Blogger Anger over Newsom’s Choice of Garry South

by Randy Shaw on August 7, 2008

After recently attending Netroots Nation in Austin, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom appeared to be the bloggers’ preferred candidate for the 2010 California Governor’s race. But Newsom’s choice of Garry South to head his campaign has aroused great anger among this influential base. Back in January 2007, Brian Leubitz of Calitics wrote “An Open Letter to All Presidential Candidates”, urging them to reject South as a possible campaign manager. Leubitz cited South’s “utter disdain for the base of his party,” and argued that progressives must “put principle-free party operatives like this far, far away from our campaigns.” This week, after word emerged of Newsom’s hiring of South, blogger Bob Brigham denounced the choice, noting South’s prior work for Gray Davis and Joe Lieberman. Should Newsom have avoided South? Or does hiring the manager of the state’s last winning Democratic gubernatorial candidate send a message (especially to potential donors) that Newsom is in the race to win?

The Case Against South

During his tenure as Gray Davis’ campaign manager, Garry South did not make a lot of friends in either Sacramento or the state Democratic Party. Davis treated Democratic legislative leaders with disdain, and many shared Leubitz’s view that South had encouraged the Governor to “triangulate” at the expense of progressive interests.

South further alienated many Democrats with his scorched earth campaign on behalf of Steve Westly against Phil Angelides in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Many felt that South’s approach fatally weakened Angelides for the general election, and that South made matters worse by continually predicting (correctly, it turned out) that the Democrat would easily lose to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

South’s decision to run Joe Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign provides further support for the charge that he prefers to attack, rather than support, progressive Democrats. Lieberman was a strong supporter of the Iraq War who spent much of his campaign attacking the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

South has vigorously defended the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and believes that the victories of Bill Clinton and Gray Davis show that the registered Democrats are not as progressive as bloggers believe. Whether his perception has changed after the 2008 presidential primary season is unclear.

South’s Defense

South has defended himself against such criticism, claiming that Willie Brown, Antonio Villaraigosa, organized labor, and a host of prominent Democrats publicly criticized Angelides, backed his opponent, or ignored his general election campaign. South also has pointed to his success in securing Davis the nomination in 1998, and Davis’ ability to retain strong Democratic voter support in 2002 and even the 2003 recall despite overall low approval numbers (South did not manage the anti-recall campaign.)

Gray Davis had severe personality issues prior to hooking up with Garry South. While the campaign manager failed to rein in Davis’ negative tendencies, it is not clear that South can be blamed for Davis’ leadership failures.

But South’s work for Lieberman at a time when the Senator was already out of step with his Party confirms that South prefers candidates who are willing, and even eager, to attack Democratic progressives. This strategy will not bring Newsom the Democratic nomination in 2010, raising the central question: can South run a winning campaign that endorses, rather than challenges, a progressive agenda.

South would no doubt argue that he accomplished this in the 1998 Democratic primary. Davis ran to the left of challengers Jane Harman and Al Checchi, and was strongly backed by labor in the general election. I have also argued in the past that, for all of his deficits, the Davis governorship actually brought significant progressive gains; the problem was Davis’s (and perhaps South’s) failure to publicize them.

Can South Deliver?

Ultimately, candidates should pick campaign managers who can lead them to victory. And despite California being a solidly blue state, and with career politicians dominating statewide offices, there are not a lot of campaign managers who can say—as South can—that they have won a major statewide candidate campaign.

None of the figures involved in Newsom’s 2003 mayoral campaign have run a winning statewide campaign. Ace Smith, currently the state’s hottest campaign chief, is primarily loyal to Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa and was likely not available to head Newsom’s effort (if he was, Newsom made a big mistake in not hiring him.)

Other possible campaign heads include Chris Lehane, who no Democrat will hire due to his consultant work against SEIU. Richie Ross has many legislative clients, but his reputation among progressives is even worse than South’s. Gail Kaufman has run initiative rather than candidate campaigns, Clint Reilly appears retired, and then, sad to say and hard as it is to believe, the pool of experienced Democratic Party state campaign managers runs dry.

Parke Skelton ran the winning campaigns of State Controller John Chiang and Secretary of State Deborah Bowen, but also may have been already committed to Villaraigosa’s 2009 re-election campaign.

So for all of his unpopularity with bloggers, the traditional media, progressives and politicians, Garry South was likely the most experienced and competent campaign manager available. And when potential major donors here that South is running Newsom’s campaign, their reaction is likely to be: its good he picked someone with a proven track record and knows how to win.

Bob Shrum kept being hired to do media for Democratic Presidential campaigns despite a consistent record of failure. State and national campaign leaders seem to be like school superintendents; regardless of their actual performance, they keep getting hired due to the small pool of those with the necessary experience.

Newsom Cannot Win by Alienating Progressives

South has an unapologetically huge ego—his wife responded to Leubitz’s criticisms with a public e-mail claiming that he was wrong to “second guess one of the most brilliant political minds of our country”—and is clearly smarting over his failures with Lieberman and Westly. He badly needs a win to prove his critics wrong, and that means ensuring that Newsom runs a smart campaign.

Unless South’s anger toward the left has undermined his judgment, he has already recognized that his candidate is the new kid on the block competing with the tired old candidacies of Jerry Brown and John Garamendi. South also knows that the California Democratic primary voter is much more progressive today than when Gray Davis first ran in 1998, and that the DLC, neo-liberal agenda will not sell with the state’s Latino voters.

So logic says that South commands a campaign that focuses on the progressive agenda of health care, the environment, labor and gay rights, and education. Newsom has sought to occupy the progressive field in all of these areas, and for South to reverse course at this point and redirect the mayor toward the center would undermine Newsom’s credibility and kill his candidacy.

So my sense is that South feels he can best disprove his critics through Newsom’s election, even if this means running a campaign that courts, rather than purposely alienates, progressive votes.

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