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Who Is Clint Reilly, Really? 

He's running for mayor again, and this time he wants to define himself, before his enemies do it for him

Wednesday, Feb 21 2001
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My leather-jacketed host, Clint Reilly, taps a code into the security system that unlocks the metal gate to his 120-acre estate in Napa County. In his black Mercedes sedan, we climb past hillside vineyards and through a pine forest, emerging on top of Mount Veeder, where we park in front of a chateau.

Two years ago, Reilly paid $3 million for the alabaster building, custom-designed by London architect David Connor in 1988 for the heir to a Swedish bread fortune. The heir, now dead, had a thing about boats. The twisting concrete pathway snaking to the house is flanked with nautical navigation lights. The house itself is shaped like a huge ship, wide in the stern, pointed in the bow. Inside, the walls careen off one another at crazy angles. Art by Andy Warhol and Ray Lichtenstein adorns the sunlit rooms, which are furnished in a 1950s motif. Reilly, 54, chuckles as he shows me around his off-kilter home, in which form is untethered from function. "It's very modern," he keeps saying.

I sit in the living room. To my left, hangs a rare Warhol print of Marilyn Monroe, clashing colors forming a composite image of the actress, who looks as if she's wearing a red mask. To my right, the eyes of Mao Zedong peer out of a blue face with green lips.

"Mao was a great leader -- with flaws," says Reilly. I ponder the contradiction of a commercial landlord worth $100 million admiring the Great Helmsman as we go outside, where a concrete pool in the garden stretches away from the ship-house toward a 50-foot tower, the guesthouse, which is pierced by a long nautical spar, making a cruciform. Or, maybe, a crucifix.

As Reilly and I ascend a stairway up the cross, he explains that he wants to be seen as the common man he believes himself, at heart, to be, but that view has been hard to get across, because common people are envious of his wealth. The comment comes toward the end of a series of lengthy interviews last month, interviews in which Reilly described himself as a philosopher, a community-minded businessman, a loving son and father, an art collector ... and a candidate, for a second time, for mayor of San Francisco. Excruciatingly aware that he lost his first run at the Mayor's Office, in large part, because his political enemies succeeded in defining him as a wealthy, cynical, ill-tempered misogynist, Reilly openly acknowledges that he hopes to alter his public image, so it matches more closely what he believes himself to be. And Reilly clearly believes himself to be a public-spirited citizen who has paid exorbitantly and unfairly for a few minor character flaws blown out of proportion by his detractors and complicit media organizations.

Reilly has long been a central figure in San Francisco's politics of disgruntlement and grudges. Of late, his involvement has been especially prominent: He's used hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to bankroll political candidates and electoral propositions and, even, an antitrust lawsuit aimed at his adversaries, among them Mayor Willie Brown, many Brown aides and supporters, and (at least in Reilly's mind) several executives at the San Francisco Chronicle. His failed 1999 race against Brown and two late campaign entries, Supervisor Tom Ammiano and former Mayor Frank Jordan, is near-legendary for its viciousness, with Reilly repeatedly calling the mayor corrupt, and Brown campaign guru Jack Davis accusing Reilly of viciously beating a girlfriend two decades earlier.

Despite the investment of millions of dollars of his personal fortune, and despite years of prior experience as a campaign consultant, Reilly took a personal and political beating in the mayor's race, some of it warranted, much of it obviously unfair. I wanted to spend time listening to Reilly -- hoping, frankly, to like what I heard -- because I knew many reasons to be suspicious of his most dedicated detractors. And over time, it became clear to me that Reilly is not, in fact, the one-dimensional, money-grubbing, woman-beating devil that his opponents created during the mayor's race. Neither is he the mistreated, misunderstood, service-oriented savior of San Francisco he would have the public see, in advance of his run for mayor in 2003. Those images are just that -- images, created by political professionals, and meant for easy, unthinking consumption.

The real Clinton Thomas Reilly -- at least, the Reilly who came through in 25 hours of interviews -- seems an intelligent, carefully controlled self-contradiction with a simmering temper. He's a Roman Catholic who supports gay rights and a woman's right to choose, a political candidate who quotes Martin Heidegger and St. Thomas Aquinas, an owner of fine art whose taste has a high gauche quotient, a successful businessman who has supported "progressive," anti-business causes. He is openly calculating in his quest for the Mayor's Office -- his agreement to be interviewed at length was, in fact, a thought-out, acknowledged attempt to change his public image for the better -- but his motives for enduring the intense pain of San Francisco politics seem utterly personal, almost beyond his control. He says he wants to be mayor to accomplish good, to do what is right, but, as his own statements make clear, he is pursuing public office for his own sake, not yours. He fervently wants your support, but he wants you to support him because he is who he is, and not for what he would do, specifically, as mayor. In fact, he seems not to have a clear idea of what he will do if he gains the Mayor's Office -- except to keep away from the enemies who, he knows, abound in the city's political and journalistic jungles.

He is someone who could own a ship-shaped country manor full of Warhols, believe he possesses the common touch, and be angry when you do not agree.


Blue-eyed, soft-spoken, 75-year-old Bess Reilly, who is Clint's mother, and Joseph Reilly, his 74-year-old father, have agreed to share coffee and cookies with me in the living room of their small house in San Leandro, and to talk about their son. The oldest of 10 children, Clint was born in 1947 into a family his parents describe as, at best, lower working class. "We were poor because we had so many kids," Bess says. Joseph worked as a milkman; Bess sold hot dogs at the Oakland Coliseum.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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