Nancy McFadden Got the Job Done with Confidence & Poise

Steven Maviglio
Principal of Forza Communications, a Sacramento-based public affairs/campaign firm

Nancy McFadden, Gov. Jerry Brown’s Chief of Staff and former top advisor to President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Gov. Gray Davis—and most importantly my colleague and my friend, died Friday at her home in Sacramento. She was 59.

Chiefs of staff to governors fulfill that role in different ways. Nancy’s way – as she demonstrated in all her public service was to create an environment where every staff member was valued and each had the opportunity to contribute to the extent of their abilities.

Her collaborative approach led to a team in Brown’s office where no drama was the norm and brought out the very best in everyone. When it came time to celebrate accomplishments, she was the first to shine a light on others – even when she did the heavy lifting. 

Nancy told the Los Angeles Times in a 2014 interview that her job was “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.”

Choosing to work from one of the smallest – and most sparsely decorated – offices in the Governor’s “Horseshoe,” Nancy’s humility and lack of ego set the tone for the entire office and allowed the governor to get remarkable things done without the usual distractions.

She was the fulcrum of the administration — a one-woman mission control center for every major effort and everything of consequence that was achieved over the past seven years.

Whether it was Proposition 30 or a water bond, the Rainy Day Fund or groundbreaking criminal justice and immigration measures, landmark school funding and or the recent super-majority bills to fix our roads Nancy was always in the eye of the storm. She said the battle to extend the state’s pioneering cap and trade program was her most difficult negotiation; in her home office, a photo with the Governor and staff involved in the legislation is signed “That time we changed the world.”

Her ability to bring people and interests together to build unlikely coalitions and find a path forward, time and time again, was uncanny. She defied the odds and naysayers so frequently, the extraordinary became ordinary. The Brown Administration’s remarkable achievements of the last eight years are very much the product of Nancy’s smarts, ingenuity, persistence and creativity.

“Nancy was the best chief of staff a governor could ever ask for,” said Governor Brown. “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. This is truly a loss for me, for Anne, for our office, for Nancy’s family and close friends – and for all of California.”

Prior to joining the Brown Administration, Nancy worked in the administration of Gov. Gray Davis. Her return to California from Washington, D.C. coincided with the beginning of the state’s energy crisis. She marshaled resources to prevent black-outs, did battle with Enron, brokered needed action by federal agencies and the state’s congressional delegation, handled tense legislative negotiations and contract talks, and helped accelerate the development of new power plants.

Nancy’s political activism started during her time at San Jose State, where she was elected student body president. In that role, she mobilized a campus campaign that helped defeat Proposition 9, a measure that would have increased tuition and lobbied for the passage of a gay rights resolution – nearly three decades before it became legal in California.

In 1982, she became legislative director of the statewide California State Student Association, an organization of student body presidents from all CSU campuses, and then the organization’s first woman president.

Nancy graduated from San José State in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, going on to the University of Virginia Law School, graduating in 1987. She was on the Journal of Law & Politics.

Following law school, Nancy clerked for Judge John P. Wiese at the, U.S. Court of Federal Claims, John P. Wiese, and then joined the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers (OMM). On the advice of former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was at the firm, Nancy left to spend a year in Little Rock, Arkansas working on the campaign of the then-little known Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. She was the campaign’s deputy political director, directing the campaign’s surrogate operation. Political junkies can catch her at work in the documentary of the campaign, “The War Room.”

When Clinton was elected president, Nancy was tapped to serve in the U.S. Department of Justice, working closely with Attorney General Janet Reno as Deputy Associate Attorney General. She was featured in a January 1994 Washington Post profile titled “Who You Going to Call?” centering on behind-the-scenes movers and shakers in the Clinton Administration. Washingtonian magazine named her “one of the 40 Best Lawyers Under 40.”

A senior member of the Clinton Administration for eight years, she finished her tenure as deputy chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore for two years after serving as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Try being kinder,” Nancy said in her 2014 commencement address at San Jose State. “Be grateful. Live consciously and aware and not on the default setting of self-centeredness. Show courage and faith. Have purpose and passion. Trust in something… live life not for the accolades but for the experience itself. And never forget to laugh.”

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