Matt Reese, Veteran Political Consultant, Dies at 71
By Bart Barnes
Matt Reese, 71, a veteran political consultant who helped mold grass-roots organizing, scientific polling techniques and issue-oriented campaign tactics into strategies for winning elections, died of a heart attack Dec. 1 at his home in McLean, where he had been battling lung disease.
Mr. Reese was a founder and godfather of the professional political consulting business. During a career that spanned more than three decades, he worked in more than 450 political campaigns in the United States and abroad. Among his candidates were Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), Russell Long (D-La.), Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and John Glenn (D-Ohio); House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.); and several governors and local officials.
In 1960, Mr. Reese came to national prominence when he organized the volunteer campaign on behalf of Sen. John F. Kennedy in West Virginia's Democratic presidential primary. From the basement of the Kanawha Hotel in Charleston, he worked the telephones 18 hours a day with other Kennedy staff members to tap a groundswell of grass-roots support that would eventually capture West Virginia for the Massachusetts senator, a critical step on his road to the White House.
After Kennedy's election, Mr. Reese ran the voter registration division of the Democratic National Committee.
For the 1964 presidential election, his efforts were said to have added 4 million voters to the registration lists.
In 1966, he left the Democratic National Committee and formed Matt Reese & Associates, which later became Reese Communications Companies Inc.
As an adviser to office-seekers, Mr. Reese was known for a zealous pursuit of two kinds of voters: those who could be persuaded to support his candidate and those who were already favorably disposed but needed prodding to get to the polls on election day.
"If you want to pick cherries, go where the cherries is," he liked to tell campaign workers.
He was born in Huntington, W.Va., and graduated from Marshall University. During World War II and the Korean War, he served in the Army. At 26, he came to Washington as a staff assistant to Rep. Maurice Gwinn Burnside (D-W.Va.), and on Capitol Hill, he discovered an instant fascination with the eddies and currents of the political process.
During 40 years in the nation's capital, he was said never to have forgotten his West Virginia origins. At 6-foot-5 and 350 pounds, he was a commanding presence who could easily dominate a room full of people. There was an infectious country charm about him; he was a gifted teller of stories, which he delivered in a gentle drawl, and he was prone to the inclusion of colorful and earthy details.
Charles T. Manatt Jr., who served as Democratic national chairman in the early 1980s, worked at the grass-roots level for Mr. Reese in the early years of his career. He recalled him as a meticulous political planner who nevertheless was "fun, down-home and relaxing. He'd coax you, box your ears and get you to roll your sleeves up," Manatt said.
In the 1970s, Mr. Reese was among the first to combine polling, demographic data and computer techniques to identify specific clusters of voters for whom particular issues might have special meaning. This procedure was used effectively in a 1978 Missouri referendum in which voters rejected a question that asked if the state constitution should be amended to outlaw union shops.
In 1981 and 1982, he was a consultant to the Democratic National Committee, after the landslide election of Republican Ronald Reagan as president. "He worked tirelessly and skillfully to help design and build the foundation for the party's comeback in the Senate and the White House," said Manatt, who was then Democratic Party chairman. "Democratic victories in the '80s and '90s owe more than will ever be known to the organizational skills of Matt Reese."
In the early 1980s, Mr. Reese worked for such corporations as AT&T, Blue Cross & Blue Shield, Chevron, Citicorp, Georgia Power, McDonnell Douglas and United Airlines. He sold his business and retired in 1986, but he continued to do consulting work.
Recalling his years in the political consulting business in a 1993 interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Reese said, "I won the first 11 campaigns I was in, and I thought `Lord God, I am good.' And then I lost one, I won one, lost one. . . .
"My review is mixed now. . . . We've done some good things, giving greater communication with the voters. I think we've done some bad things in exaggerating the negativity. The negativity is no more than when I was young, but the voice of television is so much more powerful, it has a much greater effect, and it causes in part the cynicism of the American voter."
Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Martha Sedinger Reese of McLean; three children, April Lee Reese of Rougemont, N.C., Holly Reese Tomlinson of Herndon and Timothy Andrew Reese of Arlington; his mother, Gladys Willis Reese of Huntington; and six grandchildren.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company