Novice takes on incumbent

June 28, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SAN FRANCISCO -- For more than 20 years, Clint Reilly was the classic political hired gun. Behind the scenes, he ran campaigns for such prominent California Democratic candidates as Dianne Feinstein and Kathleen Brown, and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, as well as many critical ballot initiatives.

Now, in a rare role reversal, Mr. Reilly has put campaign consulting for others behind him and is running himself for mayor of San Francisco, challenging the flamboyant and controversial incumbent, Willie Brown. In the process, he is treating as inapplicable to political hired guns the old axiom of the legal profession: the definition of a fool is a lawyer who takes himself as a client.

He has a campaign manager, but it is clear from talking to Mr. Reilly that he is going to be a hands-on candidate. He has already run television ads on local cable stations to raise his name recognition, already high in the inside world of politics but low among San Francisco voters.

From a blue-collar family with deep roots in the city, Mr. Reilly says he is running because he had enough of being on the inside of politics and yearns to get into public service himself. But others say a strong dislike of the mayor, going back to Mr. Brown's years as assembly speaker in Sacramento, is a key motivation.

Under Mr. Brown, Mr. Reilly says, "the perception of our quality of life has declined. We have one of the worst homeless problems in the country and there's a real whiff of corruption the city hasn't seen in years." He accuses Mr. Brown of cutting sweetheart deals with local unions and mushrooming the city budget with cushy jobs for cronies.

Whatever the cause, Mr. Reilly sees political opportunity knocking because Mr. Brown's popularity has dropped sharply, only 28 percent favoring him in a recent poll. Mr. Brown, a fashion-plate celebrity in a town known to one and all here simply as "Willie," is usually an avid pursuer of publicity, but currently he is hunkering down.

One reason could be that he hopes other San Franciscans will get into the race and split the anti-Brown vote. Former Mayor Frank Jordan, a relative conservative who lost to Mr. Brown in 1995 and is a former Reilly client, is considering a rerun. The president of the board of supervisors, Tom Dammiano, is also being urged to try by the large gay and liberal community here.

Mr. Reilly says, "I've always wanted it to be one on one [against Mr. Brown]. I think there's a 45 percent anti-Brown feeling out there." In any event, Mr. Reilly says, he hopes to be in a runoff with the mayor, which will take place in December if no candidate gets a majority in the November election.

"I think if Brown is forced into a runoff, he'll lose," Mr. Reilly says. "Willie has the flamboyant national image, and he gets lionized by the national media, but his whole act is wearing thin. He's good on the stage show, but he hasn't rolled up his sleeves and done the job."

Mr. Reilly cites a 7.7 percent rise in the city budget as evidence of Mr. Brown's mismanagement and attacks him for the city's beleaguered Municipal Railway, known as Muni, plagued with accidents. Mr. Brown, disputing Mr. Reilly's criticisms, boasts of a 40-percent cut in crime and a 50-percent drop in unemployment during his tenure.

The mayor unabashedly touts his reputation as a character, using as his campaign slogan, "He's One of a Kind." He has strong Democratic establishment support, starting with President Clinton and the governor, so Mr. Reilly, who has made enemies as well as friends within the party, has his work cut out for him.

Mr. Reilly says he actually has not worked as a political consultant for about four years, during which time he has become a real-estate magnate who has done so well that he now owns the downtown San Francisco skyscraper where he has moved his lucrative business.

Mr. Reilly admits that his old reputation as a political consultant is a drag on him because the profession has fallen into such disrepute with voters. So he is bent on selling himself to the voters as a public servant with "a great love" for the city. It is likely to be a hard sell, but not impossible, considering the anti-Brown sentiment here.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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