News & Views from 465 California Street

The “Difference Makers”

Clint Reilly

In 2008 an unknown, inexperienced senator from Illinois emerged from poet Carl Sandburg’s Chicago and rekindled hope in America. The common thread among Barack Obama’s supporters was a passion for change.

Over the course of my career in politics, I’ve seen a number of leaders like Obama who were determined to make a difference.
Looking back, the “Difference Makers” all share three distinct qualities.

As a young man I worked for the labor leader Cesar Chavez. When the state of Arizona passed a law that prohibited farm workers from organizing a union, Cesar decided to recall the governor, a Republican by the name of “One-eyed” Jack Williams.

There was only one problem: I took a poll and discovered that 85 percent of Arizonans were against the recall. The poll was taken door-to-door throughout the state by volunteers. I went into the living rooms of many voters myself and saw their antagonism toward Chavez first-hand.

Cesar’s reaction to my survey was volcanic. First, he ordered more volunteers into the state to intensify the campaign. Second, he raged at me for producing such awful numbers.

I saw then the first attribute of the Difference Maker – a refusal to acknowledge that any obstacle is insurmountable. Well, almost any.

In those days wild west politics ruled. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was a conservative icon and the Arizona Republic newspaper was run by Dan Qualye’s uncle, Eugene Pulliam, who had no qualms about inventing front page smears to discredit Democrats.

We needed to register Arizona’s large population of Latino immigrants as Democrats. But we never had a chance; the elections office accused farm worker registrars of cheating and unilaterally declared all new registrations invalid. This finally convinced Cesar to retreat back to California.

I learned the second attribute of a Difference Maker not from one person, but from many.

In 1977, gay rights was a lonely cause. Anita Bryant launched a crusade to allow employment and housing discrimination against gays in Miami. The campaign attracted international attention and mobilized gay rights advocates across the nation.

As a San Francisco political consultant who had worked closely with gay leaders, I was recruited to help defeat Bryant. I was the only straight person on the team, but when I arrived in Florida I was assigned as press secretary.

I began scheduling interviews at 6:00 a.m. to accommodate the hordes of reporters. Luminaries like New York writer Pete Hamill and Washington pundit Jack Germond came to cover the story.

We lost the campaign to Anita Bryant by a 3 to 1 margin. But in a matter of years, cities and counties across America were passing anti-discrimination ordinances protecting gays. Even Bryant herself recanted her opposition.

The lesson was clear: winning doesn’t come easy. More often than not, losing is a necessary prelude to victory.

In 1982 I opened my campaign firm’s first office in an Edwardian building in San Francisco. I had no clients until I received a call from the Superintendent of Schools for California’s smallest school district – Reed Union in Marin County, which had only 500 students.

Improbably, he wanted to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction – overseeing America’s largest public school system. I was skeptical but I also needed the business.

Bill Honig faced an uphill battle against Wilson Riles, a reasonably popular incumbent who was running for his third term. Honig’s strongest qualities were his burning passion to improve education and an uncanny ability to articulate his agenda clearly and succinctly.

Honig won in a landslide. By tirelessly crisscrossing the state armed with a simple message of reform, he lit the fuse that exploded into a decade long movement.

Here I absorbed the third rule of the Difference Maker: a just cause always has the possibility to carry the day.

Some pundits are suggesting that the covenant of trust between citizens and government has now been undermined by the Obama administration’s failure to deliver change in its first year. I don’t think so. The reform instinct was not born in 2008. Americans’ power to remake ourselves and cleanse our democratic institutions will continue to inspire new movements for renewal.
We are undaunted optimists.

Comments (12)

  • Just a short note to say I appreciate your column when I find it. That’s all for now.

    Bob C

    Posted by: Bob C. | March 2nd, 2010 at 1:17 pm

  • I just finished reading today’s column “The Difference Makers.”

    I’m not a fan-letter writer, but I enjoy your column and greatly appreciate your ability to “see the forest for the trees.”


    James M

    Posted by: James M. | March 2nd, 2010 at 1:18 pm

  • Mr. Reilly I really enjoy your weekly colums. I am a 36 year old
    democrat that really takes pride being a true blue collar worker. I really appriciate the history that you share with us in your colums, it’s just too bad that society as whole just does not appriciate it!!

    Far too many people just don’t understand what the labor movement has done for this country! Without “difference makers” there would be no middle class there would only be “upper” and “servant-poor” classes.

    Thank you respectfully.

    Greg S

    Posted by: Greg S. | March 2nd, 2010 at 1:19 pm

  • Every day I work in a Public Civil Servant job that is often overwhelming.
    Like my co-workers everyday we face our challenges as though going to Battle to do
    the “Right Thing ” no matter what the cost.
    Your articles have always been a source of inspiration to me to help me do to my job
    better. Thank you for todays article. We are a part of the “Difference Maker”
    Culture that is painfully aware that what has worked in the past is not working now.

    I hope in one of your future articles you might consider the education for your
    Public Viewers the importance of having Medical End of Life decisions made in
    advance using the tool “POLST” Physicians Order for Life Sustaining Treatments. It
    would make a world of difference in End of Life decision making for families,
    patients, and Conservators/Guardians.
    Keep up the Excellent Editorials!!!!
    Your Fan, Suzanne

    Posted by: Suzanne | March 2nd, 2010 at 1:19 pm

  • I think we need a Paul Harvey to give “the rest of the story” to your above.
    When you say, “a just cause always has the possibility to carry the day” – may we
    add that just causes implemented by unjust people, with ulterior motives, sometimes
    carry the years? I think your readers – some newcomers to Calif., along with
    younger ones, deserve to be told that in 1993, Bill Honig received 4 felony
    convictions for conflict of interest violations and was removed from office Feb. 22,
    1993. It’s interesting that you omitted the downfall of Bill Honig, which may have
    diluted the thrust of your story. You refer to him as an example of someone with an
    “uncanny ability to articulate his agenda clearly and succinctly”. As concerned
    citizens, we certainly need to be aware of this skill with some of our current
    politicians, as their motives may not be easily recognized.

