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The Tortured Soul Of A Hired Gun : Clint Reilly Is One Of The Most Powerful--and Feared--political Operatives In California. He Is Also His Own Worst Enemy.

October 02, 1994|AMY WALLACE | Times staff writer Amy Wallace is covering the California gubernatorial campaign. Her last article for the magazine profiled videodating king Jeffrey Ullman

To understand political consultant Clinton Reilly--the hard-charging, number-crunching, message-honing, score-evening, candidate-firing, vitriol-spewing millionaire who is running Democrat Kathleen Brown's campaign for governor--the autumn of 1993 is a good place to start.

One year before Election Day, Reilly was looking for work. Fresh from Los Angeles, where he had helped Richard Riordan beat the odds and become mayor, the San Francisco-based strategist had no major California clients. The problem was, in partisan races at least, he worked almost exclusively for Democrats, and the Democrats at the top of the ticket--Kathleen Brown and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein--had already hired their campaign teams.

Shut out, Reilly then did what no other political player in California would dare to do--he met with Joe Shumate, a top adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson, and discussed if he could play a role in reelecting the state's top Republican. Weeks later, he talked to Congressman Michael Huffington about managing his campaign for Feinstein's seat. Reilly had consorted with the Republican enemy. In his business, that just isn't done. "It's like the Hatfields and McCoys," says Wilson's campaign manager, George Gorton. "You switch sides, and neither side trusts you." Then, Reilly switched sides again. Last March, a few months after talking to Wilson's forces, he stepped in to rescue Brown's floundering campaign.

It was the kind of maneuver that has made Reilly one of California's most feared and envied political consultants--and one of the most brilliant. If you don't believe it, just ask him. To hear Reilly talk, he is to other consultants what L'Oreal is to Prell--the one candidates hire because they're worth it. He's the big gun, the closer, the one you call when money is no object. And Reilly lives up to his own hype just often enough to make it seem true.

In more than two decades, Reilly has run winning campaigns for some of California's best-known politicians, including Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Tony Coehlo, Bill Honig, Robert Matsui, Nancy Pelosi and David Roberti. He has helped elect the current mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Even his sharpest critics say Reilly knows the California electorate--where it lives, how it thinks, why it votes--as well as any political operative in the state. Reilly knows how to reach people, and that's what politicians pay him handsomely to do. The 47-year-old son of a Bay Area milkman wears Italian suits, drives a lipstick-red Jaguar and lives just down the street from Robin Williams in a three-story Seacliff home that looks out at the Golden Gate Bridge.

More powerful than many candidates he's helped elect, more influential than most Democratic party officials, Reilly epitomizes the modern campaign consultant. His loyalty lies not with his party but with himself, and his egotism is legendary. So is his paranoia. He is "Nixonian," says one colleague. "Queeg-like," says another. State Sen. Quentin Kopp, a former client, refers to him fondly as "Satan."

In what is essentially an anonymous profession, Reilly has a knack for attracting attention, and not all of it flattering. In 1988, he managed--and lost--what remains the most expensive political campaign in state history, the insurance industry's $63.8 million effort to beat back reform. (Reilly's firm netted at least $6 million). In 1989, after working for months on Feinstein's gubernatorial campaign, he noisily fired the candidate, faxing a press release to the media that claimed she lacked the gumption to become governor. (They haven't spoken since.)

Last year, Reilly went to the San Francisco Examiner for a talk with Publisher William R. Hearst and Executive Editor Phil Bronstein. Reilly left on a stretcher with a broken ankle that required nine screws and a metal plate to fix. Though subsequent litigation never established whether Bronstein or Reilly was the aggressor, it did reveal that Reilly injects testosterone, a tidbit that only enhanced his fearsome reputation. (According to Reilly, his doctor prescribes the injections to correct a hormone imbalance.)

"When the opponent knows you have (him) on your side, a chill goes up their spine," says San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan. "He's certainly better to have inside the tent than outside."

Now, Reilly faces his toughest test. Can he reinvigorate Kathleen Brown's once promising campaign and propel her to victory? If he succeeds in electing the first woman governor of California, one thing is sure. Nothing will stand in the way of Clint Reilly. Except, perhaps, himself.

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