Virginia's Persuasive Strategist
Women's Caucus Leader Extols Trailblazers
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page A26
BOSTON, July 27 -- Mame Reiley's job Tuesday morning was to whip 2,000 women into a frenzy. And she succeeded. She screamed out the names of trailblazing political women and the mostly female crowd erupted into raucous cheering, waved "pro-choice" signs and shook tambourines wildly.
"As political women, we have come a long way since the first woman was elected in 1917," Reiley, one of Virginia's leading political operatives, roared. "Let us take strength from the women who have gone before us."
Reiley, head of the Democratic National Committee's women's caucus, has briefly stepped out of the shadows to help the national party showcase its women this week. But it is a handful of men in Virginia to whom Reiley has dedicated most of her political life, as a strategist, campaign manager, fundraiser and organizer.
Reiley is a top adviser to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and a former chief of staff to Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), whom she persuaded to run for Congress in 1989 at the Prime Rib restaurant on K Street in Washington.
Moran, then the mayor of Alexandria, recalls Reiley leaning across the table and lowering her voice to a whisper. You should run for Congress, she said. Now.
"She was very direct," Moran recalled in an interview at a Boston reception for Warner. "There was no small talk. She talks to you in almost a whisper. She's got this tone when she's serious."
Added Joe Trippi, the former campaign manager for Howard Dean and one of Reiley's closest friends: "She's not just blunt, she can be incredibly stubborn. Mame really is a bulldozer -- with etiquette."
A self-described political junkie, Reiley admits to a willingness to be frank, especially behind the closed doors of a campaign.
"There's a time to be diplomatic, and it's not internally," she said. "Things happen so quickly in a campaign that you don't have time to mince words."
Reiley has spent the past two years as Warner's chief fundraiser and a key political strategist. She serves as executive director of One Virginia, the governor's political action committee.
In that role, she was at the center of a behind-the-scenes campaign to coordinate support for Warner's tax reform package. While Warner wooed lawmakers in one-on-one settings, Reiley quietly helped organize support among local governments, interest groups and the business community.
It worked. The tax plan passed, in part because Warner's fingerprints weren't all over the pressure campaign.
"I'm an organizer," Reiley, 51, said. "I like to make things happen."
Reiley has had her failures, as well. She led the effort in 2002 to get Northern Virginia voters to raise the state's sales tax by a half-penny to pay for transportation projects. It was defeated by a large margin despite Reiley's glitzy, $2.5 million campaign.
And she was on the losing side a decade earlier when she followed then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to New Hampshire to run his brief bid for president.
For two months, she campaigned tirelessly for Wilder despite competition from such heavyweights as Bill Clinton, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and others. One friend recalls her ordering a staff member to hang a map of New Hampshire in the campaign office and put lots of different-colored pushpins all over it. When the staffer asked what the pins signified, Reiley said they signified nothing but would make people think they had a grand plan.
"I firmly believe had Wilder stayed in, he would have won in South Carolina. He could have changed that race," Reiley said.
But Wilder didn't stay in. Under pressure to be a full-time governor, he pulled out of the presidential race on the day of his state-of-the-commonwealth speech. Reiley headed back to Moran.
She stood by the congressman during various political crises, including a loan he took from a lobbyists and comments he made that were interpreted as anti-Semitic. In each case, it was Reiley who came to his rescue -- vouching for his character, crafting statements of contrition or finding evidence of innocence.
Recently, Reiley has dabbled more in presidential politics. For months, she backed Dean, even trying to get Warner to endorse him. Trippi urged her to work for Dean, but she declined.
"It almost killed me not to get into the fray," she said. "But I had made a commitment to work with Warner through his term."
When Dean's campaign collapsed and the candidate dumped Trippi and his wife Kathy Lash, Reiley was angry. She became the first Dean delegate to publicly switch her allegiance to Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who eventually clinched the nomination. Earlier this month, Reiley broke all records for campaign fundraising in Virginia by bringing in almost $2 million for Kerry at a single event in Northern Virginia.
This week in Boston, she has split her time between Kerry and Warner. And she has become known as the "Queen of Credentials," trading future favors for extra passes to get her friends onto the floor of the convention hall and into the most exclusive parties.
"People know I won't forget," she crowed.
Reiley describes the current presidential election as the most important since she worked for Robert F. Kennedy as a high school student at Mount Vernon in Fairfax. But her efforts on behalf of Democrats goes back even further than that.
As her 80-year-old aunt recalls, a note arrived one day in 1960 from a nun at the Catholic school where Reiley was in third grade.
If young Mame spent as much time on arithmetic as she did trying to get John Kennedy elected, Mary Rice remembers the note saying, she'd be getting straight A's.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company