Garry South: The Man Davis Relied On To Get Elected

Amy Chance

February 15, 1999

The Sacramento Bee

It was late August, just when the California gubernatorial campaign was preparing to move into high gear, and then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis was a little unnerved.

His campaign manager, Garry South, had flown back home to Montana to take his parents to Yellowstone National Park. There, South had collapsed with a bleeding ulcer, and was spending four days in intensive care in a hospital in Cody, Wyo.

“We had just started to put together a full-bore campaign . . . plus we were shooting (television) spots that week in San Diego. That’s what freaked Gray out,” South recalled.

South, discharged from the hospital on a Thursday afternoon, was back to work in Los Angeles the following Tuesday – against doctors’ orders and despite the fact he had lost one-third of his blood the week before.

“We had to start preparing for the Sacramento debate, which I thought was critical. I had to be involved in that,” South said.

The episode, say those who know the new governor and the man he relied on to get elected, was evidence both of South’s driven nature and the degree to which he has become indispensable to Davis in the course of nearly six years at his side.

“Gray has grown to depend on Garry to an extreme degree,” said David Doak, the media consultant for the Davis campaign. “I think Garry is probably going to be the guy that more than anyone else, Gray turns to for advice always.”

He is a political hard-baller of the first order, a one-man momentum machine.

Few who experienced South’s profane tirades about the likes of Al Checchi or Dan Lungren in the course of the campaign doubted his determination or his loyalty to Davis. But nearly everyone involved in the race would be surprised to learn where South came from.

Born in Miles City, Mont., to a deeply religious Fundamentalist family, South spent much of his early life at church.

His parents were largely uneducated. His father was a carpenter; his mother cleaned houses for rich Texans who had ranches in Montana. South, who is 47, grew up without television; he never saw a doctor as a child.

They worshiped at least three times a week – as many as eight when an itinerant evangelist was in town. Worship services were spare and unstructured, he said, involving “a lot of hollering and screaming, speaking in tongues, people falling flat on the floor in trances.” The churches were plain meeting houses with a pulpit and pews and not much else.

“I heard sermon after sermon where the minister would bang the Bible on the pulpit and say, “For my money, we ought to replace the Constitution of the United States with this book,’” South said.

So when Dan Lungren opened his campaign by declaring that “we have to be a religious people” if society is to succeed, South felt he was on familiar ground.

“The religion thing at the front of the campaign was like deja vu,” he said. “I knew exactly where it was coming from. It wasn’t a campaign tactic, it wasn’t a campaign strategy. It was the candidate firmly believing that he was right about these issues – particularly abortion and morality.”

Listen to South today on the subject of conservative Christians in politics:

“Like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ the Republican Party has been taken over from the inside by the Christian right,” South told reporters at a post-election conference. “Some of these people are right-wing, moralistic Christian Coalition fanatics who have chosen to play on the Republican side. They are not institutional Republicans. In a sense they don’t really care about the Republican Party.”

He makes no apologies for his views. “I understand them. I grew up in it,” he said. “I understand how they think.”

South’s opponents in the governor’s race wouldn’t argue that, whatever the reason, South demonstrated an ability to get under their candidates’ skin.

“You really had the sense that he had it figured out psychologically,” said GOP political consultant Dick Dresner, who worked on the campaign for Lungren, who has since taken a part-time job on the Catholic Family Radio Network. “He had Dan Lungren crazy. He was really able to push Dan’s buttons.”

It is not, however, that South has anything against religion. As with his pursuit of politics, he has thrown himself into the study of religious art and history with a passion he acknowledges as “bizarre.”

When as a college student searching for his own expression of Christianity he attended a friend’s Episcopal church, South was intrigued by what he saw and how different it was from the churches of his youth. He was fascinated by the candles, the paintings, the mosaics, the statues, the ceilings – and the vestments.

“They say the two things you should never talk about at a dinner party are politics and religion,” he said. “And those two things happen to be the things that most intrigue me, and always have.

“Being a curious person, it occurred to me, what do these things mean? I was fascinated by the whole 2,000-year history of the Christian religion.”

