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

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.

"We didn't have curtains," Joseph says, laughing. "People would knock at the door and ask if the house was for rent."

When Clint was 6, Bess, a Presbyterian, converted to Roman Catholicism; Joseph, who was born a Catholic, had fallen away from the church. "I was a pious nut," says Bess. "I said the rosary at the table."

The church became the center of family life. Clint and his ever-increasing tribe of siblings attended catechism classes and took the sacraments at St. Leander's church a few blocks away. Clint became an altar boy. In 1959, the Reillys moved into the house Bess and Joseph still inhabit, after one of Clint's sisters, Jill, succumbed to a brain tumor. "There was a lot of joy and heartache in our house," Bess remembers. "We were intense, that's the word. Clint is intense, too."

After Jill died, Clint decided to become a priest, and in 1960 left home to enter the seminary. Bess says that at the seminary, her son was most influenced by Monsignor Eugene Boyle, a priest who was close to Cesar Chavez and the civil rights movement of the turbulent 1960s. In fact, under an autographed picture of Boyle on the wall of the Reilly family home, there leans a "Clinton Reilly for Mayor" placard. "Priests should be involved in politics," says Bess. "They should be concerned about human beings and injustice in the world."

Interested in Monsignor Boyle's view of things, I drive down the Peninsula to St. Patrick's Roman Catholic seminary in Menlo Park, which is surrounded by 20 acres of palm trees and flowery gardens. The turn-of-the-century buildings are filled with fine wood furniture and woven carpet from Austria. The seminary is so richly appointed that it was made a pilgrimage stop in the Vatican's recent celebration of the 2,000th birthday of Christ.

A few blocks from the seminary I find Boyle, 79, in the apartment to which he retired after a half-century as a well-known advocate for social justice. Boyle met Reilly while teaching social action seminars at St. Patrick's in the mid-1960s; he has been Reilly's spiritual mentor and political sounding board for more than 30 years.

"Clint was always a leader," says Boyle. "A leader has to be tough. Controversial."

In 1968, under Boyle's guidance, Reilly and a group of his fellow seminarians wrote the "Little Kerner Report," which detailed race-based poverty in San Francisco. Mayor Joseph Alioto was furious at the attention the report received in the press. He called it "Chicken Littleism."

Then, in the early 1970s, Reilly helped Boyle weather an international media storm. A children's coloring book that contained an "Off the Pig" (that is, kill the police officer) page was "discovered" in the basement of Boyle's Western Addition church. The priest had allowed the controversial Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to run a breakfast program in that basement. Reilly acted as the monsignor's media spokesman in the affair, which ended when a congressional investigation revealed that the coloring book had been planted by the FBI.

I drive back to San Francisco, wanting to ask Clint Reilly for his thoughts on making the transformation from priest-in-training to community activist to famous political consultant, and on some observations his mother made while discussing the same transformation. Among other things, she said she was not surprised that her son is often described as abrasive. "Clint can't tolerate petty people," she said. "He's not into small talk. He's not beholding. He pushes people; you know, you have to."

But what haunts me is something else she said about her first-born son: "People do not really like him. He's not lovable."

"I left the seminary in 1969 because I wanted to make history, not bless it," Clint Reilly says, sitting in the mahogany-paneled conference room of Clinton Reilly Holdings atop the Merchants Exchange, the downtown office building that represents the bulk of Reilly's wealth.

In those days, he says, the seminary was a real cloister. "I was taking the same classes Boyle had taken 25 years before," remarks Reilly. "We were up at 5:30 a.m. for chapel, prayer, meditation, and Mass -- all before breakfast. Once a month we were allowed a three-hour walk in town. We were not allowed to watch television. All books had to be approved."

In the mid-'60s, things started to open up as Pope John XXIII liberalized the church. In Mass, Latin replaced English. Modern philosophy made its way past the rectors of St. Patrick's. Reilly became a philosophy nut.

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