Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

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

Wednesday, Jan 14 2004
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.

In 1995, Shorenstein was involved in a transaction that also helped build Reilly's current fortune, selling his Prop. I campaign manager the 16-story Merchants Exchange Building in downtown San Francisco for $18 million. The building's value would be estimated at more than $70 million just five years later, according to an exhaustive 2001 profile of Reilly by SF Weekly's Peter Byrne.

As Reilly's net worth exploded, he went on a San Francisco politics spending spree, beginning gingerly with sundry cash gifts to causes such as the losing 1998 campaign to save the Central Freeway, then spending $4 million of his own money on a 1999 mayoral campaign that earned him only 12.5 percent of the vote. Reilly blamed his defeat on Willie Brown, whose campaign portrayed him as an unbalanced abuser of women. The following year Reilly sought revenge by spending tens of thousands of dollars on Board of Supervisors candidates and ballot initiatives opposed by Brown.

When the dust cleared, Reilly emerged as a local kingmaker, having been the major supporter of new Supervisors Tony Hall, Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin, Sophie Maxwell, Chris Daly, and Gerardo Sandoval. He has remained their supporter and strategist-confidant.

Unlike other political mercenaries who ask for favors as soon as their chosen candidate takes office, Reilly has adopted a Svengali-Buddha approach to his political stock-picking. The consensus is that he has yet to ask supervisors for anything significant in return for his patronage, a stance that has only bound him tighter to his protégés.

In interviews for this column, even the most ordinarily straight-shooting of San Francisco politicians spoke with great deference for Reilly, citing his political wisdom, his selfless support for candidates and causes, and the public service potential, in her own right, of Janet Reilly.

If you want to see something neat, type the name "Megan Levitan" into the Google Internet search engine, and after the results come up, look at the top right-hand corner of the screen. Now try "Michela Alioto," or the names of any other possibilities for Newsom's District 2 seat. The paid Google advertisements that sometimes pop up in the corner of your screen are online political résumés for Janet Reilly, a former public relations flack, and for Clint Reilly himself.

The Reilly Web sites were recently registered by Andrew Hasse, who in 1999 cybersquatted on domain names potentially useful in that year's mayoral race, such as,, and At the time Hasse had hoped to become a political operative. Perhaps mindful of Frank Jordan's comment about Clint Reilly ("He's certainly better to have inside the tent than outside"), Hasse offered his services to both camps in that year's mayoral race, and Reilly brought him into the fold. It's safe to assume Reilly liked Hasse's style. "Attack, then embrace" has been Clint Reilly's hallmark political strategy, and it now appears to be playing itself out once again.

This spring, Clint Reilly hired an opposition research firm to do $30,000 worth of digging for skeletons in the closet of Gavin Newsom. Reilly then (it was alleged) stiffed the research firm for half the fee, the firm sued, the case made it into the papers, and suddenly it became public knowledge that the most feared political operative in California was assembling a black-book dossier on Newsom.

The possibilities were tantalizing. Did Reilly have dirt on Newsom's once-close relationship with and subsequent distancing from oil scion Billy Getty? Was there anything untoward in Newsom's Getty-financed business empire? What about the way Newsom's dad has managed the Gettys' holdings?

The next time Reilly's name surfaced in connection with Newsom, however, Reilly was being described as an important element within the mayor-to-be's campaign.

According to a variety of sources, all of whom asked not to be identified, Reilly provided fund-raising and strategic support for the Newsom campaign. He held at least one fund-raiser for Newsom, and he was occasionally seen around the campaign office. By press time neither Newsom's office, nor Clint Reilly, had returned calls requesting comment for this column. Whatever Reilly's role within Newsom's camp, that he did not support his progressive protégés as they backed the mayoral campaign of Matt Gonzalez was surely a key to Newsom's November victory.

Now, Reilly seems to be calling in favors.

Earlier this year, at the urging of Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, the supes appointed Janet Reilly to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District Board. According to a bridge board source, Reilly is the member who has the least knowledge about the transportation issues that come before the panel, yet the one given greatest deference by the other board members.

"They know she's married to this big-time political consultant," the bridge board member says.

Janet may well derive happiness from her marriage. But San Francisco will receive nothing but grief if it remains in bed with Clint Reilly.

About The Author

Matt Smith


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"