Four years ago, Nancy McFadden returned to her alma mater to receive an honorary doctorate and deliver the commencement address.
Though at the pinnacle of her career, working as the chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown, she urged the graduating students of San Jose State University not to forget kindness and gratitude as they changed the world.
"I hope you live life not for the accolades but for the experience itself,” she said, quoting a famous graduation address from David McCullough, Jr.: "'Climb the mountain not to plant the flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world and not so the world can see you.'"
"I hope you don’t let fear stop you," she added. "I hope you take a pause every so often and I wish you so much more than luck.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
The speech was a favorite memory of McFadden’s closest friends, a moment they felt captured the quintessential Nancy: an accomplished politico who cherished sharing her experience as a mentor, especially to young women; an avid traveler who could land an important deal one day and then jet off to see the world the next; a crucial figure in California government who was not concerned about receiving praise for her achievements, though she often deserved more credit than she got.
McFadden, who rose through the ranks in Washington and Sacramento to become Brown’s executive secretary during his final two terms in office, died Thursday night following a 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. 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.”
McFadden was born in Wilmington, Del., and moved to San Jose with her mother when she was 11, after her parents split. She studied political science at San Jose State University and got an early start in politics there: In 1979, she beat future Democratic strategist Joe Trippi in an election for class president that McFadden told the Spartan Daily was full of “dirty tricks” against her, including prank phone calls, tampering with her car and rumors about her running mate.
After graduating from law school at the University of Virginia, McFadden began a steady ascent in Washington, D.C., with a stint at the law firm O'Melveny & Myers. She left in December 1991 for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in Little Rock, where she worked on damage control after Clinton mistress Gennifer Flowers came forward.
Karen Skelton, who launched her career under McFadden's guidance at the U.S. Department of Justice, said McFadden showed courage when she dropped a promising legal career for Clinton's underdog campaign. Beneath the quiet exterior, she said, McFadden was warrior.
"I'm not saying she wouldn't kill you in a duel, but she was calm and serene, and she would be thoughtful about her move," Skelton said. "She's going to win."
McFadden joined the Clinton administration as a deputy associate attorney general and quickly established herself as the "go-to" person in the Justice Department, according to a 1994 feature in The Washington Post. She rose to general counsel for the Department of Transportation and then deputy chief of staff for Vice President Al Gore.
In a joint statement, former President Clinton and Hillary Clinton called McFadden 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." Gore wrote on Twitter that she was an "extraordinary public servant whose wise counsel I relied up on for much of the last 25 years."
In 2000, McFadden moved to Sacramento to help then-Gov. Gray Davis deal with California's mounting energy crisis.
Former press secretary Steve Maviglio said Davis needed someone with Washington connections to get the Clinton administration's attention in its waning days, and McFadden “actually brought a sense of order and strategic plan of how to get out of a situation where sometimes literally the lights weren’t coming on.”
“I still get twitches when I think about those days, because we were literally working 24/7 and we never knew what to expect,” Maviglio said. “The ability to bring people together in a time of crisis is what she’s good at.”
When California voters recalled Davis in 2003, McFadden continued to serve for a time as his adviser. She eventually joined Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as a senior public affairs and government relations executive. Gov. Jerry Brown — whom McFadden later admitted she thought was “a total wacko when he was running for president” — pulled her back to the Capitol.
“She always put public service first,” Maviglio said. “A lot of people say they want to change the world. Nancy really did.”
Since Brown’s return to the governor’s office in 2011 for a third and fourth term, McFadden had been his top aide, instrumental in corralling the Legislature to carry out the administration’s policy agenda.
She was also the “epicenter” of the office, former cabinet secretary Dana Williamson said, someone who led the team on priorities like overhauling California’s school funding formula while cracking everybody up by spontaneously bursting into dance in the middle of the hallway.
Williamson, who first worked under McFadden at PG&E, said she was like a “big sister”: willing to listen to anyone, lift up their ideas and have their backs on tough decisions.
“If you’re young, you’re old, you’re whatever, she doesn’t make you feel like what you have to say is misplaced or stupid,” Williamson said. “She would often pull us all in a room and say, ‘What am I missing?’”
Two of McFadden’s biggest accomplishments came last year, when she helped Brown push through a major gas tax increase to fund road repairs and an extension of the state’s signature climate change program, cap-and-trade.
As the gas tax deal appeared to falter at the finish line last April, McFadden arrived on the Assembly floor to convince a handful of holdout Democrats to vote for the controversial package. She spent weeks negotiating changes to cap-and-trade with Republicans and representatives from affected industries, such as oil and energy utilities, so that the bill could pass last summer with bipartisan support.
“We’d get one more vote and one more vote. She never once flinched,” Williamson said, even when people said the prospect of a bargain was dead. It is the biggest lesson she will take from McFadden’s example: “Don’t give up until you’ve exhausted every possibility.”
Public relations consultant Donna Lucas said that, during her more than three decades in Sacramento, she’s never seen anyone pull together deals like McFadden did. “I told her she should write a book about the art of the deal,” Lucas said.
McFadden laughed off her suggestion. “Well, I really would like to know how all these came together,” Lucas added. “She could see it. She knew timing.”
McFadden was exceedingly modest about her accomplishments, friends said. She chose the smallest office in the governor’s wing of the Capitol and turned her predecessor’s office into a conference room.
Maviglio described her as the “opposite” of the super egos one normally encounters in politics, a “velvet hammer” who kept her hard work behind the scenes and a “one-woman SEAL Team” any time the dealmaking got contentious.
But in recent years, she also become one of the more visible members of the Brown administration through her Twitter account, where she occasionally shared news and showed off her sense of humor with GIFs and memes. It was where, in January, she announced that she would be stepping back from her role at the Capitol as she managed ovarian cancer.
She was originally diagnosed in 2001, and the cancer returned four years ago. For a long time, it did not stop McFadden from doing the things she loved: hiking in Lake Tahoe, traveling to Italy and Asia, dancing at concerts for Paul McCartney and Gwen Stefani.
“She loved the beach. She loved going to the ocean and just watching the waves,” Maviglio said. “I think it provided a lot of tranquility in her life.”
McFadden sat on the board of her friend Maria Shriver’s health advocacy organization Women's Alzheimer's Movement, and did charity bicycle rides along Highway 1 for Best Buddies, Shriver’s nonprofit benefiting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She was a “phenomenal mentor,” Lucas said, who took time to grow talent and put people in key positions in California’s government.
“Nancy could walk in a room and talk to a president of the United States and hold her own, and then she could be talking to an intern in the office and treat them with the same respect,” she said.
Lucas said she keeps returning to an image of McFadden in Tahoe last summer, after Lucas had convinced her to jump into the lake. The water was cold, but McFadden plunged in with sheer joy: “Boom. Right over the side of the boat.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 6 p.m. March 26, 2018 to clarify that McFadden was quoting David McCullough, Jr. in her commencment speech.