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

Reilly also remains angry about the Chronicle's pre-election profile of him, written by Susan Sward, which essentially mirrored the image painted by the Los Angeles Times several years before. In the Chronicle profile, Sward portrayed Reilly as someone who was feared far and wide for his skill in manufacturing campaign hit pieces. To refute this allegation, Reilly takes me to his personal archive, several rows of filing cabinets that contain almost every piece of campaign literature he ever wrote. He says that he did not attack candidates personally, or on the basis of race, sex, religion, or other inherent attributes, and a random review of the archive seems to support his contention.

But the same review shows that Reilly was certainly a master of the negative campaign. The cover of one glossy pamphlet, for example, features a toothless homeless man in Los Angeles standing near a shopping cart; inside the pamphlet are a series of photos depicting murder victims, graffiti, police officers, and uncontrolled riot fires. This picture of urban hell is blamed entirely on city Councilman Mike Woo, who was running against Reilly's candidate for mayor, Riordan.

The negative campaign waged against mayoral candidate Reilly was personal, to say the least. It painted him as violent, unprincipled, even loony. ("A political consultant for Mayor? That's nuts!" was the core slogan.) Reilly says he now considers the personal attacks to be "a necessary rite of passage." He is sure the charges will not stick a second time around.

Unless, he adds, the San Francisco press keeps them alive.

For the next 30 minutes, Reilly paces the conference room, anxiety all but shimmering in the air around him. "I hated the Examiner [when it was still owned by Hearst]," he exclaims. "Bronstein, Rob Morse, Scott Winokur, John Jacobs, James Finefrock, Will Hearst -- these are little people." He expresses similarly uncharitable feelings about the Chronicle's managing editor, Jerry Roberts, and its legal reporter, Reynolds Holdings, who covered Reilly's antitrust lawsuit against Hearst. According to Reilly, his worst enemies are now gathered together at the Chronicle, which wields monopoly power over the business of image-making in San Francisco.

"I leave myself vulnerable by running for public office," he observes. "San Francisco is such a small place, everything gets personalized."

Yes, it does.

It's a few days later; Reilly is driving me toward his home in his black Mercedes. A few hundred yards from his house, he swerves down a cul-de-sac.

"See that green house?" he growls. "That's where Bronstein and Sharon Stone live."

A man appears in the driveway of the green house.

"I think that's him!" Reilly exclaims, and then peels away, red-faced.

Janet Reilly, 36 years old, blond, and fashionably attired, gives me a tour of the Reillys' Sea Cliff home, which features a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Janet, who is due to give birth to a second child any day now, is very hospitable, but the pin-clean house has a sterile flavor. Nothing is visibly out of place, even in the master bedroom. It's kind of like ... an art gallery.

Almost every wall in the mansion displays an abstract expressionist painting. These are not soothing pictures; the Reilly art collection -- valued at well over $1 million -- is dark. In the living room, for example, a plaster humanoid screams silently from deep inside some private hell.

Janet jokes about the omnipresent art. It relaxes Clint, she says.

Janet and the house and the art collection are important parts of The Image that Reilly is refining for his next stab at the mayoralty. The Image is a collage of bits and pieces of his real life, artfully glued together, Reilly admits, to appeal to a certain demographic. To Reilly's horror, though, unwanted scraps from his real life keep attaching themselves to the collage, messing it up.

Fixing The Image, Reilly believes, is simply a question of technique.

"The best campaigns are a two-edged sword," Reilly says. "They sum up a candidate's strengths in terms of his opponent's weaknesses. Take the brilliant slogan "Coke, It's the Real Thing.' Its claim for authenticity implies the opposite of Pepsi."

In the 1999 mayor's race, Reilly used a double-edged formula to mold his image and guide his campaign. He attacked Brown as ineffective and corrupt, while at the same time putting forth his own programs for reforming Muni and the city's homeless policy. But, in the face of mud slung Reilly's way, being the Anti-Brown was not enough.

Reilly admires former President Bill Clinton for the way he handled personal attacks with political responses. "He essentially did almost nothing in office, yet he had a 65 percent approval rating, despite Lewinsky! That's because he targeted the economic self-interests of the middle class."

Reilly wants to define himself as a champion of the middle class, too.

"The power of leadership has been enormously cheapened," Reilly remarks. "Government and politics have been marginalized by the constant muckraking of the post-Watergate press. Voters are skeptical. They do not want their tax dollars spent on charity for the poor. They want college tuition and health care subsidies for themselves. They want more police on the streets and the death penalty."

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