Ellen Tauscher, a seven-term East Bay congressmember, and skilled diplomat who served as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs in the Obama administration, died Monday in Palo Alto. She was 67.
The cause of death was pneumonia, according to Politico. Tauscher had fought an extremely deadly form of esophageal cancer in 2010 and won, describing herself cancer-free a year later.
Tauscher represented the Tri-Valley, parts of Contra Contra County from 1996-2008. Her initial campaign against Republican Bill Baker was viewed as a long-shot in an area that was clearly more conservative than the rest of the East Bay. Alameda County Democratic Party officials believed their best shot was to recruit a “rich, white woman,” as the story is told today.
Tauscher fit the bill and her personal biography also spoke to women in the district. She had a trailblazing background in business. As a 25-year-old, she was one of the first women to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
Tauscher’s politics were also decidedly centrist, a fact that greatly aided her successful 1996 campaign, but later wore thin with progressives and labor unions in the East Bay.
But in facing Baker, Tauscher was able to make end-runs on issues such as gun control and education. Baker had opposed the Brady Bill, was pro-life, and had veered his platform on education toward allowing creationism over evolution in public schools.
Tauscher’s centrist politics, however, rankled progressives in her district. The opinion was strongly reinforced after an infamous photo of President George W. Bush placing his hand on Tauscher’s knee.
To progressives, the image, labeled by some as “The Caress,” underscored a prevailing belief that Tauscher’s politics were too cozy with the unpopular Republican administration.
The photo was snapped just prior to Tauscher issuing her support for the Iraq War in 2002. Tauscher and the late-Tom Lantos were the only members of the Bay Area Congressional caucus to support the war resolution.
As anti-war protests formed all over the Bay Area, Tauscher inflamed them, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “I don’t remember being elected to go to Washington to be a Democrat.”
The Washington Post later called Tauscher “Joe Lieberman in a pantsuit,” a reference to the centrist Democrat and former senator.
Tauscher’s down-the-middle politics, however, worked well as a diplomat. In 2009, Tauscher was confirmed as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs for the Obama administration.
She was credited in 2010 with the successful negotiations of a non-proliferation treaty with the Russian Federation, the first such agreement in two decades.
Hillary Clinton, who served over Tauscher as secretary of state, said, “Ellen came and made a difference in the lives of her neighbors and perfect strangers who trusted Ellen with their votes and their futures.”