“She had that special ability to make you feel that you were the only person in the room when she was talking to you. It’s a very rare and unique gift,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff.
“It was that kind of friendly, collegial support that you don’t see much anymore,” recalled Clayton City Councilwoman Julie Pierce. “She not only reached across the aisle, she reached into her district deeply and helped everyone.”
Tauscher, a Democrat who represented parts of the East Bay in Congress from 1997 to 2009, died April 29. She was 67.
According to Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, Tauscher was involved in several major local transportation improvements, including the expansion of Highway 4 in East County, the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel and the Interstate 680 project down to the Santa Clara border.
DeSaulnier was a Contra Costa County supervisor – and registered Republican – when Tauscher asked him to co-chair a Republicans for Tauscher Committee in 1996. “I was more liberal than her, which was always fun,” he said with a laugh.
“I could see that the Republican Party was becoming more and more what it is today, which in my view is very limited and very conservative. It just wasn’t reflective of my values or her values,” he recounted. “So I felt very comfortable supporting her against a Republican.”
Pierce met Tauscher when she was running against Republican Bill Baker in 1996 and got to know her better through the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. Pierce noted that Tauscher’s dedication didn’t waiver after redistricting changed her constituency. “She was very interested in helping us with whatever we needed in Contra Costa.”
Tauscher left Congress to become the under secretary of state for Arms Control and International Security Affairs.
She was then a special envoy for Strategic Stability and Missile Defense at the State Department until August 2012.
As under secretary, Tauscher negotiated the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the first major agreement signed with Russia in almost 20 years. Mitchoff was in the audience when Tauscher spoke locally about her time at the State Department.
“She shared what she could, and I was just so impressed how wonderful she was doing. But it wasn’t about how wonderful she was doing, because Ellen never made it about herself,” Mitchoff said. “It was about how lucky we were to have her doing this very important work at this critical time in world history.
“There is so much that will be Ellen’s legacy,” she added. “But her work on nuclear arms control will be the paramount one.”
According to Mitchoff, Tauscher also played a critical role in helping the Democrats flip House seats in the Central Valley and Orange County last November. “It was her ability to pull the right people together and know the messaging that needed to be done.”
DeSaulnier said Tauscher’s people skills bolstered her success. “She related to all kinds of people – wealthy ones and people who weren’t wealthy. She had been both,” he noted. “For someone who had never run for office to make an impact so quickly speaks a lot about Ellen and her interpersonal skills.”
DeSaulnier paused, then said wistfully: “I miss her. She was a big presence in my life and in Contra Costa’s life.”
Two public services will be held for Ellen Tauscher:
10 a.m. May 20, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
2 p.m. June 6, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek. Reception to follow.
She will be laid to rest at Holy Cross Cemetery, North Arlington, N.J., with her parents, John and Sally O’Kane.
The family requests donations to the Esophageal Cancer Action Network at ecan.org or P.O. Box 243, Stevenson, MD 21153.