Same as the Old Boss?

Why the new mayor should resist political pressure from the new shadow ayatollah of San Francisco politics, real estate mogul Clint Reilly

Last Tuesday, in what may have been meant as a final act of grace, Matt Gonzalez compelled members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pay tribute to Willie Brown. The comments they made constituted the most apt of last week's hail of Brown eulogies.

"Your signature and imprint on San Francisco life will be recognized for a long, long time," said Tom Ammiano, whose 1999 run for mayor was fueled by backlash against Brown.

"It's extraordinary how you've put your heart and soul into this job," said committed Willie foe Aaron Peskin, after wracking his brain for something nice to say.

"I can't help but think of all the political bodies you've served in," said Gerardo Sandoval, apparently without irony.

"Thank you for making me acting mayor for a couple days," said Jake McGoldrick, with clear ironic intent.

"I truly wish you well," said tersely diplomatic board President Matt Gonzalez.

Sophie Maxwell thanked Brown for teaching her how to avoid the appearance of taking bribes. Chris Daly, who inspired the most venom-filled of all the ex-mayor's public relationships, didn't attend. Brown's former director of neighborhood services, Bevan Dufty, said Brown was like the father he never had. Brown's other protégé on the board, now-Mayor Gavin Newsom, told Gonzalez he didn't feel well enough to give a tribute and sat silently.

With the close of the afternoon's feeble toasts, Willie Brown ended his mayoralty with the same status he held at the finish of his Assembly career: as a stylish symbol of poor public integrity. And amid all the social laughter, there seemed to echo the promise of a more idealistic era in San Francisco. A new mayor, the residual vigor of the progressive Matt Gonzalez campaign, the continued vitality of a new-blood Board of Supervisors -- all seemed to combine into something resembling political renewal.

But appearances can deceive.

Though he wasn't physically there last Tuesday, a political rainmaker very much in the style of old Willie Brown haunted the board meeting. This doppelgänger is also driven by insatiable ego, with only passing interest in public policy. He's a cynical master of the political and financial quid pro quo, a man fascinated with the exercise of power.

Willie Brown's departure coincides with a peculiar consolidation of influence by real estate speculator, campaign consultant, and former mayoral candidate Clinton Thomas Reilly. Without anyone seeming to notice, Reilly has taken steps during the past four years to become a sort of shadow ayatollah of San Francisco, enjoying an extraordinarily influential relationship with members of the Board of Supervisors and playing a clandestine, yet apparently significant, role in the candidacy and mayoralty of Gavin Newsom. Now, he appears to be cashing in chits, seeking to pressure Newsom to appoint his wife, Janet, to the new mayor's vacant supervisor seat. Whether or not Reilly succeeds, he apparently believes Newsom has reasons to seriously consider his wishes.

Reilly's defenders, many of whom have received money from him, see no harm in the Newsom connection. It's only natural a longtime player should wish to keep his hand in the pot, they say. His role in the Newsom campaign came at just the right time, this thinking says. And as for attempting to get his wife as proxy on the board, they say, she's qualified for the post. And, they insist, there is no fundamental conflict between Reilly's mayoral and supervisorial interests. The money, strategic advice, and friendship he offers at least half the members of the Board of Supervisors emerge from a personal desire to do good, according to this line of argument.

But Reilly's political and financial interests have always seemed, in the long run, to be closely aligned. He's a master at squeezing money from interest groups, dispensing favors to friends and sycophants, allying with business interests, and collecting debts along the way. If that pattern of behavior rings a bell, it should: Having Clint Reilly as a background power just might be as bad as having Willie Brown in the foreground.

Clint Reilly quit work as a professional political consultant after flubbing Kathleen Brown's 1994 campaign for governor. Now, he's a millionaire gadfly.

Two of the largest pieces of Reilly's estimated $100 million fortune suggest a mercenary approach to politics. In 1988, he earned $6 million for helping insurance companies in a failed attempt to defeat a consumer-protection ballot measure. And in 1990, according to the Los Angeles Times, Reilly sought work on behalf of a ballot measure known as Proposition I, which would have allowed the Catellus Corp. to build housing for residents and 4.8 million square feet of offices at Mission Bay.

When Catellus and the other developers supporting the proposition hired a rival consultant, Reilly turned around and became campaign manager for what turned out to be a successful effort to defeat the measure, spending $150,000 of his own money and, according to press accounts, attempting to conceal real estate investor Walter Shorenstein's role as the anti-office-development campaign's lead financial backer. Shorenstein, who owned 9 million square feet of San Francisco office space at the time, said Mission Bay would add to a "glut" of office space -- and, presumably, reduce the value of his own holdings.

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