Southern Strategy: Meet Garry South, the Man Behind California’s GOP-Primary Upset — and a Player in the 2004 Campaign

Howard Fineman

March 18, 2002


For Karl Rove, California is a forbidding place, full of hostile Democrats. Even so, the White House’s political mastermind thought he’d found a way to establish a Republican beachhead in the Golden State: back Richard Riordan, the popular former mayor of Los Angeles, for governor against Gray Davis, the pallid and unpopular Democratic incumbent. Riordan seemed perfect to lead a Left Coast GOP: Republican, but nominally; Roman Catholic, but officially pro-choice; wealthy, used to speaking his mind, and therefore refreshingly “maverick.” Besides, President George W. Bush’s best buddies in the state liked him. (One was a former law partner.) Riordan was eager to begin with, but Rove left nothing to chance. He took Riordan to the White House Mess and encouraged him to run. Rove managed to avoid a meeting with Riordan’s main potential competitor for the GOP nomination, another wealthy (but far more conservative) businessman named Bill Simon Jr.

But there was something important Rove didn’t know and, in retrospect, should have feared: Riordan would be chum in the waters patrolled by Davis’s own political mastermind, a cheerfully Machiavellian shark named Garry South. Before signing on with Davis in 1994, South had run a losing mayoral race against Riordan, and still possessed file drawers full of “oppo” and a keen desire for revenge. If nothing else, South and Davis could dull the luster of Riordan’s L.A. record. Or, if they were lucky, they could destroy him, and leave the Republicans with Simon, whose pro-life, anti-gun-control and pro-voucher views are anathema to most swing voters in California. South bided his time, then struck: $10 million of carefully pretested TV spots that attacked Riordan, especially for flip-flops on abortion. Caught in a social-issue riptide, Riordan soon was losing pro-choice GOP women and the right-to-lifers at the same time. In last week’s Republican primary, Simon won going away. “Riordan’s credibility collapsed,” South said, smiling.

Consultants aren’t usually worth a story, but this one is. South is a one-man brain trust on the battlements of Fort California, the political partner (“adviser” is too mild a term) for a boss who may well go national if he wins re-election. South is a coldblooded mako, but goes for the center as well as the jugular. He sells Davis to “inland” voters by stressing his faith in the death penalty, tough sentencing policies and service in Vietnam. In 2000, South pleaded with Al Gore to attend an American Legion convention in the state. “I said, ‘Al, you’re a veteran! You can wear one of those hats!’ ” Gore refused. “He won California but he never understood it,” South says. If Davis wins and doesn’t run for president, South will be a white-hot hire for everyone who is. He can tap California’s big money. In 2004, the state will stage a pivotal primary. And now he’s shown a knack for foiling Rove’s plans.

Whoever hires South will get the state of the art. In trendsetting California that means a consultant more colorfully quotable than the candidate, and hungrier for the limelight. The 50-year-old South grew up in small-town Montana, in a family of local politicos. As a teenager he used his savings for summer train trips to distant cities — Denver, St. Louis and his favorite, Chicago — studying old maps and guidebooks like a dutiful tourist. By the age of 28 he was back in Chicago, breaking bread each day with scions of the legendary Daley machine, managing what turned out to be one of the year’s nastiest Senate races. He lost. Years in the wilderness followed: a stint at a real-estate lobby in Washington, D.C., a job with an Ohio governor. In 1991, when South was a 40-year-old bachelor with murky pros-pects, he made the inevitable move: to L.A.

Now he’s the toast of the town, married to a journalist and profiled on the front page of the papers. From now until November, South’s goal is to tear Simon limb from limb. The Davis campaign has $30 million in the bank, and many (newly filled) drawers full of oppo. “Simon is a garden-variety right-winger,” South says disdainfully, as if the job will be too easy to bother with.

He knows better, or should. A week is a lifetime in politics, and the election is eight months away. Simon will meet with Bush later this month in Washington, NEWSWEEK has learned, and the president will travel to California in April to campaign for him. Simon is a novice, but a quick study, and his amateur status could contrast nicely with Davis, an insider wrestling with budget woes and rickety schools and roads. The son of a Nixon-Ford Treasury secretary, Simon is also a fervent Catholic who has made the pilgrimage to Lourdes. So he believes in the triumph of faith over pain, which may be good preparation for dealing with the campaign to come.