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.

First Harvey Milk Day celebrated in Los Angeles

A rally at the federal building and Father Serra Park downtown was just one of the events held across Los Angeles today as part of the first annual Harvey Milk Day.

The holiday honors what would have been the 80th birthday of Milk, who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and became the first openly gay man to serve in California politics. He was assassinated 11 months later.

The march downtown followed the tradition of Milk’s political activism, including a speech delivered by megaphone and atop a soapbox. It was aimed at expressing “one single demand”: equal protection under the law in all 50 states, a spokesperson said.

LAist reports that other celebrations included an official gathering at Madame Tussauds including Milk’s nephew.  There was also a door-to-door campaign for marriage equality in East Los Angeles, a picnic in Brentwood and a fundraiser hosted by the Osbourne family. In West Hollywood, Mayor Pro Tempore John Duran introduced an anti-bullying project designed to protect LGBT students.

Last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzennegger signed a bill declaring May 22 Harvey Milk Day.  A petition asking him to do so received 50,000 signatures from Californians.

But not all Californians have taken as enthusiastically to the new holiday.  Kern County’s school board voted not to recognize it.

In Los Angeles, though Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa more than endorsed the event. He wrote a blog on The Huffington Post celebrating Milk, and asking Angelenos to join in on what he declared the Harvey Milk Day of Service, including a clean-up of the Vermont Square Community Garden.

Activists ask South LA voters to reconsider ban on same-sex vows

INGLEWOOD – The grassroots campaign for marriage equality reached into South Los Angeles when gay organizations sent dozens of volunteers into neighborhoods to build support for the repeal of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage.

Using Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood as their home base for the one-day canvass, 70 volunteers last Saturday (July 11) descended on homes in middle-class Leimert Park and upper middle-class Baldwin Hills, hoping for open doors and tolerant minds in a statewide campaign to roll back Prop 8. The anti-gay marriage measure was narrowly approved by voters last November and was largely upheld by the California Supreme Court this spring. The defeats at both the ballot box and in the courts have prompted gay and lesbian organizations to regroup through neighborhood canvassing efforts throughout Los Angeles County and the state.

In Inglewood, the volunteers met at Holy Faith church for an hour of instruction in how to engage voters on the topic of same-sex marriage in communities of color that have stood firm against expanding the definition of marriage. Once in the field, some volunteers reported voters doors slammed in their faces. Others were given hearings, then politely turned away; in rare instances, some voters minds were changed. Face to face conversations are key to educating Angelenos, canvass organizers said.

"You have to put a face on it [marriage equality],” said Sky Johnson, senior policy counsel for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, one of three organizers of the event. “You have to meet people where they are.”

The weekend canvass was the third in Los Angeles County, but the first into South Los Angeles, where sensibilities and history may make building support for same-sex marriage exceedingly difficult. The African-American community anchored historically by its churches has, as a rule, opposed the gay-rights campaign and has bristled over comparisons by gay advocates that the GLBT campaign is comparable to the black Civil Rights movement. Johnson said, however, the perception that all African Americans oppose gay rights is wrong.

Changing minds, one voter at a time

Educated and younger African Americans tend to support gay rights, Johnson said. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, whose district encompasses South Los Angeles, along with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, is on the record supporting marriage for all, said Johnson. Older African Americans, and those who are religious, often oppose the gay-rights agenda. The same is true of all California voters, Johnson said, including Latinos, Asians and whites, particularly if voters have strong ties to organized religion, as is the case in South Los Angeles, where churches are a strong presence.

The door-to-door canvassing, previously conducted in Pasadena and Glendale, target communities where Prop 8 was narrowly approved. Johnson said moving electoral support five to 10 percentage points in these swing voting districts in favor of same-sex marriage could result in its passage the next time the issue becomes before voters, who endorsed marriage between a man and woman last November by just 300,000 votes statewide. The gay and lesbian groups also have embraced the more neutral “marriage equality” versus the “same-sex marriage” label, which many voters found incideniary and focused on gas and lesbians. The more expansive “marriage equality” could also apply to unmarried heterosexual couples.

Even so, volunteers encountered cool, even hostile, receptions.  “It was kind of disheartening to have the door slammed in my face,” said Danny Daniels, a 23-year-old artist living in Los Angeles. Of the 30 doors he knocked on in the upscale Baldwin Hills neighborhood, 10 were open and four doors were opened long enough to be slammed shut. “Older African American people are just stuck in their old religious ways.”

Another volunteer encountered a voter who listened politely and then responded with a response the volunteer found disarmingly honest.  "I’m praying for an answer, not from my minister, but in my heart," the woman told the young volunteer. The meeting hall erupted in thunderous applause.

There were light moments, too, that smoothed some of the hard reactions several of the volunteers encountered. One young man told of encountering an older resident, who told the volunteer, “the idea of two men getting together gives me a stomach ache.” To which the young volunteer responded: “Sir, the idea of you in the bedroom turns my stomach. This isn’t about the bedroom. It’s about equality.”  The older man laughed, enjoying the comeback, and though the volunteer didn’t change the voter’s mind, the door by door campaign is, according to organizers, sowing at least seeds of awareness.

“Sometimes it’s hard to do this work,” Regina Clemente told the assembled volunteers after they shared their stories. Clemente, the field director for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. “But I reground myself by reminding myself how I felt on the night of the election…I never want to feel that way again.”

Other gay and lesbian organizations are conducting similar canvassing efforts in California cities and towns in anticipation of an another vote on the issue, possibly as early as next year or in 2012, Johnson said. To that end, the 70 volunteers who trudged through Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park under warm 80-degree temperatures last Saturday visited 1,677 homes, a number when announced by Clemente elicited whoops and applause.

FURTHERMORE: Gay organizers identified the Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood as a potential meeting place after organizers used Google to identify gay-friendly congregations in South Los Angeles. Other faiths that have supported the same-sex campaign across the country include the Unitarian and United Church of Christ, though the support by these churches has generated controversy within their organizations….Six states  – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire – have passed laws in support of same-sex marriage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A state by state roll of the status of same-sex marriage legislation is available at the NCSL web page. Saturday’s canvass was organized and sponsored by the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, Vote for Equality and Equality California, all organizations working for the repeal of Proposition 8.