Not far from the sleek towers of Century City, we start to hit long stretches of low-value retail property with a remarkable number of vacancies. Ventura Boulevard has shuttered storefronts on practically every other block in some spots — there were four or five closed-down realtors’ offices in close proximity to one another; somewhere in Los Angeles there is probably a realtor specializing in abandoned realtors’ offices. Empty and blighted shopping centers punctuate the miles, and the retail economy along Victory Boulevard looks nothing if not defeated.
“What you’re seeing here,” he says, “is a decade of decline. And they — the mayor and the city council — aren’t doing anything to change the direction of L.A.” Most distressingly, even the entertainment industry is slowly abandoning Los Angeles, which makes James, intent on reviving the city’s economy, a member of a very small club: Republicans for Hollywood. “You have to work with what you have,” he says. “There was a time when we could have really turned to another industry — aerospace, for instance — but we don’t really have that option anymore.”
Pointing out vacancies where small businesses once thrived, James lays out his economic agenda, which is straightforward prudent conservatism: budgetary reform and tax reform, streamlining the permitting and regulatory processes, and instituting a “Dallas model” planning desk, meaning that would-be entrepreneurs and developers have a one-stop shop to go to for all of their licensing and permits rather than being led around the city for months and months, shuttled from one bureaucracy to the next. Having dedicated his talk-radio show to local affairs, James has a deep and wonky command of the issues.
He is also straightforward in identifying another of the city’s major problems and does not hesitate to use the proper name for it: “corruption.” In fact, relying on his experience as a prosecutor, he is preparing a campaign-document-cum-indictment of the city’s financial practices. The FBI recently investigated the city building department as part of a bribery probe, and in May, Los Angeles County tax appraiser Scott Schenter was arrested and charged with 60 felony counts of corruption, allegedly lowering property-tax valuations in exchange for campaign contributions. James has been hammering city controller Wendy Greuel for the release of documents related to the scandal. Greuel is also running for mayor. James describes the city’s financial practices as “either criminal or grossly negligent, irresponsible, and stupid — take your pick.”
“I’m the only Republican in the race, that’s true,” James says, “but, probably more important, I’m the only prosecutor in the race, and the only outsider in the race.” He is presenting his campaign as a repudiation of the Democratic cabal that has made such a mess of Los Angeles and California for the past decade. He suspects that enough voters who would normally pull the Democratic lever are sufficiently fed up with the mismanagement and economic decline so evident on the streets of Los Angeles that they could be persuaded to go his way — and, more important, to back his ambitious reforms should he be elected.
Kevin James knows what he’s talking about, and, introducing Dennis Prager to a room full of high-powered Hollywood conservatives the night before, he showed that he knows how to handle himself in the spotlight. He knows that he is a long-shot candidate but argues persuasively that the shot is worth taking — and worth investing in, though fundraising remains tough for him.
He will make some conservatives squirm — he’s gay and a gay-marriage supporter — though on balance he is probably both fiscally and socially to the right of the typical Republican. He is arguably to the right of blue-state Republican hero Scott Brown, who is pro-choice. If he should win the election, Kevin James will have given the Republican party and fiscal conservatives an unexpected victory in an unlikely place: He’d be Scott Brown with a surfboard — and a herculean task ahead of him. If there remains a little bit of the spirit of Reagan haunting Hollywood, now is the time for Kevin James to commune with it.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and the author of The Dependency Agenda.