Mame Reiley, longtime Va. Democrat and D.C. airports authority chairwoman, dies at 61


Mame Reiley, one of the most well-connected Democratic operatives in Northern Virginia, died Monday after a four-year battle with cancer. (Bill O'Leary/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Mame Reiley, a master political strategist for several decades, died June 2 at her sister’s home in Alexandria after a four-year battle with cancer, her family said. She was 61.

A hard-charging personality who combined an iron will with a festive sense of humor, Ms. Reiley orchestrated the political victories of several top Democrats in Virginia. She also was a key figure in several presidential campaigns, and she was a member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board before resigning in 2012 to focus on her health.

Among other triumphs, Ms. Reiley helped Democrat Mark R. Warner, now a U.S. senator, win the Virginia governorship in 2001 and catapulted Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) to a 24-year career in Congress.

“She took me to lunch in 1989 and convinced me to run for Congress when no one in their right mind thought I had a chance,” said Moran, reflecting on a long and close friendship with Ms. Reiley that started when he was mayor of Alexandria. Her signature gift, Moran said, was her passion — her belief in causes and candidates and her ability to persuade others to believe, too.

During one of Moran’s darkest moments in Congress — a period when he was accused of anti-Semitism and he shoved another member on the House floor — Reiley was among his greatest boosters. “There is no doubt Jim has had a rough few years, but his life is settling down,” Reiley told The Washington Post in 2004. “He’s weathered the storm, and he’s learned from it. He’s going to come out of this period a better congressman.”

Warner said of Ms. Reiley, “She could be your strongest ally and your most demanding critic at the same time.” He added in a statement that “there’s absolutely no one who could throw a party like Mame Reiley.”

Mary Anne Reiley was born Dec. 24, 1952, in Newport News and grew up in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County. The daughter of an Air Force pilot, she was bestowed with a hearty, sincere laugh that became a magnet for friends and enemies alike.

One of her neighbors as a child was Robert F. McDonnell, who would later become a Republican governor in Virginia and Ms. Reiley’s boss when she served on the airports authority board.

In 1960, when she was in the third grade, Ms. Reiley tried to organize her classmates to rally behind the presidential bid of U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy — who, as a fellow Irish Catholic, she was thrilled to see reach such heights.

She was so driven in what her younger sister said was probably an effort to get her classmates to tell their parents to vote for the senator from Massachusetts that a nun at Ms. Reiley’s elementary school — St. Louis — sent home a note to her mother saying that “if Mary would concentrate on arithmetic as much as she does campaigning, she’d be a straight A student,” according to the sister, Elizabeth J. Reiley.

“That story tells a lot about Mame,” Liz Reiley said. “One was that she found her passion for politics very early in life. Two, she always had to be in the center of things — one can say she’s bossy.”

In high school, Ms. Reiley volunteered for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. In college, she traveled with her sister to Mississippi to volunteer at a health clinic, an experience that revealed to her the deep poverty and racial injustice in the South, Liz Reiley said.

That mission was woven with what friends and relatives said was Ms. Reiley’s constant zeal for fun during and after work. With a stand-up comic’s timing in her high, feminine voice, Ms. Reiley would catch people off guard with her sometimes locker-room humor, friends said.

“She would just land these one-liners with the deadpan falsetto,” remembered Ellen Qualls, another top Democratic adviser and close friend. “Her delivery was half of the fun of it.”

Reiley graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in Alexandria in 1970. She attended Sacred Heart College in Belmont, N.C., graduating in 1974 with an education degree.

During the 1980s, Ms. Reiley was an events planner at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, then a favorite watering hole for visiting celebrities and young politicians. Frequently, she turned the Washington art of behind-the-scenes deals into inspiring, sometimes alcohol-laden events.

Those experiences shaped her as an effective political operative, able to deal with over-the-top personalities and to command a room whenever she wanted, which she often did, her friends said.

“We had so much fun together,” said hotel publicist Colleen Evans, a close friend who recalled stories of conjuring schemes that were forgotten by morning.

No matter who else was around, Ms. Reiley’s voice and laugh could be heard across the room, said Jim Ryan, a Washington-based sales director for a Las Vegas hospitality industry group who is also a lifelong friend.

“She loved to pound the table with her laugh,” Ryan said. “She would pound with her left hand, and it was guttural.”

An expert at running political campaigns, Ms. Reiley became a go-to Democratic strategist, a talent that made her a valued adviser to Warner, Moran and former Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine.

She became chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Caucus in 2003 and was a superdelegate in the party’s 2008 presidential nomination contest.

She also experienced defeats.

In 1992, Ms. Reiley led a short-lived presidential exploratory committee in New Hampshire for former governor L. Douglas Wilder.

In 2009, she directed the unsuccessful Virginia gubernatorial bid for former state delegate and state party chairman Brian J. Moran, the congressman’s brother.

A few years later, Ms. Reiley was a passionate voice in what became a losing campaign to create an underground tunnel for the Silver Line Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport.

And, while battling cancer, Ms. Reiley briefly became the center of controversy. Shortly after she stepped down from the airports authority board — of which she was a former chairman — reports revealed that she was being paid $180,000 to work as a consultant, a job that was then eliminated.

Through it all, friends said, she kept up her spirits — relishing her role as “Aunt Mame” to her nieces and nephews, taking in concerts by a favorite band, “America,” and spending time with her pug, Lucy.

Mostly private about certain aspects of her life, Ms. Reiley surprised some friends by sharing some details during a weekend getaway, Ryan said.

As an icebreaker, everybody had to fill out a questionnaire with a list of their favorite vacation spots, hobbies and fantasies.

Ms. Reiley’s answers revealed that she loved Aruba, where she took her nieces and nephews. She also admitted to fantasizing about being on a deserted island with actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Ryan said he once asked the violet-eyed Ms. Reiley whom she thought she resembled most.

Her self-deprecating answer: “Elizabeth Taylor, during her heavy period,” revealing that she was aware of why people sometimes couldn’t stop staring at her, he said.

“You’d just look at those blue eyes and say: ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

In addition to her sister, of Alexandria, Ms. Reiley is survived by her brothers, Michael T. “Rex” Reiley of Alexandria and Barney C. Reiley of King George County, Va.

Antonio covers government, politics and other regional issues in Fairfax County. He worked in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago before joining the Post in September of 2013.
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