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Stunning Blow for a Hired Gun

November 14, 1994|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rumors started last summer, just a few months after Clint Reilly took over Kathleen Brown's gubernatorial campaign. Soon, the talk was so prevalent that some people suspected that Reilly, a San Francisco-based political consultant, had started it himself.

Everyone knew that Reilly was a close friend of Tony Coelho, the ex-California congressman whom President Clinton had named chief strategist to the Democratic National Committee. Some speculated that with Coelho's help, Reilly--who helped elect the current mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco--could be positioning himself to manage Clinton's reelection effort.

There was one caveat: Before Reilly could burst onto the national stage, he would have to lead Brown to victory over Gov. Pete Wilson.

In the wake of Brown's crushing defeat, the talk swirling around the controversial Reilly could not be more different from the scuttlebutt of months past. Especially since a week or so ago, when a Clinton Administration official told reporters that "Reilly should be tried for political malpractice," the mercurial consultant's future has been widely debated among political insiders.

Spurring the criticism was Reilly's admission that he had to pull Brown's TV commercials off the air the last weekend before the election because the campaign was out of money. Many consultants found this appalling because the Brown campaign had raised $24 million--more than any other Democratic campaign ever in California.

Moreover, even campaigns with far less money had managed to save their firepower for the final weeks, when more voters were paying attention. By canceling its ad time, some say, the Brown campaign sent a signal that it was conceding defeat, thus allowing Wilson to divert more than $500,000 from his own effort to help Republican candidates for other positions get elected.

"This cost us probably the (state) Assembly, probably two down-ballot seats, and we pulled two others out by the skin of our teeth," said a political consultant who was involved in the campaign of another Democrat on the 1994 ticket.

"If Clint Reilly were a real estate agent and handled a client's money the way he handled the resources of this campaign, he would be sued and convicted for criminal malfeasance," said this consultant, who charged that Reilly had spent too much during the summer months, failing to save money for the end. The consultant noted that Reilly made a commission on every TV ad that was produced, so he had an incentive to produce a lot of them.

A Republican consultant echoed this view, saying Brown's money troubles--combined with the revelation that before Reilly signed on with Brown, he had discussed possible roles in the campaigns of Wilson and U.S. Rep. Mike Huffington--will "hurt Reilly with the Democratic Party."

"If he had won, they might have overlooked it," this consultant said. "But given how much money the campaign spent, and given that it ran out of money at the end, I think that will doom him from getting any major Democrats" in the future.

Reilly said that the criticism does not surprise him, but that it is misplaced.

"I get the credit when they win and I deserve a fair measure of the blame when they lose. . . . (But) in hindsight all things are clear," he said. He asserted that if Brown had aired ads during the last weekend, it would not have changed the outcome. And he said if she had not spent money during the summer months, she would have been even farther behind.

"After the primary, we were down by a sizable margin," he said. "And I think we correctly assessed that if we went passively through the summer we probably would have been behind 20 points. We would have been in an irretrievable situation."

Reilly declined to talk about how much money his firm made on the Brown campaign or on what Brown's loss would mean for his future.

Darry Sragow, who ran Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi's campaign against Brown in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said campaigns are far too big and complicated to be blamed on any one person. While he said political consultants' "rule No. 1 is you don't run out of money before you run out of campaign," he maintained that anyone who predicts Reilly's professional demise is a fool.

"I was answering these same questions the day after Clint Reilly fired Dianne Feinstein in public," said Sragow, who worked for Feinstein's gubernatorial campaign in 1989 when Reilly--then Feinstein's campaign manager--sent out a fax announcing that he was quitting.

"Everybody was saying any consultant who did what he did then is ejected, is out of here, is not running any campaign on the planet Earth. And he went on to work for Kathleen Brown. . . . He's been written off many times before. He's by no means dead."

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