Nancy McFadden, a key architect of Gov. Jerry Brown’s political renaissance, loses her battle with cancer

Nancy McFadden at work in the governor's office at the state Capitol in 2014.
(Robert Durell / For The Times)

Nancy McFadden, who translated the sweeping agenda of Gov. Jerry Brown’s return to power into legislative action and established law as his top advisor, died Thursday after battling ovarian cancer.

In January, she stepped away from her daily state Capitol duties to receive additional medical treatment. A spokesman for the governor said McFadden died Thursday night at her home in Sacramento, surrounded by family and friends.

She was 59.

In a statement Friday, Brown called McFadden “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. Nancy loved her job, and we loved her doing it.”

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Aside from the governor, no one had more sway over the Brown administration’s agenda than McFadden. Her title was executive secretary, but she held a job more often labeled chief of staff.

Always close to the enigmatic politician’s side in his travels, McFadden was an essential negotiator who never shied away from twisting arms to sell Brown’s governing vision to recalcitrant lawmakers or warring interest groups. When she spoke, state Capitol insiders knew she was empowered to do so by the governor and likely the one who had helped guide him to the point of action in the first place.

The results over a seven-year period comprise the key planks to Brown’s legacy: a repair and renovation of California’s deficit-plagued state budget, an extension of its landmark law to combat climate change and far-reaching efforts on topics from criminal justice to transportation. The achievements were perhaps even more notable because Brown has one of the smallest inner circles of any modern governor. McFadden was the group’s indefatigable leader.

“She never gave up, in work or in life,” said Dana Williamson, a top political advisor to Brown who earlier served as his Cabinet secretary.


“Nancy absolutely loved that job, every moment of it,” said Donna Lucas, a close friend and public affairs strategist who worked for two of the state’s former Republican governors. “When you look at this governor’s legacy, and what he was able to achieve, a good chunk of it was from her efforts.”

McFadden’s political resume was already muscular by the time she signed on to work for Brown — a match orchestrated in 2010 by the governor’s wife, Anne Gust Brown, and her predecessor, Maria Shriver. She had previously served as a senior advisor to former Gov. Gray Davis, and her most wide-ranging experience came from working for former President Clinton.

On Friday, the former president and Hillary Clinton called McFadden someone who “deeply believed in the power of politics to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and she did until the very end.”

As a junior associate at a Washington law firm in 1991, she was offered some career advice from one of its prestigious partners, Warren Christopher. He told McFadden to get her feet wet in politics by joining the then-Arkansas governor’s presidential campaign effort.

She became Clinton’s deputy political director and was tasked with helping handle some of the 1992 campaign’s most volatile moments — the accusations of an extramarital affair by Gennifer Flowers and the questions raised about the Democrat’s draft deferments during the Vietnam War.

Clinton’s victory swept McFadden and a cadre of young staffers into Washington, where she became a key liaison to the White House at the U.S. Department of Justice under Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. She later served as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation and then spent two years as deputy chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, who called her “an extraordinary public servant” in a statement after her death.

McFadden moved to Sacramento in 2001, advising Davis in the aftermath of the California electricity crisis. The recall election that ousted him in 2003 led to a senior vice president position at PG&E. It was a position that later provided political heartburn when her connection to the utility raised questions about a possible conflict of interest in serving as the governor’s top aide. Last year, she paid a state ethics fine for failing to provide complete investment information on her official financial disclosure form.

Brown, though, never wavered in his support. And McFadden found in her idiosyncratic boss a kindred soul, a politician unlike any other with whom she had worked.

“He is a questioner,” she told The Times in 2011. “It’s like you’re preparing for your Socratic session with your law professor. You always get asked the question for which you don’t have the answer.”

At the time of her death, McFadden was one of the longest-serving members of Brown’s administration.

“The way she carried herself,” Williamson said, “people followed her lead.”

Staffers praised McFadden for creating what she called “a real no-drama team.” But her fierce loyalty to Brown could generate a stinging rebuke to any Capitol power broker or journalist who she believed was wrong in his or her assessment of the chief executive.

McFadden underwent surgery and chemotherapy for ovarian cancer in 2001 and remained cancer-free until 2014.

“Over the past four years, I have been able to manage both the cancer and the demands of my job — and our track record speaks for itself,” McFadden said in a statement in January when she began working remotely. “I now have to devote more attention to managing my healthcare and recuperating from recent surgery.”

McFadden was born in Wilmington, Del., the oldest child of William and Mary McFadden, who divorced when she was 11. Soon after, she moved to San Jose with her mother and younger brother. “I was raised, for the most part, by a single mom who was a nurse,” she told a Sacramento women’s group in 2012. “I had a mother who believed in her children, and wanted both of us to be able to do whatever it was that we wanted to do.”

McFadden was student body president at San Jose State University and graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law, later serving as a clerk for a federal judge.

Friends describe her as passionate, not just about politics and public policy, but also her life and loved ones — relishing travel and music, and quick with a good joke as a way to break the tension in a room. She would often surprise friends with a memento for special occasions.

“You always got a great note from Nancy,” Lucas said.

McFadden shunned publicity, even when her efforts were crucial to major policy decisions. Her speech to San Jose State graduates in 2014 offered a glimpse into her thinking.

“Climb the mountain not to plant the flag but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view,” she told the university’s graduates. “Climb it so you can see the world, and not so the world can see you.”

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10:10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

This article was originally published at 7:10 a.m.