Among Los Angeles’s field of mayoral candidates, Kevin James sticks out like plaid on polka dots. A gay Republican in a bedrock blue city, he still speaks with the folksy drawl of his Oklahoma birthplace, despite having moved here 25 years ago. And unlike his three opponents (city council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti, city controller Wendy Greuel), who have each been in office for more than a decade, James has never run for anything. He worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the early ’90s and has spent most of his career doing entertainment litigation, including a few years at the firm of legendary Hollywood attorney Bert Fields. James, who is 49, stumbled into politics from talk radio, where he hosted KRLA’s The Kevin James Show, a rambling AM call-in program on which corruption in city hall was a favorite subject. James left the show in 2011, after nearly five years, to run for mayor.
Though he lacks name recognition—James jokes that he hopes people confuse him with the actor from King of Queens—his campaign has turned out to be more than just a quixotic sideshow. He practices a disciplined style of retail politics, having visited more than 50 neighborhood councils in the past 18 months. On the trail he pounds away at what he sees as the fiscal recklessness of his opponents, who, he insists, have brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy. Even the fund-raising game has begun to look up. James was being outraised ten to one by some opponents until Republican operative Fred Davis recently announced that he had formed a super PAC called Better Way LA to promote James’s candidacy. We met up with James at Obikà, in the Westfield mall near the Century City law office where he works, to talk about politics and what’s in store for L.A.
Let’s get this out of the way: In a city like L.A., it must get lonely being a gay Republican. How do you define yourself politically?
I’m an independent Republican. Obviously I’m an openly gay man. I support gay marriage. I differ with some members of my party.
In the last election the national Republican Party moved to the right and doubled down on social issues.
I don’t think that’s the case in California. I think we’ve made progress in moving the Republican Party to what I would call more mainstream and away from social issues. Do we need more progress? Yes. But I’ve felt very welcome in the California Republican Party.
You’re running for mayor of a city that’s a long way from your hometown. What’s it like where you come from?
I was born in Norman, Oklahoma. My parents met at Oklahoma University. I went to OU. My mom taught high school math. When I was young, my dad, a salesman, got transferred to Dallas. We lived in Garland, Texas, which is one of these big sports meccas that you read about, a Friday Night Lights kind of environment.
When was the first time you visited Los Angeles?
My dad’s cousin was a pilot for TWA. I was in middle school when I first came out to visit him. He lived in Manhattan Beach. I loved it. There was Disneyland. There were mountains in the city. Where I’m from, the Hollywood Hills are mountains. There was the ocean. I decided I was going to move here.
What’s the biggest challenge this city is facing today?
The biggest issue city hall is facing is our fiscal crisis. The biggest issue Los Angeles is facing is our jobs crisis. Most candidates will tell you that the jobs crisis comes first. But in city hall they have to get their fiscal house in order. If city hall is thought to be close to bankruptcy, then businesses are really wary of coming here.
So how do you solve the fiscal crisis?
We must have real, serious pension reform and real, serious salary reform. The way that our city council has been making payroll is by draining special revenue funds. They’ve signed contracts that we can’t afford. What I can tell our city employees is that I can guarantee you a job, but you’re not going to make as much money as before. Everyone is going to have to make a little less so we can continue to provide the city with services.
Do you really think that’s an argument unions will swallow?
If it were a couple of years ago, the answer would be no. Today, because of the mismanagement of my opponents, we have a new type of leverage—the looming possibility of bankruptcy. I’m going to show how the city could soon be in bankruptcy. Either they force us into insolvency or they work with us as a team.
What has changed about the city from when you first arrived?
When I came here in 1987, it was a land of opportunity. Los Angeles was also a leader in so many ways. We were the entertainment capital, we led in aerospace, in venture capital. You could buy a home and raise a family. It was workable, livable, affordable, and attractive.
Where do you think Los Angeles could be a decade from now?