    Posted by: Bob & Leona | March 2nd, 2010 at 1:20 pm

  • The celebrity figure you mention from Chicago has spent more than all of the presidents in history combined, threatening the very future of the republic. Surely, this trajectory is familiar by now to everyone who lives in California.

    Posted by: Banjo | March 2nd, 2010 at 3:08 pm

  • To the last commentator alluding to a certain person from Chicago, it just ain’t so, so kindly stop repeating right-wing mis-statements. According to the CBO, Bush ran up $5.1 trillion in government debt (it was $5.6 T in Jan 2001; it stood at $10.7 T in Dec 2008). Obama was dealt a crashed economy when he walked in, and so the stimulus package (which most would agree likely averted a Depression) should also be charged against Bush. Now Obama is, first, cleaning up behind the elephant. It seems the Republicans have the audacity of hope that we are all so dumb we will believe these distorted figures and blanket mis-statements about who spent what. You can go look them up with one click of the mouse. click.

    Posted by: Gary | March 3rd, 2010 at 10:00 am

  • i like your column.

    i am up on corbett ave in sf for most of my 74 years. i have never been so
    disenchanted with our political system which is based on bribery and has corrupted
    every national politician. i plan to vote against every incumbent–rep-dem-makes no
    diff as they all are bought and paid for by banks,ins,drug co,you name it and maybe
    they will re-learn they are there for us not them.

    the public employee unions heath care-pension benefits will soon bankrupt our
    state , cities and towns and the politicians will continue to play their fiddels.
    what a legacy to leave my grankids.

    totally disgusted! garry g

    Posted by: Garry G. | March 4th, 2010 at 9:06 am

  • Several months back, in you weekly “column”, you wrote about how well government services / programs worked. Not only has the cost of a stamp greatly outpaced inflation since the mid 70′s, now the postal system is broke. Almost everything the government runs is either broke, going broke or unsustainable.

    Any comment?

    Posted by: Keith C. | March 4th, 2010 at 9:07 am

  • To Gary: Here’s what one click produced:

    # President Bush expanded the federal budget by a historic $700 billion through 2008. President Obama would add another $1 trillion.
    # President Bush began a string of expensive finan­cial bailouts. President Obama is accelerating that course.
    # President Bush created a Medicare drug entitle­ment that will cost an estimated $800 billion in its first decade. President Obama has proposed a $634 billion down payment on a new govern­ment health care fund.
    # President Bush increased federal education spending 58 percent faster than inflation. Presi­dent Obama would double it.
    # President Bush became the first President to spend 3 percent of GDP on federal antipoverty programs. President Obama has already in­creased this spending by 20 percent.
    # President Bush tilted the income tax burden more toward upper-income taxpayers. President Obama would continue that trend.

    # President Bush presided over a $2.5 trillion increase in the public debt through 2008. Setting aside 2009 (for which Presidents Bush and Obama share responsibility for an additional $2.6 trillion in public debt), President Obama’s budget would add $4.9 trillion in public debt from the beginning of 2010 through 2016.

    Posted by: Banjo | March 6th, 2010 at 5:42 am

  • To Banjo:

    When one click produces those figures, it just shows that you have to stop clicking on distorted sources. There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. To be clear on your stats:

    - “Obama has already increased this spending [federal antipoverty] by 20 percent.” Well, 20% of 3% results in .6% of GDP, directed towards antipoverty. Antipoverty includes helping poor folks who just lost their jobs due to the Bush recession, by giving them food stamps so their kids can eat dinner. Doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me in this economy.

    - federal education spending. You again use percentages. The underlying facts are that (1) the US doesn’t spend enough on education; that’s why we are losing the race to foreign countries; (2) given the Bush Great Recession, when states like California are slashing teacher jobs (because they are forced by state constitutions to balance their budgets), then the Federal government has had to step in to save some of those teacher jobs. These facts drive up any percentage change; quoting it ignores what is driving that figure.

    - “Bush tilted the income tax burden more toward upper-income taxpayers…” This statement is just completely false. The Bush tax cuts are the #1 reason the Federal budget went from surpluses under Clinton to deficits under Bush, and the tax cuts focused on the upper income. See for example

    - You ignored my figures about the Federal DEBT, and switched to talk about the Federal BUDGET DEFICIT. Nice move (from the right wing press), but that itself serves to obscure the truth. The budget, and budget deficits are based on what the government takes in, less what it spends, each year. With the Bush Great Recession killing everyone’s earnings, and therefore generating fewer taxes, of course there is less money coming in. Every reputable economist says that the worst time for the Federal government to stop spending is when the economy crashes. (That move caused the Great Depression.)

    - Federal Debt. Your figure of $2.5 trillion debt increase under Bush is just wrong; the figure is $5.1 trillion. See The amount that will be added under Obama is still just a forecast, and the biggest force driving the debt in the future is Medicare. That just points to the fact that we have to get our hands around medical spending. We need a national approach, because the piecemeal system we have now just allows insurance companies to profiteer and there are not the incentives to drive down medical costs built into the system.

    Posted by: Gary | March 9th, 2010 at 11:26 am

  • I like the first rule. Dovetails well with psych profile of an Executive branch office-holder.

    Posted by: generic | March 15th, 2010 at 11:08 pm

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