Nancy McFadden

Nancy McFadden, Gov. Jerry Brown’s top aide, leads a meeting in the governor’s office in the Capitol. Before working for Brown she held senior posts in the Clinton administration and at PG&E. (Robert Durell, For The Times / March 13, 2014)

By Anthony York
March 29, 2014, 6:25 p.m.

SACRAMENTO — Nancy McFadden begins most mornings on a conference call with other members of Gov. Jerry Brown’s inner circle, the governor occasionally chiming in from the background.

When Brown took office, the gathering, led by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, included compatriots plucked from different eras of his five decades in politics — his first tour as governor, the stint as Oakland’s mayor, four years as state attorney general.

Aside from Gust Brown, McFadden is the only remaining member of the original group. Although she was a relative newcomer to Brown’s world, she quickly became an indispensable insider. Over the last three years, she has cemented her role as his chief liaison to the Legislature and anyone else seeking Brown’s ear.

She is the top aide to a governor who shirks handlers, and many have cautioned against trying to channel the often-enigmatic Brown. But McFadden’s job is exactly that — “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,” she says.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief aide was Susan Kennedy, so influential that many viewed her as the de facto governor. Nobody says that about McFadden, a lawyer who is more broker than coach for a governor with decades of policy experience.

She is known for her finesse and shrewd political instincts. Brown said he values her breadth of experience, honed in backstage labor for the Clinton administration, former Gov. Gray Davis and energy giant Pacific Gas & Electric.

“You combine government experience, private-sector experience, legal skill and good judgment. And she knows how to write. That’s a rare combination,” said Brown, who praised her utility on the wide range of issues that come before a governor. “The way we work is very compatible.”

When Brown’s in the Capitol, McFadden works a quick two-step down the hall so he can easily pop in. When Brown is away, they’re in touch by iPhone, talking perhaps eight or 10 times a day about legislative issues and policy negotiations.

In meetings, when Brown spins off on an intellectual riff, McFadden has been known to catch his eye with a slight wave of the hand to nudge him back on track. And “I never hesitate to ask or repeat or go back to a subject or tell him what I think,” she said.

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