DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In the 1991 film King Ralph, a few dozen members of the British royal family come together for a group photo and, oopsy daisy, are all electrocuted in a freak mishap. The government finds that the next person in line for the throne is, somehow, an American. Thus Ralph Jones, a slovenly Las Vegas lounge singer, is crowned. It was not a documentary.
When I meet Kevin James, the attorney, former talk radio host and current candidate for mayor, I tell him that the only way I can fathom him winning next year’s election is if a similar mishap befalls the other principal candidates and he’s the only guy left standing. While James is intelligent, articulate and has the potential to suck votes from others on election day, I say that I can’t see him overcoming the name recognition, experience and sizable fundraising advantage of his competitors.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” he deadpans during an afternoon conversation in Spring Street’s Syrup Desserts, and the fact that he doesn’t get peeved proves at least that he has a thicker skin than some elected officials inside City Hall.
Instead, James takes the opportunity to explain why he thinks he’ll finish in the top two in the March 2013 election, which would propel him into the May runoff. While there’s plenty to question in his prognostication, he and his top strategist, John Thomas (who ran the campaign that just got Alan Jackson into the runoff for District Attorney), have clearly thought out the election. Even if money is limited, they have a game plan.
James, 48, believes that in a low-turnout election (four months after the presidential ballot) he can cobble together about 110,000 votes from four main blocs. He’ll start with Republicans — he’s the only registered GOP candidate in the race — and complement them with listeners of his former late-night radio show (it ended in October). He expects to pull what he calls the “pitchfork and torch” crowd, folks he says normally won’t vote for anyone inside City Hall. He terms his fourth base “concerned voters,” people who worry that Los Angeles will soon tumble into bankruptcy and want fresh ideas.
Is this a case of fuzzy math? Maybe. In the last election without an incumbent, in 2001, about 500,000 people cast ballots for mayor. Turnout has plummeted since, with 412,000 individuals doing their civic duty in the 2005 primary and only 274,000 inkavoting the mayor’s race in 2009. Reaching James’ target will be about as easy as taking a bath with a wild mountain lion.
Additionally, private-sector political neophytes rarely fare well in local mayoral elections. Although Richard Riordan won as a very wealthy outsider in 1993, the also upper crust Steve Soboroff finished third eight years later. Last month Austin Beutner, who had the cash to make things interesting, abandoned his run. James may not be a pauper, but it doesn’t seem likely that he can personally invest millions in his own campaign.
I ask James if he really thinks his blocs add up to 110,000.
“I think it adds up to better than 110,000,” he says.
Seat at the Table
James has already accomplished a lot. When he declared his candidacy in March 2011, many reporters viewed him as little more than a gadfly. He went unmentioned in some early articles.
He and Thomas threw elbows at every sin of omission. That tenacity, along with the fact that James has behaved like a candidate, got him in the conversation. He regularly puts out statements and has released more detailed plans and position papers than his established competitors, City Council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel.
James has proved that he deserves a seat at the table. The question is, where does he sit? He might think he’s at the head. Others would suggest that he’s still down by the kids’ section.
Part of that stems from James’ campaign shortfalls. His website has some garbled front-page text (“Kevin was on the until recently from 12 midnight to 3am…” it reads). The most recent date on his neighborhood council tour schedule is from, gulp, Feb. 23.
Those kinds of things presumably wouldn’t happen if James had more money, and as Shakespeare might say, ay, there’s the rub. He (James, not the Bard) set high expectations early, and on his declaration date Thomas said the candidate already had $500,000 in pledge commitments. Of course, promises are worth the paper they’re printed on, and only late last week did James reach the $200,000 fundraising level.
James will get a cash infusion from the city matching funds program and the number of small donations he’s secured is impressive, but he’s being financially Godzilla stomped by his competitors. At the last campaign reporting deadline (through Dec. 31) Greuel had raised $1.1 million, Garcetti had pulled in $1.06 million and Perry had claimed $827,000. Those figures are certainly much higher now.
James tries to shrug off the financial comparisons. He also brushes aside suggestions that, if he’s serious about running Los Angeles, then he should first get some political experience by going for a City Council or other elected seat. He likes the idea about as much as Socrates liked Hemlock.
James grew up in Oklahoma and Texas. He studied accounting at the University of Oklahoma and, like Greuel, was a cheerleader, though Greuel rah-rahed for the San Fernando Valley’s Kennedy High School and James did it for his college in the era of coach Barry Switzer (“I was an obnoxious Sooner football fan,” he admits).
He earned a law degree from the University of Houston and moved to Los Angeles in 1987. After two years at a corporate law firm he embarked on a three-year stint as an assistant U.S. attorney and then went into entertainment law. He mentions that he once represented Jennifer Aniston, which I don’t hold against him, despite Along Came Polly. He sat on the board of AIDS Project Los Angeles in the latter half of the ’90s and did two years as co-chair.
James presents himself well — during our meeting he’s got a conservative gray suit and a silver and black tie that reminds me of the Oakland Raiders’ color scheme. On his lapel is the American flag pin I noticed a few weeks before when I saw him at an L.A. Live breakfast with officials from the Police Protective League. His radio years have made him a persuasive though occasionally long-winded speaker. He has the potential to do damage once the mayoral debates begin.
James is practicing law part time while working on the race, and he clearly relishes his role as the outsider. He repeatedly refers to “Wendy, Jan and Eric” as if they were Cerberus, the three-headed dog that in Greek mythology guards the gates to Hades.
Speaking of the underworld, James presents Los Angeles as a town threatened by bankruptcy and awash in corruption somewhere between old-school Chicago patronage and the gleeful graft perpetrated by Nucky Thompson in Atlantic City in “Boardwalk Empire.” He points to scandals everywhere from the city Department of Building and Safety to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
It’s neither the first nor the last time someone will take the “things are going to hell” and “throw da bums out” tack. For now, James is looking to paint a portrait of a citizenry growing angry at their elected leaders.
“There’s beginning to be this groundswell of contempt for them,” he says.
Expect to hear more soon.
Contact Jon Regardie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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