Davis’ Brash Tactician Grabs National Notice

Robin Fields, Times Staff Writer

March 6, 2002

Los Angeles Times

Garry South leans back in his oversized leather desk chair, one lanky arm folded behind his head, his lips curling in satisfaction.

Each day brings him more claps on the shoulder, handshakes and breathless testaments to his brilliance as California’s political chess master of the moment.

For the last three months, he has set the terms of the Republican primary for governor, even though his candidate, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, isn’t even in it.

They have all played his game.

South’s bold decision to have Davis spend $10 million targeting Richard Riordan refocused the primary on issues like abortion, guns and conservative credentials. Experts said the campaign was particularly effective because it goaded Riordan–South’s longtime nemesis–into repeatedly stressing his pro-choice views while trying to attract conservative Republican votes.

South even outmaneuvered the White House, which had encouraged Riordan to run, forcing the administration into a last-minute scramble to court businessman Bill Simon Jr., who cemented a solid victory over Riordan on Tuesday.

“It was a hall-of-fame move,” UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain said about South’s strategy. “Prior to 1998, even, [South] was barely a blip on the radar screen. It has really been a meteoric rise.” In less than 10 years, South has rocketed from obscurity to stardom among the elite of political strategists in California and, thus, in the nation.

He’s a man who revels in the limelight. About the most fun he’s had lately, South confesses, was paying a surprise visit to an event for Riordan at the former mayor’s downtown Los Angeles restaurant, the Original Pantry. With South, 50, holding court out front, Riordan, 71, was forced to slip in through the back door.

“Don’t eat the food,” South said before sauntering away, alluding to the eatery’s one-time shutdown for health-code violations.

But the same South who relished the confrontation spends his spare time designing liturgical vestments. His latest work, an altar frontal made from gold velvet, with gold and red brocade, gold crosses and chalices, should be ready in time for Easter.

Shoot-From-the Hip Alter Ego to Davis

Nothing, however, matches his passion for politics.

“I’ve often asked myself, ‘Could I run a shoe store? Could I manage a Dairy Queen?’ ” South said. “I never found anything as interesting to me as politics. I never found anything I was as good at as politics.” With his ruddy, barroom brawler’s face and pale surgeon’s hands, South serves as the ultra-deliberate Davis’ shoot-from-the-lip alter ego and trusted confidant.

Davis hired South to oversee his 1994 campaign for lieutenant governor and kept him on to be the architect of his 1998 run for governor. Their relationship had an unusual candor from the start. South was not intimidated by Davis, known for being temperamental and demanding in private. Even now, South speaks to the governor in the same utterly certain voice he uses with everyone, his questions never seeming to end in question marks.

“Garry is very honest and direct with Gray,” said Bill Carrick, a political consultant who observed them while helping the Davis campaign stage mock debates in 1998. “He’ll say, ‘That’s totally wrong.’ ”

The relationship deepened during the arduous ’98 gubernatorial campaign, in which Davis at one point trailed not only Republican Dan Lungren, but also two Democrats, millionaire newcomer Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman.

South stuck by Davis through waves of staff defections and managed to shore up the candidate’s fragile backing from unions and financiers. The long hours and skipped meals eventually put South in the hospital with bleeding ulcers.

“There’s something in the relationship that I don’t understand, but Garry is loyal to Gray Davis in a way few people are,” said Phil Trounstine, Davis’ former communications director who is now a consultant. “It’s almost like brothers.”

After Davis won the 1998 race, South says he was asked to serve as the administration’s chief of staff. Instead, he opted to remain outside government, able to sling the sort of political invective that would compromise a state official’s dignity.

“I’m sure the governor has rolled his eyes plenty when he’s picked up the paper, but Garry can say things the governor can’t,” Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said. “He’s got to be out there stirring the soup.”

South’s tie to Davis helped him land a lucrative–he won’t say exactly how lucrative–consulting gig with public relations giant Burston-Marstellar from mid-1999 to mid-2001. He says he could have made more money if he had agreed to lobby for individual clients rather than providing the firm with more general advice on California issues.

“I’ve done well, but I could’ve cleaned up,” he said. “I could have retired.”

For a serious power player, he lives pretty modestly, driving a small white Honda (“my wife gets the Mercedes”), long legs wedged beneath the steering wheel, holding it steady with his knees as he gesticulates with his hands. His ’70s-era helmet of hair, gently feathered on the sides with an asymmetrical centerish part, seems deliberately unfashionable.

As Davis’ full-time reelection campaign manager, South says he splits his time three ways, between “candidate control, message control and damage control.”

He rarely travels with Davis and–despite encouraging the governor’s relentless fund-raising–seldom goes to fund-raisers.

“The wealthier people are, the more prone they are to tell you everything you’re doing wrong in the campaign,” he said.

His typical day features a conference call with Davis and his brain trust that starts at 8:30 a.m. and can run for more than two hours, then rounds of calls to the media and opinion-makers.

He rarely stops talking.

Blunt, often profane and effortlessly quotable, South has a special talent for driving his opponents crazy. He provokes and distracts them until their agendas give way to his, said Dave Puglia, political director for Dan Lungren’s 1998 gubernatorial run.

South sometimes compares his strategic process to police profiling. He does his homework, keeping a storage unit full of files on every conceivable subject, from his high school papers to his research on political opponents.

But he also stalks his adversaries, shadowing them from event to event to observe mannerisms and body language. In the 1998 campaign, he followed Checchi, reading in the jut of his jaw that he could not withstand being goaded.

Indeed, Checchi blew up in a televised debate, blaming South for forcing him to go negative with his advertising. “I got under the skin of the 113th richest man in America,” South said with relish.

A Man Who Revels in Bare-Knuckles Politics

Though adversaries and allies alike call South a pro whose tactics fall within the modern norm, South himself makes no secret of enjoying the bare-knuckle quality of political races. Not for nothing, “The Guinness Book of Poisonous Quotes” sits on his office bookshelf.

He seldom regrets even his most insult-laden attacks on opponents:

Calling Controller Kathleen Connell “a viper” and “one of the most vile people I’ve ever known in politics,” for example. Or responding to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s public ruminations on a gubernatorial run by spreading copies of a magazine article accusing Schwarzenegger of groping women, with a note suggesting that his piggish behavior might be explained by pig valves falsely rumored to be implanted in his heart.

Though South maintains that Schwarzenegger had it coming for criticizing Davis, he acknowledges that some of his attacks are pure gamesmanship designed to suss out how opponents will react: Will his accusations throw them off stride? Will they, like Schwarzenegger, threaten to sue?

“His reaction showed me he wasn’t ready to get into the public arena,” South said.

There may be yet another motive for South’s incessant provocation. “Garry loves attention,” said Rob Stutzman, spokesman for the state Republican Party.

Moments after the three leading Republican gubernatorial candidates concluded their debate at the party’s semiannual convention last month in San Jose, South appeared in the hallway outside.

“Here’s a guy who can’t control what comes out of his mouth,” he said scornfully of Riordan, monopolizing a pack of riveted reporters. “Now, I can’t control what comes out of my mouth–but I’m not running for governor.”

South reserves his most personal animus for Riordan, and not just because Riordan easily defeated Mike Woo, South’s candidate, in the 1993 mayoral election.

“I thought he was an utter embarrassment as mayor,” South said.

To the California electorate, the primary pitted Riordan against Simon and Secretary of State Bill Jones. To South, it was a grudge match between himself and the ex-mayor.

“He knows me,” South said. “He knows he’s not at the top of my fan list. He knows I’ve got the goods on him.”

After watching South mix it up in the primary, even admiring fellow political strategists wonder if at some point his appetite for nasty public scraps will hurt Davis eventually.

“[Garry’s] love of throwing a punch means he won’t delegate that to someone else,” Puglia said. “His love of the battle is too strong at times for him to resist. He wakes up every morning and says where’s my two-by-four?”

South says he struggles to balance a personal life with his dual role as Davis’ campaign chief and top advisor. His mother went into the hospital just before Thanksgiving for hip replacement surgery, and work demands kept him from visiting the entire two months she remained there. “I felt terrible,” he said.

The youngest of four brothers, South grew up in Miles City, Mont., a sparse, often frigid town featured in “Lonesome Dove” that was shrinking for lack of prospects. His father was a carpenter, his mother a maid.

Mostly he remembers the isolation of living where virtually no one–not rock bands, not presidential candidates–had reason to pass through. As a teenager, he saved up money earned working alongside his father to buy train tickets to Chicago or Denver or St. Louis, eager to taste city life.

His political genes trace back to his great-grandfather, Stephen South, a Missouri pioneer elected justice of the peace in 1864. Garry’s career as a political strategist began at 25, when he managed statewide campaigns for his brother and others, then was drafted to run Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in Montana.

South moved on to regional fund-raising for the Democratic Party, helped on an unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, then relocated to Washington for a stint as spokesman for the National Assn. of Realtors. In the late 1980s, he joined the staff of scandal-plagued Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste until Celeste left office.

South’s subsequent move to California was his first not motivated by politics in decades. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1991 with no political patron in sight, thinking he might try writing a book or a screenplay.

After a break, however, he slid back into politics, running Republican Gordana Swanson’s unsuccessful campaign for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. His next job, as press spokesman for Woo’s 1993 mayoral campaign against Riordan, won him Davis’ attention.

He met his wife, Christine Wei-Li, on the job, when they both worked for Woo’s campaign. Their courtship began like a screwball comedy: He thought she was a Riordan operative; she thought he was gay and had little regard for his professional spin-doctoring.

“I hate what you do,” she told him.

She got over it.

Now they live in a Brentwood condominium, not far from Riordan.

“Not a stone’s throw away, exactly, but not that far either,” South said, grinning. “I’d love to live closer so I could wave to him.”

Two decades ago, South started designing liturgical vestments in his off hours, partly to still the hamster-wheel of politics whirling in his mind.

He has created more than two dozen of them, elaborately decorated with gold-bullion thread and rich brocade, pinning drafts to his living room wall and donating finished versions to local churches.

It’s a hobby that reflects his lifelong study of religion and his belief that it is perhaps the best way to learn about human nature. But South also revels in its sheer weirdness.

Even his wife thinks it’s bizarre, he says, and goes right on smiling.