As Jerry Brown’s most powerful adviser, Nancy McFadden shaped California and the world

Nancy McFadden, who was Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff and one of California’s least public and most influential figures, celebrating a legislative victory in the governor’s offices last year.
Nancy McFadden, who was Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff and one of California’s least public and most influential figures, celebrating a legislative victory in the governor’s offices last year.

Our world and the way we view it don’t just happen. There are people behind our government, our laws, our priorities.

Nancy McFadden, who died Thursday night at age 59, was one of those people, and one of the good ones. You will be forgiven if you don’t know her name; a gifted political and policy adviser for most of her adult life, she rarely emerged from the background.

But as chief of Gov. Jerry Brown’s staff for the past eight years, her influence shaped most of the major decisions that, in turn, shaped California and the world that looks to its example. The extension of the state’s cap-and-trade law, the rainy day fund, the state water bonds, the push to control public employee pensions. The taxes for schools and transportation, the ballot measures to reform criminal justice.

On these tough issues and more, she was the right hand and forger of consensus for a governor whose influence has been historic. Hers was the voice on the phone to wavering lawmakers, the name at the top of every list of the Capitol’s most powerful players, the face at the back of whatever room in which Brown was speaking.

Unlike so many in public life, she seemed not to mind being the person behind the person, though her many close and powerful friends urged her repeatedly over the years to run for office. Before her work in Brown’s second administration, she had been a key adviser to Gov. Gray Davis. Before that, she was deputy chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore. Before that, she advised the Clinton White House and was a go-to name in the Clinton Department of Justice. In a 1994 Washington Post feature on Beltway influencers, she was listed under the headline, “Who you gonna call?”

Those who worked with her admired her ability to transcend interpersonal drama, to cut through superfluous chatter and to see, as in a Venn diagram, where competing interests could work together. “She understood government and politics, she could manage, she was a diplomat and she was fearless,” Brown said.

And she was strong: In 2001, McFadden was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. Friends said she thought she had beaten it when she went to work for Brown in 2010. In 2014, she had a recurrence. The daughter of a divorced single mother who had worked extra shifts as a nurse in San Jose to support her family, McFadden scheduled her chemo for Fridays and went on to help Brown pass some of the most consequential legislation in California’s modern era.

In the ranch house in Sacramento’s suburban Pocket neighborhood where she lived with her younger brother, Bill, she hung a framed photo taken after state lawmakers voted last year to extend California’s landmark cap and trade system for curbing global warming. It is inscribed, “That time we saved the world.”

It wasn’t until January that she announced she would be stepping back, though not completely, to manage her health care. Even then, her friend Steve Maviglio told an editorial board member, his voice thickening, “she thought there would be some magic.”

“But there was no magic,” he said.

He and others who knew her well spoke of her love, not just of work, but of music and dancing, and the 4-foot Buddha she carted home once from Cambodia, and the scholarship funds she created for young people considering public service. Of the thoughtful gifts she bought for their children. Of her Christmas Eve parties, and the sea shells she treasured from a beach near Mendocino. Of the time she wept meeting the Dalai Lama, and the rosary next to her bed.

“Live life not for the accolades but for the experience itself,” she told the Class of 2014 at San Jose State University, where she got her undergraduate degree before moving on to the University of Virginia law school. “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,” said Nancy McFadden, who made a difference, “and not so the world can see you.”

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