SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Nancy McFadden, chief of staff for California Gov. Jerry Brown and a driving force behind his agenda, died Thursday in her home after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She was 59.
“Nancy was the best chief of staff a governor could ever ask for,” Brown said in a statement. “She understood government and politics, she could manage, she was a diplomat and she was fearless.”
McFadden was hired as Brown’s chief of staff in 2011, when he returned to the governor’s office, and quickly became an indispensable asset as he pushed ambitious polities on climate, criminal justice reform and more. McFadden could knock heads in political battle but was quick with humor and cared deeply for the people around her, friends and colleagues said.
McFadden didn’t know Brown and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, very well when she had a conversation with them after Brown’s election that led to a job. But the three quickly became a well-matched team.
“She loved that (Brown) trusted her to be the implementer,” said Donne Brownsey, McFadden’s closest friend and a former lobbyist and legislative adviser. “He gave her, deservedly, wide latitude to form teams throughout state government to solve problems.”
McFadden’s high-profile political work began long before she joined the Brown administration. She served as a deputy political director for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Brown, who was running against Clinton at the time, was one of Clinton’s harshest critics. McFadden’s role in the campaign included managing the fallout of Gennifer Flowers alleging an affair with Clinton.
McFadden went on to be a deputy associate attorney general in Clinton’s administration, then deputy chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore.
She was featured in a 1994 Washington Post article titled “Who you gonna call?” about the “go-to” political insiders in the Clinton administration. McFadden frequently represented the U.S. Justice Department on conference calls with the White House, according to the article.
“Nancy McFadden was a truly extraordinary public servant thanks to her brilliant mind, big heart, and uncanny ability to get things done,” Bill and Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
McFadden’s skills as a shrewd political negotiator were put to the test last year during the fight to reauthorize California’s cap-and-trade program, a critical piece of Brown’s climate change-fighting efforts. It was McFadden’s job to find a bridge between the oil industry, environmental justice groups and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
After months, she helped strike a deal that extended the landmark program through 2030 and focused on cleaning up poor air quality in low-income neighborhoods. It was a deal that made none of the sides completely happy, but one that passed.
McFadden called it the most difficult job she ever faced.
Former Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes, who gathered critical votes from a small group of Republicans, said McFadden was unfailingly honest and trustworthy during the complicated negotiations.
“She was incredibly tenacious without being overbearing,” Mayes said. “During all of my time of working with Nancy she was always very warm and friendly, but she also knew what she needed. She was a true diplomat.”
McFadden was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the early 2000s and beat it, only to have it return four years ago. She stepped away from the Capitol in January to focus on her health but was taking conference calls and working right up until the end, said Brownsey, who cared for her.
“I would be helping her because she was so ill and I would say, ‘What do you want to do now?’ and she would say ‘I think I’ll make a few calls,” Brownsey recalled.
McFadden’s style was “no drama, no ego” leadership, said Evan Westrup, Brown’s press secretary.
Friends and colleagues recall her as someone who loved Christmas, dinner parties, music and giving gifts. Despite her outsize presence, she gave credit to and celebrated the accomplishments of her team.
“I almost feel like she’s standing behind me poking me saying make sure you talk about others and not me,” Brownsey said.
Associated Press writer Jonathan J. Cooper contributed reporting.