Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
August 27, 2014

Mame Reiley: Loyal to the End, Celebrated With Champagne

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — “Her passion was contagious and energizing.”

That’s how Mame Reiley was memorialized Tuesday at her hometown church in Mount Vernon, by friends and loved ones who each said she inspired them to keep up the political fight to make the world better.

The Virginia Democrats most closely associated with the longtime campaign strategist, Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. James P. Moran, sat in the third row in tribute, but they were hardly the only lawmakers cramming the pews of the Good Shepherd Catholic Church. It was perhaps fitting that the service boasted at least three of the men vying to replace Moran in a Democratic primary being held the very day of her funeral.

The official license plates in the overflowing parking lot foreshadowed the crowd of city council members, former congressmen and state representatives in attendance — including former Republican state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, married to ex-Rep. Tom Davis , as well as former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell, under indictment on federal corruption charges, joined others in receiving communion at the Mass. He told me he is going through “hell,” but wanted to celebrate the woman he’d known most of his life, having grown up on the same street as the Reiley family.

The politicians were but one testament to Mame being what so many dubbed, simply, “a force of nature.”

I was there because of everyone else. I’d heard stories about Mame from my friends in Virginia politics long before I had the pleasure of meeting her or hearing her hearty laugh.

And there they were, sprinkled among the elected officials — the state government workers, congressional aides and political staffers whose lives Mame touched in ways she may never have even realized.

When the cancer she’d battled for the past four years finally claimed her on June 2, at the age of 61, I saw post after post on Facebook about her influence. “A mentor and friend to so many,” and “a legend,” a prominent operative wrote. She was someone “who would find a way to have your back even if it was up against a wall,” another mourner wrote.

The stories at Tuesday’s service revolved around her loyalty, love of celebration and appreciation of champagne. She would stand by her candidates until the bitter end, but she had a knack for telling it like it is, one reason I was one of a handful of reporters there to pay tribute.

From the pulpit, the Rev. Gerry Creedon said Mame inspired everyone to “do our part for a better world where the weak are safe and the strong are just.” His words and Liz Reiley’s tribute to her sister helped those gathered to celebrate Mame properly with frequent bursts of laughter. Longtime friend Kathy Lash brought the house down by noting that many of their adventures most certainly couldn’t be told in church.

Lash, standing by husband Joe Trippi, thanked Mame for being “our true North” and for bringing the two of them together during Moran’s first campaign.

She said among the most frequent questions at a political event would be, “What’s Mame doing after? Where is she holding court?”

Indeed. When I’d made my way to the back of the jam-packed church at the start of the Mass, I noticed the songbook in the pews was titled “Gather.” It was appropriate for the moment, because that’s what she always did.

My favorite Mame memory was at one of those afterparties. Warner, weighing a presidential bid, had given a speech in New Hampshire. She held court in the Radisson bar and wanted to know all the gossip about the women around the table, including me. 

Over the course of my career in Washington, I have described Mame more than once as loyal. That was all validated Tuesday as friends talked about her insistence on attending — and speaking at — a tribute dinner for the retiring Moran last month. It was her last political event.

“She took life and embraced it,” Moran said Tuesday. “She led with her heart.”

This was a woman who exuded warmth. A slideshow of Mame — with Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and her beloved pug clad in Obama campaign gear, among many others — in a reception hall following the funeral depicted a woman beaming, larger than life. That is how I will remember her.

I had not seen Mame since she got sick, though we had exchanged emails about Virginia politics. Our last in-person conversation was in 2011, about whether then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine should run for Senate.

But I kept tabs on her through mutual friends, and my heart sunk when she died. The best part of Tuesday’s service was understanding Mame’s roots — she got her political start organizing fellow third graders to ask their parents to vote for John F. Kennedy — and her work before becoming a DNC member or top political strategist.

Warner described how Mame plotted out several Virginia Democrats’ political futures in 1990. She’d pushed Moran to run for Congress and insisted Warner should not run — at the moment.

“She had a plan for Jim, and a plan for me, and all those plans worked out,” he said.

Warner also fondly recalled Mame’s party-throwing penchant, and detailed one such gathering in Las Vegas. She organized the swank soiree for liberal bloggers when that annual confab was called Yearly Kos. The $100,000 tab got the then-governor and presidential hopeful a roller coaster, an Elvis impersonator and a chocolate fountain, and Warner worried it was a mistake while trying to court what he called the “crunchy, granola types.” But Mame was proved right when Markos Moulitsas wrote later that Warner’s party demonstrated he “treats us with respect.”

Enjoying champagne in Mame’s memory, the crowd laughed. She would have liked the moment.

After Warner noted Kaine couldn’t be there because he was eulogizing Ray Boone of the Richmond Free Press, Moran pointed out his brother, Virginia Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran, could not attend because he was “stuck in Southwest Virginia.”

In true political fashion, Warner chimed in: “You’re never stuck in Southwest Virginia.” The crowd roared.

I think Mame would have liked that too.

Related story: 

Warner’s Aspirations a Coming Out Party for Activist Mame Reiley

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