Davis Has A Fighter In His Corner

Sandy Kleffman, Times Staff Writer

September 3, 2002

Contra Costa Times

Garry South leans forward in his chair, smiles slyly and steals a line from a Grateful Dead song: “What a long, strange trip this has been.”

South, Gov. Gray Davis’ senior political adviser, close confidant and political mastermind, is referring to this year’s gubernatorial race.

But he could be talking about his own journey from a small town in Montana to become one of the most influential men in the Golden State, just 11 years after his arrival.

As the gubernatorial race kicks into high gear this week, South is overseeing his third statewide campaign for Davis.

Unlike GOP rival Bill Simon Jr., who has grappled with numerous staffing changes, including four different campaign managers, in recent months, South has remained at Davis’ side for nine years.

Many believe that stability, combined with South’s renowned political savvy, gives Davis a key advantage in election battles.

“Garry South can finish Gray Davis’ sentences even before he starts the sentence,” said Republican political consultant Dan Schnur.

At first glance, the two seem an unlikely pair. South admits they are polar opposites in many ways.

South is brash, bold and occasionally profane, with a love of the fight, a biting sense of humor and an uncanny ability to get under an opponent’s skin.

He stands 6-foot-4 and has a hairstyle from the 1970s. He often shows up at events where an opponent is speaking, then holds court with reporters afterward, lambasting what he just heard.

Davis has a more reserved personality.

“Garry is loud and colorful and larger than life,” Schnur said. “Gray is none of those things. At a party, Garry is the guy in the center of the room with a lampshade on his head. Gray is the guy standing in the corner holding an appetizer tray.”

The two have different decision-making styles as well. It may be their differences, however, that cement them together.

If they were painters, South says, he would be a freehand impressionist, while Davis would be a paint-by-numbers realist.

“I do most of what I do by instinct and I trust my instincts almost totally,” South said during a recent interview in his Los Angeles office. “Gray is someone who thinks things through, games them out, thinks 16 steps ahead and goes into all the scenarios.”

They met in 1993, when South worked as communications director for Mike Woo, who was battling Richard Riordan to become Los Angeles’ next mayor.

Davis was state controller at the time. He saw a large newspaper photo of South locked in a heated confrontation with a Riordan supporter who was trying to disrupt a news conference.

“We were poking our fingers in each other’s chests and all that,” South said. “He liked what he saw as my aggressiveness, and that’s how it all started.”

Woo lost that election to Riordan, but South would have a chance to exact revenge nine years later.

In a cunning move that gained South national attention as a political strategist, he succeeded in knocking Riordan out of the GOP gubernatorial primary nomination last year with a blistering, $10 million ad campaign.

“I know Riordan like the back of my hand, much to his chagrin, I’m sure,” South chuckled.

South makes it a habit to study his opponents carefully, hoping to discover how to unnerve them and cause them to make mistakes.

“When I go to events where an opponent is speaking, I don’t go to disrupt it,” he said. “I go to watch them very carefully and soak it all in. How do they respond to things? How thick of a skin do they have? What are their mannerisms? What are their behavioral tics?”

South has plenty of detractors, who describe him as ruthless and focused only on winning. Critics call him “South the Mouth.” Even some supporters believe he goes too far at times.

“He’s a masterful strategist,” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor of political communications at Cal State Sacramento. “But he is in-your-face, and he’s almost always right, and many people find that annoying.”

Despite the outward differences, O’Connor believes Davis and South are very similar inwardly.

“They’re both eyes-on-the-prize and very directed, very methodical,” she said. “Most of us don’t have that inner resolve. We’ll get sidetracked. They do not.”

Others question whether South holds too much sway over the governor’s decisions.

“He may be the best in California and he deserves credit for what he does,” Schnur said. “But one thing that ought to concern people is whether even the best political consultant in the business should have the influence over state policy and the operation of the governor’s office that Garry possesses.”

Davis campaign press secretary Roger Salazar said it is simply an “urban legend” that South has that much sway over Davis’ decisions.

“The governor takes advice from everyone, synthesizes it and comes up with his own decision on how he’s going to act,” Salazar said.

Each weekday, South and other members of Davis’ top political strategy team participate in an 8:30 a.m. phone call with the governor. The discussions are free-wheeling, ranging from what is in the paper that day to what the governor should talk about at an upcoming news conference.

In their early days together, Davis would get upset about South’s more outrageous comments. He would circle a phrase in a newspaper article and grill South about why he said what he did. But then they came to an understanding, South said, that there are times South should say things that the governor can’t.

“I’m sure that still today, when he sees something I’ve said in the newspaper, his hair probably stands up on the back of his neck,” South said. “But he understands one thing, which is that quibble with my words all you might, one of the things I’m pretty good at is making my point.”