It could be a business-friendly city again, a place where residents feel their voices are heard. The most consistent refrain I hear is that people feel city government doesn’t listen to them. There is a chorus from neighborhood councils, home owner groups, and the like—that in order to get heard on an issue, they pretty much have to sue city hall. We just have to be smarter about the way we’re governed. You have to open the door to innovation and opportunity. If we’re a place where businesses want to be, then everything else falls into place. Jobs come, young people come. Research comes. There is so much that was here not too long ago that seems to have gone missing.
If you were trying to explain L.A. politics to an alien, who would you say runs the city?
Aside from [AEG president] Tim Leiweke? Leiweke is symbolic of the special interests that run city hall.
AEG is, of course, the company that built L.A. Live downtown and now wants to bring an NFL team to Los Angeles. But who else is on that list?
Unions like the IBEW, the SEIU, the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, and some major developers. Those are the primary interests. You’ve got labor on one side and the developers on the other. What’s been lost are two other groups: private business and the people.
How did you decide that you wanted to run the city?
It was my radio listeners. They’d tell me, “You understand this. You have solutions. Why don’t you do more than talk about it?” But it never really crossed my mind until I started moderating candidate forums and sitting across the table from some of these candidates and looking at the, shall we say, expertise of the people running city hall. That made me think I was sitting on the wrong side of the table.
It’s a given that you think you’re the best person for the job. But what do you think of the other candidates?
Status quo. No incentive for change. None of these candidates—not one of them—has any incentive to do anything different because they will have been given a promotion with this record of failure. Why do anything different? They are owned by the public sector unions. They will continue to do what they’re told by them.
Going against the unions isn’t that easy. Even Mayor Villaraigosa, who presumably had a lot of goodwill with the unions because he once represented them, had trouble getting concessions. What would you say is the highlight of eight years of Villaraigosa?
It has to be one word: bankruptcy. It is nationally known that L.A. is on the verge of bankruptcy. Villaraigosa is rarely here. It’s a running joke with pundits. He’s always out of town. He’s looking for his next professional step, whatever that may be.
Having cash is important for a city and for a campaign. There is a Republican super PAC out there now trying to shake the tree for you. But you’re being seriously outraised by your opponents. You didn’t exactly arrive here with a motorcade. What kind of campaign operation do you have?
I’ve got a great operation, considering our size. It’s leaner than my opponents’ but much more budget hawkish. John Weaver is my chief strategist. I’ve got a professional fund-raiser, a campaign assistant, a communications guy. I’ve got a treasurer from Long Beach. That’s because I needed a treasurer who wasn’t under indictment. Our office is on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks.
Let’s be frank. In addition to the fund-raising disadvantage, you’ve also got low name recognition. This is a moon shot at best. How do you not get depressed by the odds?
Here’s how I see it: I’ll be outraised three to one after matching funds kick in. But we’ve got bankruptcy looming, and that’s only going to get worse. You talked about my party registration. We have a lot of party faithful and foot soldiers coming our way. Then there’s my radio audience. It’s very bipartisan. There’s also the Walter Moore bloc.
Right, the independent candidate who received a chunk of the vote against Villaraigosa in 2009. You think they’ll be out there again in 2013?
They are the pitchfork-and-torch voters, the ones who are not going to vote for any city hall insiders under any circumstances. Then you look at what I consider to be the concerned voters, maybe voters who voted for one of my opponents before but see the threat of looming bankruptcy. In a low-turnout race, that’s enough votes to get to a runoff.
So you’re banking on voter disgust?
Have you found any satisfied voters in the city of L.A.? When I say in a debate that one of the first things I’m going to do as mayor is find the city engineer in Beverly Hills or Burbank who knows how to make a manhole cover level with the street, the crowd bursts into laughter. The reason that’s funny is because they know how crappy our roads are. I tell them, “If you are happy with the way L.A. has been run, you’ve got three good choices. But if there’s anything you don’t like about the way the city has been run, I’m the only candidate with the independence to do something about it.”
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