At a debate late last year attended by homeowners groups in pricey Holmby Hills, the four leading Los Angeles mayoral candidates, Wendy Greuel, Jan Perry, Eric Garcetti and Kevin James, were asked to give their 10-second elevator pitch on why they should represent a city of 3.8 million.
The candidates laughed, as if to imply, "How silly, 10 seconds, not nearly enough time to describe my unique background and nuanced positions."
But before the moderator could even say, "Kevin, what's your...", James popped up from his chair and, without hesitation, gave the audience 12 words: "I'm the only candidate in this race that has not bankrupted the city."
Following the debate, the wealthy, well-informed and politically active crowd answered a questionnaire. "If the election were held today, which candidate would you vote for?" it asked. More than half chose James. "Kevin is the only one with independence," one wrote. Another said: "Let's start again. How much worse can it be?"
For most of 2012, the gay, socially moderate Republican was the clear no-chance candidate. An unscientific survey of top political insiders by the L.A. Weekly's Patrick Range McDonald ranked James' chances of winning at somewhere between zero and less than zero.
Virtually unknown despite his late-night radio show on KRLA, James, a former U.S. attorney, was routinely confused with the star of the CBS sitcom The King of Queens and such films as Here Comes the Boom.
Two finalists will emerge in the March 5 primary from among the four leading candidates, and the math says those two must win at least 25 percent of the vote to shut out the rest of the big field and get on the ballot for the May runoff. Yet only about 20 percent of registered voters in L.A. are Republican. Even if James got most of them, he wouldn't get all. He needs lots of independents and Democrats — a very difficult thing for a newbie to pull off.
But James is moving up in the world, from no shot to dark horse. While his standout debating style has been leaving the politically experienced but often deadly dull top candidates Perry, Garcetti and Greuel in the dust, mayoral debates — ignored by most voters — don't elect anyone.
In November, however, Fred Davis entered the picture. Davis, a former ad man turned Republican media specialist and political strategist, helped create such infamous political messages as the anti-Obama "Celebrity" commercial and the Carly Fiorina "Demon Sheep" commercial featuring sheep with digitally enhanced, eerie red eyes.
"By the time you get to the office, you've been exposed to 10,000 advertising messages," Davis says. "How many do you remember? Well, you remember ours."
Davis has never worked in local politics, but James approached Davis at an event where the infamous ad man was speaking.
"My name's Kevin James," he said. "I'm running for mayor."
"Mayor of what?" Davis asked.
"Mayor of L.A.!"
Davis rolled his eyes. He recalls thinking, "How many Republican officeholders do we even have? This is not a natural thing." (Just four of 32 elected officeholders in L.A. city, school and county government are Republicans: L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, county Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe and City Councilman Mitch Englander.)
Davis believes that James' homosexuality offers assurance to L.A. voters that, while fiscally conservative, he's socially liberal. James was an early supporter of gay marriage and gays in the military.
But unlike the socially liberal-to-moderate Riordan, James doesn't have gobs of money to play against the monied Democrats in the race. So Davis decided to create and control a PAC that supports James but is operated separately from his campaign. Contributors to political action committees can give as much money as they want, and by mid-December Davis had raised "in the mid-six figures." That's not yet the mountainous $2.8 million raised by both Greuel and Garcetti, but like them, Davis hopes to tap big special interests. He aims to collect between $3 million and $4 million before the March 5 primary.
In the wake of major Republican losses nationwide on Nov. 6 attributed to a platform that excluded minority voters and many moderates, Davis plans to pass the hat among wealthy donors nationwide who are keen to promote a new generation of moderate Republicans — and win back Los Angeles' swing voters and Riordan Democrats.
"If Kevin wins, it's almost the baby steps in the beginning of a possible revival of Republicans in California," Davis says. Even a respectable showing could help build a "moderate Republican bench in [California], the state with the most electoral votes."
On his own, James has raised a fraction of what Greuel, Garcetti and Perry have, but he did cross the $150,000 threshold to qualify for public matching funds. This, in turn, got him invited to key debates that unofficially — but firmly — exclude other mayoral candidates, such as the rarely reported on Addie Miller, Yehuda Draiman, Norton Sandler and Emanuel Pleitez.
"I'm pretty happy where I am," says a chipper, fresh-faced James. "The fundraising has continued to be a struggle, although it's starting to pick up now, because more people are paying attention."
James now is asked to almost every debate and has won a healthy amount of media coverage.
"He is the only one who is willing to look the facts in the eye and not worry about the unions and special interest groups," says Richard Riordan, the last Republican mayor of Los Angeles, who left office in 2001 and endorsed wealthy political newcomer Austin Beutner for mayor last April, only to see Beutner drop out of the race.
James, like Riordan when he ran in 1993, has never held public office. For much of the last two decades he's been an entertainment lawyer, moonlighting as a midnight talk-show host.
"He has a radio talk-show host perspective on government, which is considerably to the right of everyone else," says Bill Carrick, Garcetti's gentlemanly campaign strategist. "That's the reason he's gonna find it difficult to expand his coalition."
James has to convince voters what the audience in Holmby Hills decided: that L.A. is in bad shape and desperately needs a change of direction.
"I don't have to do much convincing," James insists. "We have a jobs crisis, a budget crisis, an infrastructure crisis, a transportation crisis, a corruption crisis."
The charming James speaks with an Oklahoma twang and is somewhat reminiscent of a guy from a 1950s television family. But as a radio host, he was a firebrand. He briefly became the object of national ridicule when, in 2008, he appeared on The Chris Matthews Show and froze up during a discussion of Barack Obama. Matthews asked James to define the term "appeasement" and James could not do it. The clip, which went viral, made James look like a partisan hack or, worse, a hayseed.
As 2013 begins, James faces a new problem with the media: Journalists will focus on where the top mayoral fundraisers get their fat campaign war chests. Already, media have reported that Greuel and Garcetti are beholden, moneywise, to city government employee unions who wield outsized influence on the City Council's positions.
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News stories about the $11 million from a secret donor to an Arizona nonprofit that fought Proposition 30, Jerry Brown's tax hike, clearly hurt the opposition to Brown's successful measure on Nov. 6. So what happens if notorious conservatives such as the Koch brothers put money into the independent PAC for Kevin James?
"Any money that goes into the super PAC, no matter where it comes from, is independent," James insists, sounding naive if not in full-blown denial. "I don't owe them any debt. I'm not voting on any of their issues."
Davis, not James, will decide how to fashion the TV and radio ads with the money he raises, and those ads are sure to cause a stir in Los Angeles, where previous hotly contested mayoral races have been nasty.
"I don't know what we'll do," Davis says coyly. "Will it be demon Garcetti? I doubt that. But the odds are, you'll notice it."