South compares political rhetoric to the sets he designed for theatrical productions during his high school and college days. He exaggerated textures and colors so the sets wouldn’t look washed-out from the third balcony.

“In politics, sometimes the more colorful you have to get, the more over the top you have to get in making a characterization or a point in order to get it to penetrate,” South said.

South has politics in his genes, dating back as far as the 1860s. His great-grandfather served as an elected official in Missouri for 42 years. His grandfather worked for a governor of Nebraska.

One of the first campaigns South ran was for his older brother, who often ignored his advice.

Today, South says he could not envision working a traditional job. He loves the “gonzo” nature of politics.

“I have a fairly pugnacious personality and I kind of enjoy the fight,” he said. “I get a big kick out of it. People who take everything I say at face value should go have their head examined. I enjoy the give and take and the warfare of it all.”

He grew up in Miles City, Mont. His father was a carpenter; his mother, a maid.

Before moving to California in 1991, he had worked in a variety of campaigns. He served a stint as communications director for former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste, and was a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.

Ironically, South came to California with the aim of leaving day-to-day politics.

He met his future wife while working on Woo’s campaign. It wasn’t quite love at first sight. He thought she was a Riordan operative trying to infiltrate the campaign. She thought he was gay.

They wed in 1995.

Davis first hired South in 1993 to lead his campaign for lieutenant governor. After winning that election, South became Davis’ chief of staff. Four years later, South ran Davis’ campaign for governor, leading him to a landslide victory.

After that election, instead of taking a position with the administration, South chose to head up the governor’s political operations from an office in Los Angeles.

South is not easy to characterize. Just when you think you have a handle on him, some new information pops up to throw you off.

He has unusual hobbies for someone who is drawn to the brawling nature of politics.

In his spare time, South designs liturgical vestments, creating fancy designs in velvet and brocade. He crafted the vestments worn by the priests at his nuptial Mass.

He’s not sure how he got started in this endeavor, although he’s always had an interest in art and won art contests as a young boy.

He grew up in a religious family and was baptized as an evangelical Christian in the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. But when he went to college, South began looking for something different. He decided to become an Episcopalian and grew fascinated by the ritual and symbolism involved.

“I started reading very widely about the history of the Christian church and how these ceremonies developed and what they all meant and what the vestments meant,” he said.

His office reflects his eclectic personality. One wall is lined with a bookshelf full of tapes of political ads used by various candidates over the years.

On another wall hangs a pink and green neon sign of a buffalo, given to him as a present at his 50th birthday party. He collects glass figurines of buffaloes, perhaps in a throwback to his Montana days.

In one corner sits a processional crucifix that he acquired from Mexico. He had it silver-plated and will send it to a church in Vancouver.

But it’s a meeting room near South’s office that catches the eye of visitors. Lining the walls are dozens of caricatures of Davis, some less than flattering, that South has collected over the years. The campaign team bought the originals from artists. They have 50 or 60 of them.

“Unlike the typical political office where you see whoever the candidate is with a thousand pictures of him with other politicians, we thought this was a little bit more irreverent and kind of counter-to-type in terms of the way people view Gray,” South said. “It’s a way to have fun. I don’t know if Gray likes them, but people who come in like them.”

Salazar calls South one of the most upbeat people he has worked with in politics.

“To find someone who enjoys every minute of his job, even during some of the tougher challenges, is rare,” Salazar said. “It really seems as though he finds joy in what he does every day.”

But the campaign life takes its toll. A bottle of Mylanta sat on South’s bookshelf during a recent interview. South had a bleeding ulcer after the 1998 gubernatorial race. At one point, when things looked bleak for Davis during that campaign, 14 staffers walked out the door. That left South to assume their tasks, writing speeches, handling scheduling and dealing with the media.

This campaign marks the first time South has overseen the campaign of an incumbent seeking re-election. Now, at age 51, he says it will be his last campaign.

He plans to take a few months off after the election, travel with his wife and decide what he wants to do. Since he went to work for Davis in 1993, he’s taken off only eight days at a time. He hasn’t had a single two-week vacation.

“I’ve had uncles and aunts die and haven’t been able to go to their funerals,” he said. “I had a niece get married and wasn’t able to go to her wedding. That’s the kind of thing a job like this does to you. At this stage in my life, I’m just not particularly willing to continue to do it on a daily basis.”

South isn’t sure what he will do, but notes that he has had offers to lecture on politics and that he’d ultimately like to write a book.

Others doubt that South will stay away from politics for long. But if this is indeed his last campaign, Schnur said California Republicans will throw a party the day after the election “because we won’t have to deal with him any more.”