SACRAMENTO — Nancy McFadden begins most mornings on a conference call with other members of Gov. Jerry Brown’s inner circle, the governor occasionally chiming in from the background.
When Brown took office, the gathering, led by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, included compatriots plucked from different eras of his five decades in politics — his first tour as governor, the stint as Oakland’s mayor, four years as state attorney general.
Aside from Gust Brown, McFadden is the only remaining member of the original group. Although she was a relative newcomer to Brown’s world, she quickly became an indispensable insider. Over the last three years, she has cemented her role as his chief liaison to the Legislature and anyone else seeking Brown’s ear.
She is the top aide to a governor who shirks handlers, and many have cautioned against trying to channel the often-enigmatic Brown. But McFadden’s job is exactly that — “to scan the landscape, try to figure out what the priorities are for what the governor wants to do and what he must do and keep things moving and make things happen,” she says.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief aide was Susan Kennedy, so influential that many viewed her as the de facto governor. Nobody says that about McFadden, a lawyer who is more broker than coach for a governor with decades of policy experience.
She is known for her finesse and shrewd political instincts. Brown said he values her breadth of experience, honed in backstage labor for the Clinton administration, former Gov. Gray Davis and energy giant Pacific Gas & Electric.
“You combine government experience, private-sector experience, legal skill and good judgment. And she knows how to write. That’s a rare combination,” said Brown, who praised her utility on the wide range of issues that come before a governor. “The way we work is very compatible.”
When Brown’s in the Capitol, McFadden works a quick two-step down the hall so he can easily pop in. When Brown is away, they’re in touch by iPhone, talking perhaps eight or 10 times a day about legislative issues and policy negotiations.
In meetings, when Brown spins off on an intellectual riff, McFadden has been known to catch his eye with a slight wave of the hand to nudge him back on track. And “I never hesitate to ask or repeat or go back to a subject or tell him what I think,” she said.
Sometimes Brown listens. Sometimes he doesn’t. But McFadden, 54, has outlasted some of his longest-serving loyalists. Initially, she shared responsibilities with another aide, Jim Humes. He’s now gone, appointed by Brown to the state appeals court in late 2012. McFadden uses his old office as a conference room.
Some former Brown staffers said McFadden was cliquish and territorial. She tangled with Brown’s former press secretary, Gil Duran, who first worked for the governor in Oakland and preferred to report directly to him. Many others left in late 2012, solidifying her power.
McFadden sometimes struggles to keep order in the domain of a governor who has no traditional chain of command, some staffers said, though they declined to speak publicly. One key to her longevity is her close collaboration with Gust Brown, who shares a legal and corporate background with McFadden, as well as an affinity for efficiency.
When McFadden can’t get the governor to focus on a particular issue or do something that she feels needs doing, she often seeks help from Gust Brown.
“Nancy doesn’t feel comfortable talking to him exactly the way I do,” Gust Brown said at a forum in Sacramento last year. “But we do have to corral him sometimes.”
Those who know McFadden say she does not always get the public credit she deserves or wants, but she doesn’t fuss about it.
“She’s tough but low-key,” said Mickey Kantor, the former U.S. Commerce secretary who worked with her on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, which Kantor chaired.
A native of Wilmington, Del., McFadden moved to San Jose at age 11 with her mother and younger brother after her parents divorced. She graduated from San Jose State and earned a law degree at the University of Virginia, then worked in the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers.
On New Year’s Day 1992, she joined the Clinton campaign as deputy political director. She soon demonstrated a penchant for political hardball.
A memo she wrote at that time surfaced recently, outlining a strategy to discredit alleged Clinton mistress Gennifer Flowers “as a fraud, liar and possible criminal to stop this story and related stories.”
McFadden served six years as a lawyer in the Clinton administration and two as deputy chief of staff for Vice President Al Gore before taking the same job for Davis in 2000. For Brown, her title is executive secretary.
In her work space, a small room about double the size of a standard cubicle, the walls are bare. A bookshelf tucked in the corner holds budget printouts and scattered keepsakes: a photo of President Clinton with Janet Reno in the former U.S. attorney general’s office, a memorial license plate from Brown’s trip to China last year, a black Louisville Slugger from the 2007 Major League Baseball All Star Game in San Francisco.
Having coffee in a cafe near the Capitol recently, McFadden wore a jewel-encrusted ring given to her by former California First Lady Maria Shriver. Shriver calls McFadden “one of my very best friends” and says she recommended her to Gust Brown.
McFadden had talks with the soon-to-be First Couple near the end of Brown’s 2010 campaign. At the time, she headed government affairs for PG&E;, the state’s largest private utility, where she landed after voters booted Davis from office.
She had just helped lead a failed campaign for a state ballot initiative that would have made it harder for cities to create their own utilities. Though PG&E; outspent its opposition by more than $40 million, voters rejected the measure.
Chief Executive Peter Darbee told investors the initiative was McFadden’s idea — a claim McFadden loyalists deny. McFadden does not discuss the measure or her separation from PG&E;, citing an agreement she signed before departing. Public records show she left with a $1-million severance package.
She was preparing for what she then described on Facebook as her “eat, pray, love phase” when Gust Brown called.
These days, McFadden can be found at many of the governor’s public events, often trying to blend into the crowd — in bright-print jackets, chic sunglasses and with a shock of blond hair. At an event where Brown was promoting electric cars, she stood toward the back like a nervous parent, by turns nodding and muttering under her breath.
McFadden has a goofy side. She’s been known to blast the Black Eyed Peas from her phone as she dances through the inner sanctum of Capitol offices that make up the governor’s suite. But she rarely stays in play mode for long.
A typical conversation with her “lasts about 45 seconds,” Kantor said. “She understands how to move people quickly.”
In August 2012, labor and business groups were on the verge of a deal to overhaul the state workers’ compensation system when McFadden got word that talks had broken down. Driving from the Bay Area to Sacramento that Sunday afternoon, she called Brown to urge him into the fray.
The next day, Brown summoned the negotiators. A few days later, the deal was done. It emerged as one of Brown’s top legislative achievements that year.
Not all of McFadden’s battles have been political. In early 2001, months after joining the Davis administration, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, for which the five-year survival rate is less than 50%. After major surgery and months of chemotherapy, she returned to work.
McFadden, who is single, expected her illness to be a turning point in her workaholic life. She was surprised by how little it changed her: “I’m not having this huge epiphany,” she remembers thinking.
One of the busiest times for McFadden is the end of the legislative year, when deals are forged in last-minute scrums and late-night horse-trading. In the final hours last year, she was briefing reporters in the Capitol rotunda when a group of grinning lobbyists walked by.
She knew why they were smiling: Brown had agreed to changes in the state’s environmental laws for which the lobbyists had fought. She had brokered the deal as lawmakers prepared to adjourn for the year.
As the lobbyists passed, McFadden yelled out, “You’re welcome!”