Candidate Closeup: Kevin James

Listen to an audio story from Annenberg Radio News

imagePhoto by Graham Clark/Neon Tommy.

Kevin James is more like a watchdog than a City Hall outsider—a longtime Angeleno keeping a careful eye on its policymakers. For more than six years, he hosted a talk radio show about LA politics on KRLA (AM 870).

James cancelled the show when he started his mayoral run more than a year ago. He spent much of his airtime providing conservative commentary on politics, national and local. He also aired shows about each of the city’s neighborhood councils.

James has no direct political experience—he grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, served as an assistant U.S. attorney, then practiced entertainment law in LA. He also spent two years directing AIDS Project Los Angeles. If elected, James would be LA’s first openly gay mayor.

A gay Republican leading a decidedly Democratic city. An ex-prosecutor taking out-of-state campaign funding in a scene dominated by unions and political partnerships. That resume may seem contradictory—but longtime city reporter Ron Kaye says it’s at least as valuable as one from City Hall.

“I think Kevin James has raised the most amount of issues with the best knowledge of what’s broken,” said Kaye. “Nobody, I don’t think, has an answer, and the closest to it is James, in that he would negotiate and put the unions under pressure. But he’s a Republican, and I think he would have a very hard time getting the leverage and support that he needs from City Hall.”

James talks confidently, though. Like every candidate, he says the city budget is his first priority—and he has a five-year plan that is heavy on numbers. He would balance the budget with pension reform, tax loophole closures and increased revenue.

By lowering business tax rates, James thinks he’ll drive investment during his first term—and he says new companies will bring in enough revenue to eliminate the need for tax increases on individuals. But… if it comes down to it, he says he’s willing to raise taxes.

“Because I am the fiscal conservative in the field, and because my opponents have lost whatever credibility they had on tax increases… When I come in and give an independent look to the books on these projects, if I have to tell the voters that this is a tax increase that we need for whetever the purpose is, I’ve got much more credibility with them than they my opponents do,” James said.

James comes across as straightforward. He didn’t equivocate when I asked about the controversial decision to allow Wal-Mart to put a store in Chinatown: “I supported it. The community wanted it,” James said. “I won’t say no to any private industry that wants to come here. I know Wal-Mart is controversial, but you know what? Our city needs jobs.”

That directness appeals to some voters, like Sherri Bell, a South LA native who attended a recent mayoral forum.

“Kevin James, I feel, did a good job in today’s forum… You have to have a plan in order to execute the goals you’re telling the public you’re going to reach,” Bell said.

James’s experience as a talk show host sparks his energy—especially the neighborhood council series. During our interview, he rapped his fingers fervently when he described talking directly to the public.

“The neighborhood councils, I kind of fell into, and have developed a real appreciation for,” James said. “If you want to know what is really happening in LA, you go to the neighborhoods.”

James wants to offer neighborhood council seats on city-wide commissions that will advise him personally. These people are already engaged … and James says it would be a shame not to put their energy toward actual policymaking.

“These people are volunteering their time. They’re learning city issues. And they’re doing it for free because they love their city, they love their neighborhoods, they love their kids, and they love their community. And I don’t know a city in the country that has the kind of volunteer and city engagement that we have in LA,” James said.

That really resonates with Collins Osagiede, who serves on the Silver Lake neighborhood council.

“The more you get your neighborhood councils involved, the more you get your neighborhoods involved, because for a long time it’s always felt like there was a dichotomy—the people who wear the suits and make the speeches, and the people who live real life,” Osagiede said.

Journalist Ron Kaye sees that, too. He thinks James is genuinely interested in the good of all Angelenos because he’s been so curious for so many years.

“Kevin paid a lot of dues… I was on his radio show,” Kaye said. “I think he knows what people are upset about throughout the entire city better than any of the other candidates, because he’s been out there talking to people and looking for news.”

James was endorsed by Former Republican mayor Richard Riordan. He’s also taken money from big-name out-of-state donors—among them, Harold Simmons, a Texas industrialist who’s bankrolled conservative campaigns for decades. Another donor is Republican advertiser Fred Davis, who managed media strategy for John McCain in 2008. His campaign office in Studio City is staffed by a small, spry strategy team.

But the numbers aren’t in his favor—only sixteen percent of voting Angelenos are Republicans.

“The question is, has he been able to convince other constituencies that he’s the right man for the job? I don’t know that I see evidence of that,” Kaye said.

James may not be able to win the March fifth primary, but he could pull enough votes to influence who advances to May’s runoff election. And a strong showing for moderate James in solidly Democratic LA could galvanize the Republican Party nationwide.

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