The 46-year old chief of staff to House Minority Leader John Boehner, Paula Nowakowski, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday night, stunning friends and associates of the longtime Capitol Hill insider.
Boehner expressed “profound sadness and shock” in a statement Sunday. He called Nowakowski his “longtime chief of staff, trusted aide and friend.”
“Words cannot adequately express the sorrow and disbelief I and every member of our team are grappling with today in the wake of this stunning news,” Boehner said.
President Obama called Boehner Sunday to express condolences.
Friends of Nowakowski, reached by phone Sunday, were in shock to the point of speechlessness.
Newt Gingrich, a former Republican House speaker from Georgia, said Nowakowski “brought a passion for freedom, a warrior’s courage, a seasoned professional intellect and an enormous devotion both as a Catholic and as a Republican activist.”
“We will miss her and our prayers go out to her family and her friends who are all devastated by this sudden and unexpected loss,” Gingrich said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, said “the entire Capitol Hill community is shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Paula Nowakowski.”
“Paula earned the respect not only of her leadership and conference, but all House members on both sides of the aisle,” Pelosi said. “Paula was a thorough professional who loved the House and worked in a constructive and bipartisan fashion to implement policies to help the Congress function efficiently.”
Nowakowski was a staffer at the Republican National Committee in 1994 when Republicans took over the House in a historic election. In 1995, she became communications director for the House Republican Conference, which was chaired by Boehner at the time.
After Boehner lost his spot as chair of the conference in 1998, Nowakowski went to work for the American Insurance Association until 2001. She came back to Capitol Hill to work for Boehner again, as staff director of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
When Boehner was elected majority leader in February 2006, she became his chief of staff, the position she held at her death.
During the Bush administration, she was a conduit into the White House because through Barry Jackson, a former Boehner staffer who became a top Bush adviser.
Nowakowski, in a December 2007 interview, said of Jackson: “We always used to joke he was the director of strategery.”
Boehner called her “a tireless worker, faithful friend, rabid Detroit sports fan, whip-smart strategist, warrior for freedom and devoted Catholic who counted President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II among her greatest heroes.”
“She will never be replaced, or forgotten,” he said.