This article is part of an ongoing content partnership between Neon Tommy and L.A. Currents.
If the Los Angeles mayoral race was decided strictly by debate performances, Kevin James would be running away with it.
Watching James in action, you are quickly reminded what made him such a successful litigator and radio talk-show host. He speaks knowledgeably on a wide range of city issues and has held his own against three opponents who have a combined tenure inside City Hall of close to 40 years. He has also shown himself to have the best sense of humor of all the candidates, which combined with his friendly features and Midwest sensibilities, has allowed him to land some decisive rhetorical blows.
On a cool February evening at Loyola Marymount University, in front of a mixed crowd of students, activists, and local political personalities, James quickly grabbed hold of the audience. He drew applause when he engaged the crowd with cheerful policy explanations and laughs when he took digs at the three incumbent candidates for, among other things, failing to create jobs “the last 12 years they’ve been in office” and knowing where the accounting “bodies are buried.”
The crowd became most animated when the proposed Los Angeles International Airport renovation came up. That plan would move the northern runway and reroute a major local thoroughfare. Earlier that day, the L.A. Board of Airport Commissioners had voted 6-1 to approve the plan. Mention of that vote was met with boos and jeers by the Westchester crowd. All five mayoral candidates gave “we need to do more research” answers when asked if they supported the plan, but the hostility of the local crowd toward the process was real.
Asked a few days before the debate about the airport renovation controversy, James chalked the conflict up to a simple lack of trust between government officials and the people who elect them.
“The people in Westchester don't trust City Hall. They don't trust them, and they don't believe what they're being told.”
Los Angeles is not so much a city as it is a confederation of neighborhoods, and Westchester was just one of dozens of neighborhoods that hosted a mayoral debate over the past several months. Among the candidates — City Councilman Eric Garcetti, City Councilwoman Jan Perry, City Controller Wendy Greuel, and the former Spokeo executive Emanuel Pleitez — James is the only Republican.
To pull off an upset victory, James is going to need a coalition of Republicans and “Riordan Democrats,” largely middle-to-upper class Westside and San Fernando Valley whites who supported former Republican mayor Richard Riordan (who endorsed James last month). But James is not running a typical GOP campaign. He thinks he can attract voters in less affluent and more ethnically diverse parts of the city who he claims have been ignored by City Hall.
“Much of what you hear about our current elected officials is that they've turned their backs on those communities, and they've focused entirely on the special interests that run City Hall — which means they've focused really only on city employees, satisfying city employees because their unions keep them in office.”
James is not running against Garcetti, Greuel, or Perry as individuals but as a collective representation of City Hall. When he calls them out for helping foster a “government of potholes, parking tickets, and high utility rates,” he’s tapping into a legitimate vein in the electorate. He is betting that in a low-turnout, off-year election packed with establishment candidates his rage against an unpopular machine could prove more successful than most observers predict.
James is a true fiscal conservative and has been pushing a platform of tax cuts, eased regulations on business, and a tougher line on organized labor. He is backed by billionaire Texas industrialist Harold Simmons. When it comes to education reform, he supports school choice and parent trigger laws, and would entertain the idea of breaking up LAUSD.
“It may be [too big],” he said. “It's certainly not succeeding.”
As an openly gay man, James is much more in line with liberal mainstream L.A. voters on social and lifestyle issues. He supports full LGBT rights. He wants to expand public rail transit. He backs medical marijuana. He is the owner of a rescue dachshund and is pushing for a “no-kill” Los Angeles.
James’ bête noire is a compromised city government that he says acts in lockstep with the unions. The dismal state of the city’s books and ballooning pension liabilities have made public-sector unions a touchstone in this election, and James is the one candidate who isn’t pulling any punches.
Responding to a question about how L.A. could fix its substandard infrastructure and create private-sector jobs, James blamed City Hall’s inability to stand up to city employees as the culprit. “Yet again, it's an opportunity to improve the infrastructure, to make Los Angeles more welcoming to business,” he said. “And [City Hall] squandered it because they had to pay off the salary raises that they never should have signed off on to begin with.”
A native of Oklahoma, James came to Los Angeles in 1988 when he was hired out of the University of Houston Law Center as an intern at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He then went to work as an assistant United States attorney before returning to private practice as a litigator in the entertainment industry.
Working in and around Hollywood, James eventually caught the media bug himself, and in 2003 he made his debut as a guest host and legal analyst on KABC. After a short detour doing a morning show in Oklahoma City, he returned to L.A. with a late-night call-in show on conservative outlet KRLA.
James’ ascending profile landed him some television appearances, including one on Hardball with Chris Matthews where the future mayoral hopeful did not distinguish himself as a World War II historian. In 2011 he put aside his radio career to focus on running for office.
There are two areas where James has had to modify his hard-right views — immigration and the environment.
He once pushed for a double-tracked border fence (but only because a wall wasn’t on the table) and a law mandating employer verification of immigration status. His position has softened, which he attributes to spending more time in Latino communities. James has gone from sounding alarm bells about the existential threat of “illegal aliens” to telling voters, “We do need comprehensive immigration reform.” James likes to refer to his ideological shift on this issue as an evolution; others might view it more cynically.
One gets the sense that James is trying to downplay the immigration issue as much as possible in a Los Angeles election. It’s the singular topic he does not consistently win while debating, either on points or applause, and on a campaign website that details his positions on some 27 issues, immigration is nowhere to be found.
James, once a proud global warming skeptic, is much more comfortable elaborating on his new stance on climate issues. His website now reminds voters that “being environmentally aware is not an option; it’s a moral imperative.”
James has partnered with Bring Hollywood Home, a foundation dedicated to incentivizing movie production in Los Angeles, to endorse a proposal called the Los Angeles Production Benefit. The plan would require unionized production crew members who are either out of work or between jobs to work at a lower rate so that independent movie producers can make union films in Los Angeles.
Asked why union members would agree to something that cuts the safety net out from below their collectively bargained wage minimums, James pointed at the economic realities of the industry where other states and countries are using tax incentives to pull movie production away from L.A.
“Well, they don't have to participate if they don't want to,” he said. “If they don't want to work for this adjusted rate and would rather not work at all, then this model is not going to work. And it's not going to work on every production. But as long as the unions are on board, and the studios are on board, I think it's something that we should try to keep these independent productions here.”
Kevin James is asking voters if they think the city of Los Angeles is working for them. James is gaining notoriety and ground blaming a toxic City Hall culture that he says has infected the trio of Garcetti, Greuel, and Perry. If voters want reform, he argues, he’s the only candidate with the political freedom of a true outsider who can deliver it — all with a showman’s verve.