in the White House.” — Al Gore

Senate Republican Leader Pat Bates shared Democrat Atkins’s sentiments:

“I am deeply saddened to learn of Nancy’s passing as I admired her intellect and keen knowledge of public policy. She faithfully served the governor and the people of California with integrity. I send my deepest condolences to Nancy’s family and friends as we mourn the loss of one of California’s most accomplished public servants.

McFadden made her mark in both Washington and Sacramento.

She was born in Wilmington, Del. After her parents divorced, she and her mother moved to San Jose when Nancy was 11.  She was a political science major at San Jose State, where she beat future Democratic political consultant Joe Trippi for class president.

After San Jose State, she attended the University of Virginia law school, clerked for a federal judge and worked at the O’Melveny & Myers law firm in Washington. In December 1991, she became deputy political director of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. She served as general counsel to the Department of Transportation in the Clinton Administration.

Before becoming Brown’s closest staff adviser, McFadden over the years was deputy chief of staff to Al Gore, a low-profile major player at Pacific Gas & Electric, and a senior adviser with Gov. Gray Davis. She came to Sacramento in 2000 to join Davis’s staff during California’s energy crisis.

“Nancy McFadden was an extraordinary public servant whose wise counsel I relied upon for much of the last 25 years, including when she was my invaluable Deputy Chief of Staff in the White House,” Gore said in a statement. “In more recent years, her service to the people of California in the Governor’s office to has been so important to the historic success of Jerry Brown’s leadership of our largest state …  I admired her greatly and am deeply saddened by her passing. I will miss her deeply.”

In a joint statement, Bill and Hillary Clinton said McFadden  had “uncanny ability to get things done … Nancy was a fine person who deeply believed in the power of politics to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and she did until the very end. Hillary and I were proud to call her a colleague and friend.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Chuck McFadden and Nancy McFadden are not related.

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