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The State | George Skelton CAPITOL JOURNAL

$10,000 Spent by Strategist in '93 Served '02 Davis Campaign Well

January 13, 2003|George Skelton

Berkeley — Berkeley

Gov. Gray Davis spent $65 million getting reelected, but perhaps the single expenditure that helped him most was not his and occurred a decade ago.

For $10,000, a little-known videotape was purchased that showed future L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan calling abortion "murder." The tape of an old cable TV interview and all the rights to it were obtained by Garry South, then a spokesman for Councilman Michael Woo, Riordan's unsuccessful runoff opponent in the 1993 mayoral election.

South soon became Davis' chief strategist. And in 2002, the tape wound up in a devastating Davis attack ad that crippled Riordan's bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

The Democratic governor feared Riordan more than any other potential opponent and spent $9 million pummeling him with TV ads in the Republican primary. "We could not allow him to come out of the primary unscathed with a lead on us," South told a conference of political pros and junkies Saturday.

Davis didn't fear Riordan just because they shared moderate positions on social issues. They also shared Southern California campaign contributors, South noted. "It would have complicated our lives keeping our own donor base in line."

"If Riordan had been the nominee," South continued, "there would have been substantial Democratic defections right away."

Also, Riordan had a solid image in Southern California "as a very successful mayor.... What would be our message line against this guy?" Riordan, of course, ultimately lost big to political novice Bill Simon Jr., Davis' preferred punching bag for November.

South calls the anti-Riordan abortion ad -- featuring the tape purchased with Woo campaign money -- "our knockout blow."

The 2002 gubernatorial contest was dissected -- ugly innards and all -- in a post-mortem sponsored by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. On a misty day in an ivory tower, campaign gurus candidly discussed for history their strategies before scores of captivated pros, journalists and scholars.

There were gasps when South revealed he had paid $10,000 for the killer TV tape.

A young woman, Lauren Steiner, had interviewed civic activist Riordan for a small Westside cable station in 1991 and the 30-minute show was rerun in 1993 during the mayoral race. On the 2-year-old tape, Riordan had said he agreed "very strongly" with the Catholic Church on abortion because "I think it's murder."

When Riordan became a politician, however, he ran as a "pro-choice" moderate who supported abortion rights. That made him acceptable to many Democrats, especially women -- and a flip-flopper.

South learned of the tape and contacted the interviewer. "She was very nonpolitical," the strategist recalled, "and very suspicious about our motivation."

Outspoken, tenacious and 6-foot-4, South indeed can be intimidating. "But she did agree to go have lunch with me," he said.

"I had to have lunch with her three times to get her to cough up a simple VHS copy of the program.... Ultimately we bought this [tape] for $10,000.... It took a lot of sweet talking."

Woo used the tape briefly in a TV ad. But he had little money to buy time and the $10,000 investment didn't pay off -- for him.

An orderly pack rat, South socked the tape away in a climate-controlled storage unit, then retrieved it for Davis. The governor planned to wait until fall to use the tape, which also contained other potentially damaging Riordan comments. But he and advisors concluded waiting was too risky. They had to muddy Riordan early.

"The perfect trap" was laid, said Davis ad-maker David Doak. Their spot would imply that Riordan opposed abortion rights. If he denied it, that would hurt him among core Republican conservatives in the March primary. Refusing to deny he was "pro-life" would damage him among moderates in November.

They ran the ad by focus groups -- then spent $3 million-plus airing it.

"Right-to-lifers thought this guy was truly right-to-life but had cravenly changed his position to run for mayor," South said. "The pro-choicers thought the guy was just a liar."

On Saturday, former Riordan strategist Kevin Spillane agreed the ad had "a dramatic impact," costing the candidate substantial support, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.

How did Riordan strategists react when the ad suddenly popped up all over California, somebody asked. Spillane's reply can't be printed here.

A decade after losing his mayor's race, Woo -- because of an old campaign move -- gets credit for initiating a mortal blow to Riordan's political career.

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