Closeups of the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral race candidates

As Antonio Villaraigosa bows out of his role as Los Angeles Mayor, several candidates have stepped up to the stage to snag his spot. Those looking to replace him are City Council Members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, entrepreneur Emanuel Pleitez, former federal prosecutor Kevin James and City Controller Wendy Greuel.

Rosalie Murphy has profile of the candidates to discover the issues they want to address for Angelenos.

Candidate Closeup: Eric Garcetti
City Councilmember Eric Garcetti leads polling in the days before LA’s mayoral primary. But is he a strong enough personality to lead the city politically? MORE…

Candidate Closeup: Wendy Greuel
In the days before March’s mayoral primary, City Controller Wendy Greuel leads the field in funds raised. She is expected to advance to the May runoff election. MORE…

Candidate Closeup: Kevin James
Kevin James is more like a watchdog than a City Hall outsider—a longtime Angeleno keeping a careful eye on its policymakers. MORE…

Candidate Closeup: Jan Perry
There are two narratives about City Councilmember Jan Perry. MORE…

Candidate Closeup: Emanuel Pleitez
Emanuel Pleitez is the Los Angeles mayoral race’s undisputed underdog. MORE…

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.

L.A. mayoral candidates debate at Empowerment Congress

By Max Schwartz and Rosalie Murphy
Photos By Katherine Davis

The Empowerment Congress kicked off its 21st annual summit at USC on Saturday. Its opening session was a debate in which the five mayor candidates who have raised the most money discussed arts funding, gun violence, homelessness and the Leimert Park metro station.

imageMayoral candidates Emanuel Pleitez, Eric Garcetti, Jan Perry, Kevin James and Wendy Greuel answer questions at Empowerment Congress forum.

Candidates Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel, Kevin James, Jan Perry and Emanuel Pleitez spoke at the forum hosted by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the Second District that covers South LA.. Candidates Yehuda Draiman, Addie Miller and Norton Sandler were not present.

Ridley-Thomas called the Congress to order shortly after 9:10 a.m. When he was a City Council member, Ridley-Thomas helped found the Congress in 1992 “to make government more accessible to the people.” He introduced Brad Pomerance, moderator of the debate. After the introduction, Pomerace discussed this year’s theme, “election connection.” He said the questions were submitted online and then chosen by the Empowerment Congress planning committee.

Garcetti, Perry and Greuel focused on their extensive records in city politics, while James and Pleitez positioned themselves as outsiders. “We have a jobs crisis, budget crisis, education crisis, transportation crisis, public safety crisis, corruption crisis,” James said. “We have a leadership crisis.”

South LA issues take center stage

All of the forum’s six questions came from Empowerment Congress members. One participant asked candidates directly if they supported a Leimert Park station along the new Crenshaw Line metro line. All five candidates said they support the station. “The community deserves it,” Greuel said.

Perry cited her work on the Expo Line, which opened in April, as evidence of her dedication to transit projects.

imageMayoral candidate Emanuel Pleitez, right, answers a question from the moderator at the Empowerment Congress debate.

Pleitez stood out for Brian Gaines, a University Park native. “The things that he said, it jelled… Being young and coming through the trenches,” he said. “I want to see something new… all the name-dropping wasn’t impressive to me either. But really, what are you going to do moving forward?”

James and Garcetti stood out to Sherri Bell, a South LA native who works with the Los Angeles Black Workers Center. “I definitely feel like I’ve been left behind,” she said. “It’s not just a gun problem, it’s not just a violence problem, it’s not just a lack of education problem. You have to really attack the things that contribute to that. I pay attention to the candidates who actually have a strategy.”

What to do with neighborhood councils

The forum’s fifth question was about how to engage the neighborhood councils in city decisions more. Each candidate agreed to empower them, but their methods varied. Gruel, for example, believes the councils need more power. She said that they have been “part of the decision-making processes” throughout her career and she will continue to “engage councils every step of the way.”

Pleitez added in his follow-up answer that council members need to be trained to deal with “real problems… It’s not about fighting for funding but actually being inside the decision-making process,” he said.

James proposed that each neighborhood council appoint a commissioner who would work directly with him.

Garcetti remarked, “[it is] time to start treating neighborhood councils like adults.” He said he would have the Department of Public Works talk to the neighborhood councils at the beginning of every year.

Finally, Perry defended councils fiercely. “It is life-changing to be able to listen to them,” she said. “It’s most important to preserve the neighborhood council system to continue discourse… We are not a threat to each other. We are partners with each other.”

The council discussion struck the forum’s attendees, too.

“I have watched them grow, I’ve watched them change, and it does take training,” said Dorsay Dujon, chair of the arts committee on the Arroyo Secco neighborhood council. “You just don’t go from your daily job and go into sitting on a board and recognizing and understanding all of the responsibilities that you have to that.”

Despite that need, Dujon believes much of neighborhood councils’ successes are their own. “It also takes a commitment on the part of the individual who’s on the neighborhood council to recognize that it’s not just about what you want for the community,” she said. “As much as it is a growing process for the councils themselves, it’s also for the neighborhoods to understand that they’re there for them.” Dujon supports Garcetti, Perry and Greuel; “in that order,” she said.

Other issues: Arts, homes, guns

The forum’s first question was, “How will you better utilize the power of the arts to revitalize South Los Angeles?” Pleitez, the first to answer, hesitated. He attributed the city’s unmanageable budget to pensions that “drain funds,” which means there is not enough money to spend on the arts.

Garcetti declared he would go to Sacramento in attempt to prevent additional cuts to public education, promising to “restore arts as the heart and soul of Los Angeles.”

imageMayoral candidate Jan Perry, center, answers a moderator’s question.

Perry promised to redirect the city’s public arts fee to private nonprofits. James agreed that the arts should be one of LA’s economic priorities, and Greuel argued for better supporting the entertainment industry.

Garcetti responded first to the second question: “Is the development of housing for the mentally ill homeless in your top three housing priorities?” He cited examples from his record as councilman for the 13th district. Perry also cited her record as councilwoman from the 9th district. “They need to have housing and a safety net,” she said.

James emphasized that this would be a priority for him, too. He said, “This crisis is not new…and has not [gotten] attention and priority it deserves.” Greuel added that also she wants to bring back the housing trust.

Pleitez agreed that this is one of his priorities if elected. However, he brought up the pension problem again and said pensions are his first short-term priority. He also discussed including mental health in public heath programs.

The forum also considered a timely national issue: “What will you do…that will actually reduce gun homicides?” Every candidate supports a comprehensive ban on assault weapons and background checks for concealed carry permits.

James added that he wants to “close the mental health records gap.” He also brought up an original idea, that of a “school marshal program,” which “provides anonymity and security” without actually stationing armed guards at schools.
Pleitez called gangs the city’s biggest purveyor of gun violence: he lost a friend in middle school to a gang shooting. As mayor, he wants to find a way to reintegrate gang members into non-violent life.

Greuel supports the plans put forward by President Obama and California Senator Dianne Feinstein. In addition, Greuel called for, “…prevention, intervention, and enforcement.”

Perry and Garcetti proposed regulations elsewhere: Garcetti plans to regulate ammunition sales, and Perry “introduced…divestment from companies that manufacture guns” as a councilmember.