A fundraiser put on by heavyweights in Los Angeles' liberal-leaning environmental community should have been a tough crowd for Kevin James.
But James, affable, polite and the only Republican candidate in a Los Angeles mayoral race dominated by City Hall Democrats, had no trouble chatting up guests as he made his way around the crowded event for the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters.
Richard Mueller, an executive with a multinational manufacturer, and Dave Alba, his business partner, seemed happy to corner him. The men spent several minutes outlining a massive freight automation project they are hoping to bring to San Pedro — a tough sell in labor-friendly L.A. They were at the party hoping to line up support for the project.
James listened intently, asked questions and took cards from both men before moving on. Afterward, Mueller declared himself impressed. James' candidacy gives the business community hope that private-sector interests will be given real attention in the mayoral race, he said.
"In this city, you have to work both sides — business and labor," Mueller said. "He'd be a win-win."
James, 49, an Oklahoma native with a sharp legal mind, has emerged as the dark horse in a field made up of career politicians. Although the lawyer and talk-show host has never spent a day in the rough and tumble of public office, he says he'll curtail what he characterizes as the cronyism and scandal that dogs City Hall, cut red tape for businesses, foster jobs and demand reductions in public worker pensions to bring stability to the city's chronically underfunded budget.
And he can do that, James insists, because he's the only outsider of the major candidates who will appear on the March primary ballot. The others are Controller Wendy Greuel, previously a city councilwoman, and council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry.
If elected, James would make history as the first gay mayor of Los Angeles. He's never tried to hide his homosexuality, he says, but he also does not make an issue of it. He's now a well-regarded litigator in private practice, a former radio talk show host and a longtime activist with AIDS Project Los Angeles who served for a time as its chairman.
In debates and at events, James displays a commanding grasp of city issues. And he seems to be everywhere, shaking hands wherever there might be potential supporters. The GOP establishment has taken note.
Former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has endorsed James, and a "super PAC" made up of well-connected GOP donors recently formed to independently support his campaign without being subject to the city's contribution limits. Those moves, political analysts say, have given his run a new legitimacy.
"In the past couple of months he's gone from being an afterthought to a long shot to a plausible outsider candidate," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist and director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
Friends call him hard-working and passionate about what he thinks should be done to return L.A. to economic vibrancy. Todd Eagan, an attorney who's worked with James for years at Lavely and Singer, an entertainment law firm, said James was the firm's go-to guy when facing a tough legal issue.
"Kevin is the person who can cut through to the main issues and solve the problem," Eagan said. "He has a tremendous grasp of the details of any situation."
Another longtime friend, Steve Reymer, said James has a big heart for animals, adopting a rescue Dachshund, Lisa Marie.
Raised in Norman, Okla., James received an accounting degree from the University of Oklahoma and later moved to Houston to earn a law degree. In college, he registered as a Republican. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1988, he interned at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, one of the city's premier law firms. He also worked for three years as an assistant federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office, handling criminal cases involving drugs, money-laundering and insurance fraud before returning to private practice.
James said that as he became involved in AIDS Project Los Angeles — serving six years on its volunteer board and still serving as an honorary ambassador — he switched his party registration to Democratic because he thought the GOP was too slow to respond to the AIDS health crisis. In later years, as he began to focus more on economic rather than social issues, he said, he switched his voter registration to decline-to-state.
Craig E. Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, called him an "effective and well-spoken" board member during his tenure. In board meetings, even when voicing a dissenting point of view, he was always calm and reasonable, Thompson said.
AIDS Project Los Angeles often used James as its official spokesman during those years because he was personable and articulate, Thompson said.
James began filling in as a host on KABC-AM (790) talk radio in 2003 and moved to Oklahoma City the following year to host a morning drive-time show.
In early 2005, he returned to his Laurel Canyon home and switched his registration a third time, back to Republican. The move was prompted by his growing concerns about the economy and his feeling that if he delved more deeply into politics, the GOP would benefit from having more openly gay members in its ranks.
"I thought my work in the Republican Party would be more valuable."
Buoyed by his ratings, he was hired to host KABC's overnight talk slot, "Red Eye Radio."
In 2007, conservative station KRLA-AM (870) hired James to host his own late-night show. Although he still practices law, in late 2011, he left the show to concentrate on his mayoral campaign. James believes he will capture a "significant portion" of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender vote, although he notes the largest concentration of gays in the region live in the city of West Hollywood and can't vote in L.A. races.
James' late-night talk shows began centering on civic issues, starting as a fill-in host at KABC in 2003. During long, middle-of-the-night talks he found his passion, dissecting issues such as taxation, group homes in residential areas, a backlog in processing of rape kits and trigger laws for charter schools.
He also found his followers. Fans of his show are reliable voters, and they're tired of government's slowness and excuses for not bringing about needed change, he says. They're also disgusted by a seeming litany of political scandals, including payouts at the Coliseum, waivers on parking fines for VIPs and a perceived pay-to-play culture in City Hall.
Garcetti, Greuel and Perry have chosen mostly to ignore James. But at a debate in October, Greuel suggested it's much easier to sling arrows than to do the hard work of governing.
"You talk a lot, but where is the action over the years?" Greuel said. "Where is the decision to be literally in City Hall … saying, 'Here's exactly what we need to do'?"
At the conservation league fundraiser, the boyish-faced James, wearing an American flag pin on his crisp gray suit, repeatedly introduced himself with a genial, "Hi, I'm Kevin James." At events across the heavily Democratic city, he says, he finds voters who want to support someone not already connected to City Hall.
He noted that the last Republican to hold the post, businessman Richard Riordan, similarly positioned himself as an "outsider" candidate in 1993 and served two terms. "They haven't had someone to vote for since Riordan," James says, a soft Oklahoma accent just perceptible. "I'm their guy."
Political analysts question, however, whether James has a shot at even making the May runoff election. A recent early poll conducted by Loyola Marymount University put him last among the major candidates, with 8.7% of the vote.
At that rate, he might take votes from Greuel or Perry, both of whom are presenting themselves as business-friendly Democrats. Even if he makes it to the May contest, pundits say, his chances of defeating a Democratic opponent in an overwhelmingly Democratic city are questionable.
James insists he is running a real race and has a real chance. He dismissed the Loyola Marymount survey as a "name ID poll" that shows only that he's not as well-known as the other three candidates. The super PAC backing him shows there is confidence in his campaign, he said.
Davis, who created the funding group, said he decided to help James a few weeks back after meeting him. He found James earnest, articulate and full of good ideas on how to get the city back to financial stability, he said.
"The basic plan is to raise equal dollars or better and use that in a way that gets the message out that he is the one outsider," Davis said. "If you're an insider, you can't fix the problem."