LOS ANGELES — Former California Rep. Ellen O’Kane Tauscher — a centrist Democrat whose career took her from the New York Stock Exchange to Congress and then to negotiating major international nuclear arms treaties for the Obama administration — died Monday of complications from pneumonia at Stanford University Medical Center. She was 67.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, her longtime friend — and for whom Tauscher served as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs — mourned the loss of Tauscher, whom she called “a brilliant politician…one of the most effective and accomplished public officials I’ve ever known.”
Clinton told POLITICO in an interview Tuesday that she tapped Tauscher’s business and political acumen for tough negotiations with the Russians on arms control, and that Tauscher became “the most important person in getting us to the negotiation of the New START Treaty." In the talks surrounding what was then the first major agreement signed with Russia in more than two decades, Clinton said the former congresswoman showed an uncanny grasp of “the politics as well as the technology. … In my opinion, it would not have happened without her.’’
Tauscher, born in Newark, New Jersey, was the eldest of four children in an Irish-Catholic household led by her mother, Sally, a secretary, and her father, John, a grocery store manager. After graduating from Seton Hall University with a degree in early childhood education, she became one of the first and youngest women — at age 25 — to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She later served as an officer for the American Stock Exchange.
She married businessman William Tauscher — whom she later divorced — and had a daughter, Katherine. After moving to California in 1989, Tauscher — by then a working mom frustrated at being unable to find good child care — authored the Childcare Sourcebook and founded the first national research service to help parents verify the background of childcare workers.
But she developed a keen interest in politics, became a fundraiser and then successfully chaired her good friend Dianne Feinstein’s first two U.S. Senate campaigns, in a 1992 special election and in 1994. Feinstein said in a statement Tuesday that "when Ellen put her mind to politics, she was a force."
In 1996, she made a try for Congress herself in California’s 10th Congressional District — an East Bay suburban district long dominated by Republicans — in what was considered a long shot bid. “A millionaire former stockbroker and businesswoman, she looked, at first glance, like a Rockefeller Republican,’’ Time Magazine reported then. ”Her husband was actually a Republican. In 1996 Tauscher took on an incumbent Republican, attacked him for opposing abortion and gun control, and won a seat in Congress.”
Tauscher won the seat from Republican Bill Baker in what became the fourth most expensive race in the nation that year — with political observers suggesting that her winning pitch to Republican women, who lauded her “fiscally moderate, socially responsible” profile, was a key.
Tauscher’s business-friendly, centrist brand of politics, dubbed “Tauscherism,’’ boosted her national profile as a key voice of moderate Democrats in seven terms in Congress, and leader of the 60-member House New Democrat Coalition.
But her centrist views also regularly put her in open conflict with the party’s left wing. In 2006, the progressive blog Daily Kos vowed to find a Democratic primary challenger to Tauscher after she publicly urged her party members not to leap off a “left-wing cliff” after the party took control of the House.
Clinton recalled Tauscher had a brilliant political knack for being able to “thread the needle” between progressives and centrist House members, and to bring both sides together.
“It’s getting harder and harder to explain to people how to govern this raucous country of ours and find common ground — and she was absolutely an expert at that,’’ Clinton said. “Nancy [Pelosi] told me whenever there was anything hard in the Congress to deal with, she always had Ellen preside.”
As the only member of Congress with two national labs in her district — the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the California campus of Sandia National Laboratory — Tauscher chaired the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, responsible for oversight of the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile, missile defense program and the national labs.
Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who tapped Tauscher to chair his Military Council, told POLITICO via email that “Ellen was a friend, a great personality and a real force on critical issues that affect California — and the world. She’ll be greatly missed.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, a 2020 presidential candidate who represents the East Bay — and who served as an intern in Tauscher’s congressional office — told POLITICO in a statement: “I would not be where I am, or who I am, if not for Ellen Tauscher. ‘’
“When I joined her office as an intern in 2001, I was a college athlete unsure of what I wanted to do with my life,’’ he said. “The example she set with her public service, her leadership and her character inspired me to think beyond my own pursuits and set my goals around helping others….She broke the mold again and again.”
As Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, Tauscher managed the State Department’s interactions with the Pentagon and oversaw three bureaus of more than 600 foreign service officers; she also represented the United States at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations in May 2010, which produced what was widely hailed as the first consensus agreement in more than a decade.
The New Start treaty was signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev on April 8, 2010, while Tauscher — even as she suffered the devastating effects of treatment for Stage 3 esophageal cancer — continued to provide strategy and political counsel to the Secretary of State from her hospital bed, Clinton told POLITICO. “While she was fighting for her life,’’ Clinton recalled, “she was fighting to save lives from nuclear attacks around the world.”
After three years at the State Department working under Clinton, Tauscher served as a leading campaign surrogate for the former Secretary of State, her close friend, during the 2016 presidential race.
Even after leaving public life, Tauscher “went on to do all these amazing things…to negotiate an agreement between clothes makers and workers in Bangladesh, to create better treatment after the terrible fires that killed so many of the workers in the textile factories,’’ Clinton told POLITICO. “She worked with the University of California to make sure their national labs were operating at effectiveness; she continued to tackle tough problems and continued to bring her focus to it.”
Tauscher retired from public service, but also remained active on a number of prominent boards and commissions, including as the chair of Governor Jerry Brown’s Military Advisory Council, chair of the Board of Governors for Livermore and Los Alamos labs, and as a regent of the University of California.
She also held a number of seats on publicly-held corporate and non-profit board positions, including on the boards of Edison International/Southern California Edison, and Mt. View, CA-based eHealth. She was a member of the Board of Advisors of SpaceX, the Board of Directors of BAE Systems, Inc, NTI, and the Executive Committee of the Atlantic Council, as well as was vice chair of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
After her 2010 cancer diagnosis, she also became a member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and later a chair of the organization, advocating for more early detection and treatment of the disease.
“Bad things happen to everybody,” Tauscher later told the East Bay Times.. “I didn’t consider what happened to me be the worst thing, nor did I consider it something that would defeat me. It was a speed bump in my life.”
Her family said she died Monday at Stanford, surrounded by her daughter Katherine and family members, after a long bout with pneumonia.
In a statement, the family said that Tauscher “made a difference in the lives of her neighbors and perfect strangers who trusted Ellen with their votes and their futures. And she never let them down. You can see Ellen’s legacy in the lives made just that much better, that much safer, that much more secure in the East Bay, in California, in America, and across the world.”
Memorial services details have not yet been announced.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine