In 1992, California state Controller Gray Davis made what many considered an ill-advised run against former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate to take on GOP Sen. John Seymour. Seymour, a state Senator and former mayor of Anaheim, had been appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1991 to fill out the remainder of Wilson’s term. Davis was roundly denounced for running ads against Feinstein that equated her to hotelier Leona Helmsley, who had just been convicted of tax evasion. In essentially a two-way race, Davis received only 32.75 percent of the primary vote. Many political observers and reporters thought Davis’s political career might be over.

After that debacle, and leading up to a run for lieutenant governor in 1994, Davis jettisoned his long-time campaign consultants and brought on a new team, including Garry South as Campaign Manager. South’s first challenge was to try to nudge out of the Democratic race Phil Angelides, the immediate past chairman of the California Democratic Party and a wealthy land developer. Angelides also had announced for lieutenant governor, bringing on U.S. Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer as his campaign co-chairs, and actually outraising Davis in the first half of 1993. Davis was concerned that a full-out nomination battle in the June primary might drain all of his funds, and leave him with a depleted kitty for the five-month general election campaign in what was shaping up as difficult year for Democrats nationally.

Ultimately, the Davis operation and his supporters, including legendary Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, were able to encourage Angelides into changing his target to the race for state treasurer, and Davis won the primary handily against token competition. In the general election, Davis’s legitimate worry was that Gov. Wilson might wrap up his race against state Treasurer Kathleen Brown so early that he might shift millions of dollars into helping the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Kathie Wright (which he eventually did). The Davis campaign launched ads against the extremely conservative Wright with the clever slogan, “On almost everything we care about, Wright is wrong.” The spots reminded voters of her staunch opposition to abortion, her votes against reasonable gun-control measures, and even her having voted against the state’s new indoor smoking ban – which had been signed into law by her own running mate, Gov. Wilson.

Despite 1994 being a horrible Democratic year — with the loss of the U.S. Senate and House, as well as Republicans winning a majority in the California Assembly for the first time since 1970 – Davis won a landslide victory, thrashing Wright 52-40. One of only two Democrats to win statewide partisan office, he also received more votes (nearly 4.5 million) than any other Democratic candidate running for any office anywhere in America that year. South served as Lt. Gov. Davis’s Chief of Staff from 1995-99.