The executive, Goldman's chairman of investment banking for the Midwest region, launched into a glowing endorsement of Gov. Jerry Brown, a liberal Democrat serving a third nonconsecutive term.
"That's a very positive report," Kathleen Brown recalled the woman saying. "I said: 'It should be. He's my brother!'"
Coming from someone else, say, a power-suited piranha of the genus more commonly associated with Wall Street, the story might have oozed derision for the ill-informed table mate. Brown, however, told it with the hearty laugh that suggests a grounded, more secure and battle-tested ego.
Brown built a public career in California, carrying on the family tradition of both her governor-brother and her governor-father, the late Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. But later she moved into private business, and now she's embracing her role as a Chicago-based flag bearer for Goldman Sachs in the Midwest.
"I've been in various out-of-state witness-protection programs, as I like to call it," she said. "When my father was elected governor, I went to Massachusetts. Now, to be here when my brother is governor, is just fine."
Brown is a senior leader on Goldman's Midwest investment banking team. Her specialty, however, is municipal finance, helping cities and states get money to build infrastructure or make other investments. That's the part of the business she handled in California, the leading issuer of municipal debt in the United States.
Even by Wall Street standards, having the sister of the California governor leading your California municipal finance team would not have passed ethical muster.
"Had she continued to work with California municipalities, it might have created the perception of a conflict of interest," Goldman spokesman Michael DuVally said when Brown's move was announced.
At first the plan was to simply carve out California state business from her portfolio, said Brown, 66. But Goldman was also looking for a senior investment banker for its Chicago office. When Goldman offered relocation and a broader role, the decision was easy, Brown said. She had a connection to the business community here, dating back to her days working for Bank of America.
Her husband, the widely respected and now retired former CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter, cut his teeth as a newsman in Chicago, first at the Daily News, then at WBBM. Brown recalled asking Sauter's thoughts on the proposed move.
"There was this very long pause," she said. "Then he said, 'I could be there by Sunday.'"
Sauter, who boasts that he was a judge for columnist Mike Royko's contest to find the ugliest dog in Chicago, said his years here were the happiest of his career as a newsman. (Royko, it happens, coined the moniker "Governor Moonbeam" for Jerry Brown.)
"Chicago is the great American city," Sauter said.
Brown is equally enamored of her new home.
"I like so many things," she said. "I think you start with the people. It's an embracing, warm, open city. And it's a city that loves politics. I have a genetic defect called the political gene."
Brown grew up in the spotlight, spending her teenage years in the governor's mansion in Sacramento, Calif. She showed a rebellious streak early when, at 19, she eloped with her first husband. She left Stanford University when he enrolled at Harvard Law School, eventually returning to graduate in 1969. Two children later, she began her political career, winning a seat on the Los Angeles City Board of Education in 1975.