PUBLIC LIVES: A Carville of California Politics Plans to Deliver for Gore

Todd S. Purdum

February 12, 2000

The New York Times

In 1991, Garry South arrived here with no job, few contacts and $16,000 from cashing out his pension after three years as communications director for the embattled Democratic governor of Ohio, Richard F. Celeste. To keep busy, he freelanced features for The Glendale News-Press, a local weekly. At $60 a pop, he wrote about subjects like a 50-year-old turtle, and a Girl Scout troop that marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade.

“Not high-toned stuff,” Mr. South said.

Today, Garry South is perhaps the most influential political adviser in California, the gray eminence behind Gov. Gray Davis and the man being charged with the task of helping deliver the nation’s most populous state to Al Gore, first in the Democratic primary against Bill Bradley next month, and then in the general election this fall.

This week Mr. South rushed from an inspection tour of the new Staples Arena, where the Democratic National Convention will be held this summer, to the State Democratic Convention in San Jose, where Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley are to speak today.

“Bradley’s down below the horizon,” Mr. South said, echoing the polls. “Nobody cares, nobody’s interested in what he has to say, nobody’s listening to him, not even getting into the fact that he started this campaign as Professor Jekyll and is now behaving like Mr. Hyde.”

There was a time when almost nobody listened to Mr. South. There were the four years as chief of staff in the lieutenant governor’s office for Mr. Davis, a notoriously difficult boss and a 1998 campaign for governor that no one thought Mr. Davis could win, including 14 senior aides who defected before the candidate could afford to run his first television commercial.

Finally, a surprising victory in the Democratic primary and a stunning 20-point victory that November that made Mr. Davis the first Democrat to lead California in 20 years.

But not before Mr. South, the campaign manager, collapsed with a bleeding ulcer.

“I needed 54 fingers to keep my fingers in the dikes,” Mr. South said in an interview in the old Davis headquarters here, where he now works as the governor’s chief political honcho, paid by the state Democratic Party. “There were literally days when it was just him and me, plus a couple of people to answer the phones.”

Mr. South’s given name is a near anagram of his boss’s, and he has become an alter ego something like James Carville, a tireless defender, advocate and occasional bomb-thrower. “In fact,” Mr. South said, “Gray has said to me, ‘I want you to be like that bald guy that Clinton has,’ because he can’t remember his name.”

Mr. South, 48, has a full head of bushy hair, a basketball player’s 6-foot-4-inch frame and the undiminished enthusiasm of Miles City, Mont., where he grew up the son of a carpenter who served on the City Council and a mother “who cleaned the houses of rich people from Texas.” He speaks in paragraphs, and his pace is intense.

“I would describe him as a nice pit bull,” said Vicky Rideout, who hired Mr. South to be communications director for the unsuccessful 1993 Los Angeles mayoral campaign of City Councilman Mike Woo, when Mr. South first caught Mr. Davis’s eye. “If you get him on the phone,” Ms. Rideout said, “you’ve got to make sure you clear your calendar.”

Politics fills his family tree, back to his great-grandfather, who was a justice of the peace in Nishnabotna Township, Mo.

“This is a genetic defect, not an epiphany,” he says. His brother won a seat in the Montana State Legislature in a campaign Mr. South managed in 1974. Two years later, Mr. South was Montana state coordinator for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.

“I did the inaugural invitation list for the state, and then I loaded up my car and went to the bank and lied and said I had a big-paying job in Washington,” Mr. South recalled. “I got a $2,000 loan, replaced two of the four bald tires on my car and set out in a blinding snowstorm to move to Washington.”

Political jobs followed: Midwest regional finance director for the Democratic National Committee, manager of a Democratic Senate campaign in Illinois, chief advance man for Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, vice president of political communication for the National Association of Realtors.

Finally, Mr. South was drawn to California by, what else, “the weather.”

He is the governor’s most trusted adviser, and spends much of his time interpreting Mr. Davis’s wishes for aides in Sacramento.

But no more government work for him.

“I worked for state government in three different states, plus the federal government,” he said. That’s enough for one lifetime. I have over 10 years of experience as a government employee but I was never at any one of those places long enough to vest, so I have no government pension whatsoever.” He supplements his pay with work as a consultant, for the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller and others. That has raised the eyebrows of some good-government types, who complain that instead of moving through the usual revolving door of politics and private sector, Mr. South is stuck in it.

But he says he turns down any client that could embarrass the governor.

“I’ve spent seven years of my life helping Gray get where he is today,” he said. “Why would I endanger that by going out and shilling for somebody on a dubious matter?”