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Last year, the multimillionaire citizen made a more successful foray into the public consciousness, filing a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping the Hearst Corp. from paying $66 million to Independent Publisher Ted Fang to "buy" Hearst's dwindling afternoon paper, the San Francisco Examiner, as part of a deal that would allow Hearst to purchase the much larger San Francisco Chroniclewithout breaking antitrust laws. Testimony in the highly publicized trial revealed that top Hearst executives and Brown discussed "horse-trading" favorable coverage of the mayor in return for his support of the newspaper sale. United States District Court Judge Vaughn Walker called the whole deal "malodorous." The judge ruled against Reilly on a technicality, but, in an unusual move, Walker awarded $2 million in attorney's fees and costs to the loser. News coverage of the suit generally portrayed Reilly as public-spirited and concerned with ethics. It was a true public relations coup.
Then, last fall, citizen Reilly met with more success, spending $340,000 on the district election cycle, funding "soft" money campaigns for several candidates who ran against and beat supervisors supported by Mayor (and longtime Reilly detractor) Willie Brown. Reilly was also the primary money-man behind Proposition L, a measure aimed at further limiting the development of commercial office space in the city. The proposition was narrowly defeated, but Reilly's support of it forged new ties to the city's so-called progressive groups and politicians.
Reilly is proud of his ties to the new supervisors ("I had no allies. Now I am electing people who are allies of mine!"), and says he wants to work with them to improve their images, lest they be sullied by the Chronicle, which, Reilly says, is trying to portray them as kooky. Mostly, though, Reilly is concentrating on improving his own image, which took a phenomenal beating during his run for mayor.
"I used to get a lot of puff pieces in the press," Reilly tells me on the way to a Warriors basketball game at the Oakland Coliseum, where he has season tickets. (The team lost, as usual, and we left early, not caring.) But after Bronstein broke his ankle, he claims, the puff pieces were suddenly filled with razor blades. In 1994, for instance, the Los Angeles Times ran a major profile on Reilly, written by Amy Wallace. Her first sentence labeled Reilly a "vitriol-spewing millionaire." Reilly complains that Wallace's long list of his sins gave too much credence to the opinions of his enemies. There is some truth to his beef. Considered in the long view, the profile does seem one-sided, at one point describing Reilly as "a walking cluster bomb."
Unfortunately for Reilly's image, the Los Angeles Times' account has become his semiofficial biography. Reilly blames the press for keeping his enemies' allegations that he is a violent and mean-spirited man alive.
During the final leg of the mayor's race in 1999, Willie Brown's chief campaign adviser, John R. "Jack" Davis, went on the record with an unsubstantiated accusation that Reilly beat up a woman 20 years ago. No medical or police records were produced. In fact, no woman, or name, was ever produced in public by Davis, who worked with Reilly on Frank Jordan's successful 1991 race for mayor. But Davis enjoys tremendous access to the local press, due in no small measure to his intimacy with Brown.
Reilly believes that reporters and editors for the Chronicle and the then-Hearst-owned Examiner were consciously or unconsciously biased against his candidacy because they wanted to please Davis, their reliable source, and Bronstein, the Reilly foe who ultimately became senior vice president and executive editor of the merged newspapers. Reilly also blames his campaign manager, Jim Stearns, for the domestic violence debacle, saying Stearns did not do a good job of answering the allegation, which was repeated endlessly in newspaper accounts, commercials, and mailers. "I was limp and passive. I stayed out of running my campaign last time," Reilly says. "But next time I won't."
(Stearns responds to Reilly's comments this way: "The responsibility for telling the city what happened 20 years ago rests with Reilly. He had ample opportunity to answer the charges. He was unable to do that." Bronstein says the Examiner's coverage of Reilly's 1999 candidacy was fair, and adds: "That's a bizarre theory to explain losing an election.")
As he blames others, Reilly consistently minimizes the responsibility he might have for the damage done to his image. He has admitted that he once had a drinking problem, but has never publicly addressed the charge that 20 years ago he broke his girlfriend's jaw. The way he usually deals with reporters who ask about the incident, Reilly says, is to go off the record, providing facts that supposedly show the incident is not what it seems. Reilly says the incident involved his then-girlfriend Gale Kaufman, a political consultant. He offers to explain further, off the record. I decline the offer; he declines to explain further, on the record. (All interviews for this article were on the record and tape-recorded.)
Reilly's concerns about the San Francisco press extend well beyond the prominent play given to Davis' woman-beating charges.
Both the Chronicle and the Examiner endorsed Brown for mayor, and Reilly is particularly bitter about the Examiner's gushing endorsement of Brown. There is some factual basis for his bad feeling. That endorsement was issued after the paper had criticized the mayor editorially for years, and after the paper had published months of reports on an FBI investigation of the Brown administration. Most galling to Reilly is a fact made public long after the mayor's race was over, during his antitrust lawsuit against the Hearst Corp.: The endorsement followed a lunch at which the Examiner's publisher, by his own sworn testimony, offered to "horse-trade" favorable editorial page treatment to the mayor, if the mayor would stop opposing Hearst's ultimately successful attempt to purchase the Chronicle.