Los Angeles — He was a Democrat turned Republican with a sunny Southern California disposition, Hollywood connections, and a background in broadcasting, a conservative who had taken the occasional liberal social position, running in a race in which few people thought he had much of a chance. Kevin James gets Ronald Reagan.
“The difference is, I’m not a movie star,” he says. “I just have a movie star’s name.” He may share a name with the “King of Queens,” but this Kevin James, an entertainment lawyer and former conservative talk-radio host, is running for mayor of Los Angeles. The last Republican to hold the office was billionaire venture capitalist Richard Riordan, who departed in 2001 and was the first Republican to win the position in 30 years. With California cities going bankrupt left and right, Los Angeles in financial duress, Governor Jerry Brown jacking up taxes and spending billions on fanciful railroads, economic stagnation, and — not least — an open seat attracting a weak and Hispanic-less Democratic field, James has a once-in-a-generation shot at carrying the conservative banner into Democratic-occupied Los Angeles.
Given the city’s finances and the state of the California economy, Los Angeles is hardly the most attractive place to launch a political life, and the city’s demographics hardly favor a Republican’s doing so. And mayor of the country’s second-largest city isn’t exactly a traditional entry-level job in politics. But James says he is not looking for a traditional political career: He just wants to save the city he loves. “I could have run for city council, and that would have been easier. But I’d just be one voice. As one voice, I can call them out, but I’m still just one council member, and the problems this city faces are going to take more than that. One council member can’t do it, but a mayor can.”
James offers to show me why he wants to run for mayor of Los Angeles, and our journey begins at his office in the Century Plaza Towers. He mentions that for some time after 9/11, he was unable to work out of his office: The towers were designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki and were thought to be a possible target. Talk of 9/11 naturally brought to mind Rudy Giuliani, and I asked him whether it would be fair to call him a “Giuliani Republican.” “I admired his law-and-order stance, and we’re both pro-business, and we’re both former federal prosecutors, though he was a U.S. attorney and I was an assistant U.S. attorney.”
But while James speaks well of Giuliani, it is Reagan who seems to hold a place in his heart. “I love Ronald Reagan. He was a huge part of my life. I cast my first presidential ballot for him in 1984. I came to California in 1987, and the law firm I was interviewing with, Gibson Dunn, put me up at the Century Plaza, which was then known as the ‘West Coast White House.’ It was an exciting time — and California was such a power then.” James did in fact join Gibson Dunn, where his colleagues included William French Smith, Reagan’s attorney general.
“Los Angeles had so much going on then: the entertainment industry, the diversity and energy of the city,” he says. “But I have watched the city decline, watched the young people leave to find opportunity elsewhere.” We go down to the garage beneath his office building (largest underground parking facility in the world, incidentally) and get in his car to take a tour of what’s ailing the city. (In case you’re wondering, this Hollywood lawyer and media figure in status-obsessed Los Angeles drives a Ford Fusion. He apparently takes his message of fiscal discipline personally.)
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.