As the race for Los Angeles mayor heats up, many descriptors have been applied to Kevin James, one of the least-known of the leading candidates. A former radio talk show host who has worked as an attorney for 25 years, James is a fiscally conservative gay Republican. But in introducing himself to voters who will choose the city’s next mayor, James has emphasized one qualification above all: His status as an outsider.
“My opponents, they’ve been in office for over a decade; they’ve proven that their experience has failed the city,” James said in an interview with the Journal in January. “That opens the eyes of voters who are looking for new leadership.”
James, 49, has never before held public office, and he typically refers to the three leading candidates as if they were one block, holding them all – City Councilman Eric Garcetti, Controller Wendy Greuel, and Councilwoman Jan Perry – jointly responsible for a Los Angeles that is, in his view, mired in crisis.
“We have a jobs crisis, we have a budget crisis, we have an infrastructure crisis, an education crisis, a transportation crisis, a public safety crisis, a corruption crisis,” James said in his opening statement at a candidates’ debate held at Congregation Beth Jacob in early January. “In short, we have a leadership crisis.”
James, who grew up in Norman, Okla., is one of two candidates among the top five without a personal or familial connection to Judaism (“I have searched my family tree far and wide,” he said with a smile). He presents his resume as having prepared him well to become the leader of America’s second-largest city.
As a litigator and entertainment lawyer in the private sector, James said he developed negotiating skills that L.A.’s next mayor will need. James also pulled a stint in the public sector, as an assistant U.S. attorney in L.A., and he makes frequent mention of his work in the nonprofit sector, as a volunteer officer on the board of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) for six years in the 1990s.
“We had a $20-million-a-year budget,” James said of APLA, adding that that Hermosa Beach’s budget was roughly that size at the time.
James said he realized he wanted to run the city of Los Angeles not through an epiphany, but rather as a goal that developed over time.
“It’s easier to point out the problems,” James said of his years hosting a late-night show on KRLA. “Offering solutions is harder, and I always wanted to focus on offering solutions, too.”
Listeners encouraged him to run for office, James said, and now he’s working to win over enough of the electorate between now and March 5 to make him one of the top two finishers in the city’s non-partisan primary election.
An ABC News poll released on Jan. 16 showed James with support from 12 percent of likely voters, tied for third place with Perry and trailing Garcetti and Greuel, who had 26 and 18 percent, respectively.
“I’m tied in polling with the millionaires in the race, if you will,” James said on the day that poll was released. “That’s a good place to be for a first-time candidate, for an outsider in this race.”
Greuel’s campaign dismissed the ABC News poll as “bogus,” and released its own poll showing Greuel leading the pack, with 20 percent support. In that poll, James had 7 percent support from likely voters.
Neither outcome would propel James into one of the two top spots necessary to move to a final runoff, so to win he’ll have to convince a lot of voters in a short time with not a lot of money. As of mid-January, he had just $48,000 in cash on hand, far less than Garcetti’s $3.5 million, Gruel’s $2.9million, and Perry’s $1.2 million. A fifth candidate, businessman and former mayoral aide Emanuel Pleitez, has $320,000.
James does have the backing of an independent Super PAC, which is funded in large part by a conservative billionaire from Texas. That group recently released a video advertisement that takes aim at the three incumbents, presenting them as beholden to public sector unions and positioning James as an outsider and potential reformer of City Hall.
As James’ candidacy has advanced – he’s well-funded enough to get invitations to every major debate, including the Jan. 26 televised debate on NBC 4 – journalists and others are paying closer attention to things he wrote and said during his years as a conservative pundit.
At a recent debate among the mayoral candidates hosted by the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, James was asked why he hasn’t talked more about the “illegal alien crisis” on the campaign trail, a subject he addressed on multiple occasions as a radio host.
And during a debate between the candidates for Los Angeles City Attorney in January, former Assemblyman Mike Feuer posed a sharp question to Greg Smith, another candidate for the city’s top lawyer spot, asking why Smith gave the maximum allowed donation to James, whom Feuer described as “an extreme, right-wing, Tea Party candidate.”
James has addressed Tea Party rallies in the past, and in the interview said he agrees with Tea Party positions on “some fiscal issues,” but he suggested some in the Tea Party would disagree with his support for same-sex marriage.
“Given my position on those social issues, I don’t think that I’m accurately described as a Tea Partier,” he said. “But if you want to talk about their concern for waste of federal money, of state money, of city money, then, yes, we’re going to align on those issues.”
As for immigration, James told the Journal his position has evolved, particularly after he participated as a volunteer lawyer at a naturalization workshop in 2010 sponsored by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“I do think it’s fair to say that over time, I have certainly become much more familiar with a number of differing sides of the issue,” James said.
James presents his changing ideas as an asset, evidence of his desire to keep learning about the residents of the city he hopes to lead. As a radio host, James spent more than a year visiting approximately 60 different neighborhood council meetings across Los Angeles, hearing residents complain about public safety, zoning, education and sanitation, among other subjects. He came away from the experience with a deep appreciation for the work of the neighborhood representatives and disappointed not to have seen more council members come to those meetings.
“What’s been frustrating about the City of Los Angeles and our elected leadership,” James said, “is they seem to have stopped wanting to learn about the city.”