Nancy McFadden: A fearless trailblazer and loyal friend

Gov. Jerry Brown discusses a bill with advisor Nancy McFadden, left, at his Capitol office in Sacramento in September 2014. McFadden, the chief of staff to Brown, died Thursday.
Gov. Jerry Brown discusses a bill with advisor Nancy McFadden, left, at his Capitol office in Sacramento in September 2014. McFadden, the chief of staff to Brown, died Thursday. AP file

Nancy McFadden was 10 years old when she moved from the East Coast to California with her divorced mother and brother. When she gave the commencement speech at San Jose State University in 2014, she talked about how scary that move was, and how “at every big fork in the road in my life – at every point of my life – I’ve known fear.”

That included her frightening diagnosis in 2002 of the cancer that took her life on Thursday. But one thing about McFadden that everyone knows for sure: Fear did not control her.

Karen Skelton

She was born with a calm, resilient, scrappy temperament. She was even-keeled in a family living paycheck to paycheck. I’m not saying she wouldn’t kill you in a duel, but she was serene and exact while chaos might rumble around her.

She graduated from San Jose State and the University of Virginia law school, clerked for a federal judge and worked at the prestigious O’Melveny & Myers law firm in Washington, D.C. In December 1991, she left her safe law practice for the Bill Clinton presidential campaign, where she became deputy political director.

She never looked back. One of the most important decisions Clinton made after he was elected was to make McFadden his top appointee at the Department of Justice, trusting her to turn on the lights in the most important public law firm in the world. She was just 34.

The Justice Department of the early Clinton administration was tumultuous: the failed nominations of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood to be attorneys general, the abrupt dismissal of all U.S. attorneys, the humiliating resignation of Hillary Clinton’s former law partner Web Hubble, the 51-day siege in Waco, Tex., that left 76 dead, the capture and conviction of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the capture and conviction of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the Oklahoma City bombing. McFadden was a stabilizing force at Attorney General Janet Reno’s side throughout these tough years.

And there were those she helped, like me. She gave me opportunities most female lawyers didn’t have at the time – to implement executive orders, prosecute crimes and enforce environmental laws. I got lucky when she became my boss a second time when she was the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

And in a turn of great luck for California, McFadden agreed to return to California in 2001 to serve in the Gray Davis administration during the days of Enron and power outages.

Yet it was in the Jerry Brown administration that she hit her stride. “Some American governments can actually get stuff done,” Brown said in his final State of the State address in January, and I couldn’t help thinking he was tipping his hat to her, the great “doer” in all her government service.

They had a successful, prolific partnership – erasing a $27 billion deficit, extending cap and trade to combat climate change, raising the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. She loved winning battles that would do some good for others, especially those, like her, of humble means. She mentored hundreds of women. Just look at the Brown administration, a breeding ground for female professional advancement.

Private about her own life, she was magnanimous about helping others. She cherished “her family of friends,” flying across the country to sit at bedsides, driving hundreds of miles to help a goddaughter, showing up time and again with thoughtfulness. On the night of the 2000 election, with the presidency hanging in the balance with all those chads, McFadden made sure that friends, former staff and colleagues surrounded Al and Tipper Gore to give them much needed love and support.

McFadden was been the ballast in many storms – personal, professional, and political. In back rooms where compromise seemed elusive, if not impossible, she could find a deal because she was unflappable. Where others might steam, she would think and then make her move.

It is not surprising that the last place she wanted to go before she died was to the ocean, where she sat on a piece of driftwood amidst the sound of crashing waves. She was at peace in a place she felt most at home. Not afraid.

Karen Skelton is founder of Skelton Strategies in Sacramento, the former CEO of The Shriver Report and a former political adviser to Al Gore and Bill Clinton. She can be contacted at

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