He went to the library and checked out books on liturgical vesture, the garments worn by priests during worship services.

Coupling his new-found knowledge with an interest in art, he began what would be a lifelong hobby – designing liturgical vestments.

In the midst of last year’s primary campaign, he completed a set for St. Mary of the Angels Parish in Los Angeles. Bright gold with red highlights, the garments are made of silk and velvet. He imported some of the fabric from Europe.

His hobby cost him at least one girlfriend – “We actually went to counseling over it,” he said – who simply found his interest in such an arcane subject too strange.

When in 1995 he married Christine Wei-li Lee, who heads corporate communications for a global executive search firm, South designed not only the vestments but the matrimonial Mass. Lee said Davis told her “it was the longest wedding he’s ever been to.”

“He’s sick. He’s a workaholic,” laughs Lee today. “He really loves the game. He really loves winning. He really likes the idea that the correct strategic communication can make a difference in a campaign. And he really, really has to work for someone he believes in.”

South was unemployed when he arrived in California in 1992, with no particular plans beyond spending the state pension he had earned as communications director for former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste. Before that, he worked as special assistant to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland in the Carter administration and ran a political action committee for the National Association of Realtors.

Out on his own, he formed EarWorks Inc., a radio production company. He ran a candidate in a feisty but ultimately unsuccessful race for Los Angeles County supervisor, then handled press for Los Angeles mayoral candidate Mike Woo against Dick Riordan, the winner that year.

In that campaign, South was photographed at a press conference in an in-your-face encounter with a Riordan supporter. It was that picture that attracted the attention of then-state Controller Gray Davis.

“He kept saying, “I’ve got a bunch of wimps on my press staff and they don’t protect me and defend me,’” South said. “He liked the fact that I was aggressive. . . . He was calling me on the order of about three or four times a day from that point forward.”

South became Davis’ alter ego, the profane and pushy persona that Davis could never be in public. He almost single-handedly ran Davis’ campaign for lieutenant governor in 1994. He then became Davis’ chief of staff, but it was clear he would leave when necessary to begin full-time work on Davis’ gubernatorial campaign.

By late 1997, he was one of the few sticking around. Between December of that year and April 1998, 14 people left the Davis operation. Few believed that Davis, facing the bottomless pockets of political newcomer Al Checchi, would survive the primary.

Davis pollster Paul Maslin, like others involved in the campaign, said South kept Davis’ head above water in that period. While Checchi was airing unusually early television ads, “we had Garry trekking around to insiders with a videotape of focus groups.” The tape,

South was convinced, showed that voters would never buy Checchi’s candidacy, no matter how much money he spent. South, who had grown up listening to “The Lone Ranger” on his parents’ cabinet-style radio, used that medium to Davis’ advantage in the primary at a time when they couldn’t afford to air television ads against their better-financed opponents.

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t worried.

“As long as I live, if I live to be 98 years old, that will probably be the low point of my whole life,” he said.

Eating irregularly and relying on aspirin to fend off hunger-induced headaches, he didn’t know he was developing an ulcer. He did know that he’d probably earned one.

There were days when to Lee it seemed that Davis, not she, was South’s spouse. South worked long hours, then recited poll numbers in his sleep.

“Gray would call him literally every night before he went to sleep, just to get reassured,” she said. “It’s no secret that Gray goes through staff because he wears people out. But, to his credit, Gray throughout the whole campaign never gave up on Garry, just like Garry never gave up on him.”

Last month, South was named campaign manager of the year for 1998 by the American Association of Political Consultants.

He has no intention of joining the Davis administration, opting instead to remain in Los Angeles. South, who earned little more than $100,000 working for Davis last year – a meager salary in his business – plans to make bigger money as a private consultant and take care of himself.

But South continues to serve as Davis’ political eyes and ears in a consulting role, and those who know him say it will take more than one person in government to fill his shoes.

“He just endlessly talks to people,” Dresner said. “If he hasn’t decided to hammer your brains in, he’s pretty easy to like.”