Recollections from Janet and Clint Reilly

Next week, we will present the Leo T. McCarthy Award for Public Service to philanthropists Clint and Janet Reilly. We sat down with them this last month when they shared their memories of the Lieutenant Governor and speculated about his assessment of today’s political landscape. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell us how you first met Leo McCarthy. What were your earliest memories of him?

Clint Reilly: I was a young man and very young in my twenties, and I kept hearing about this supervisor, former supervisor, this Irish Catholic politician who embodied many of the qualities that I admired as a young man, had become an assemblyman, and he was actually elected speaker of the California Assembly. He was kind of a role model for me even before I met him. My first business was a, more or less, a kind of junk store at 33 Filbert Street in San Francisco. One Sunday, Leo McCarthy walked in with his entire family. I didn’t know him. I had bought a large amount of maps from a school, school maps of the United States and the world, and I remember him [Leo] looking at these maps and coming up and buying one. And of course, I didn’t have the courage to say I was an admirer and, you know, I never introduced myself. That was my first meeting with the great and wonderful Leo McCarthy. 

Over the course of our lives, we actually became friends, comrades in arms at Catholic Charities. We worked on many important political campaigns together and got to know one another fairly well, and I developed a great admiration for Leo.

Janet Reilly: I knew of Leo for decades before I actually met him, and probably met him in the early 2000’s, just socially around San Francisco. I really got to know him in 2004, when I was contemplating a race for the state assembly. I was going on a listening tour and talking to prominent people in the community, and Leo was one of those people. So I set up a meeting with him, which was a 30-minute meeting which turned into an hour-long meeting, a two-hour long meeting and multiple meetings between us. Ultimately, he became the chair of my assembly campaign, and he was with me through that entire journey and we created a lifelong bond. 


How do you think Leo would feel about the state of politics today? 

Clint Reilly: I think he would have frowned upon the dysfunctional San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the dysfunctionality, their inability to solve problems in the city. I think he would have probably tried to nudge the Democratic state legislature a little bit towards the middle of the political spectrum because Leo was the ultimate political pragmatist.  In Washington, if he was here today, he’d be a key adviser to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in politics and in the nation and one of the most powerful in the world. And I’m sure that Joe Biden would have recruited him to be ambassador to Ireland.

Janet Reilly: I think he would be very disappointed in the extreme partisanship that we’re seeing today. I think he would also be extremely proud of the elected officials out there, like Nancy Pelosi and Anna Eshoo and so many others who are out there fighting every day to save our democracy, who are fighting for better access to health care, making sure that every child, no matter where he or she lives, has a quality education and that seniors are taken care of. 


What do you think Leo was most proud of or would have been proud of?

Clint Reilly: I think one of the things that I think Leo was very proud of was the fact that after his retirement from politics, having served as a supervisor and assemblyman speaker of the Assembly and Lieutenant Governor, that he actually established a second successful career in business and he really did conquer the business world, earned money and was able to found the McCarthy Center for the Common Good. And he was really a tremendous benefactor of Catholic Charities. 

Janet Reilly: He’d be very, very proud of our scholars, our folks at the center who, despite all of the toxic landscape of politics today, still are going to go into public life. They’re going to go into elected office because they believe that it’s really a noble calling, just like Leo McCarthy did. What an honor it was to know Leo McCarthy, and I look back upon my friendship with Leo and see how he was such a mentor to me.

He was somebody who was so loyal and so kind and was always there with a helping hand. No matter what I needed or advice, he was a confidant. And just really proud to be able to carry on his legacy through the McCarthy Center. I know that he would be so proud of our students, of our administrators, of our teachers, all the folks that make the McCarthy center what it is today. 

You can still support the award, our students, and the next 20 years of the center’s work in preparing the next generation of leaders. Make a donation here.

Anna EshooCatholic CharitiesDemocratic state legislaturelieutenant governorNancy Pelosistudent leadersThe Leo T. McCarthy Award

Leo T. McCarthy Center • February 11, 2022

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