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How can a mayoral dark horse become a contender?

It takes a coalition

How can a mayoral dark horse become a contender?

May 02, 2011|JIM NEWTON

Los Angeles is a demanding city for those who would be mayor. In a city as diverse as this one, winning the office is not possible without coalition politics, and each recent mayor has built his coalition differently. Tom Bradley brought together African Americans and white liberals, especially Jews; Richard Riordan combined Valley conservatives and moderates with support from Latinos; James Hahn beat Antonio Villaraigosa in 2001 by lumping together moderates, conservatives and blacks; and Villaraigosa ousted him four years later by jolting turnout among Latinos and exciting white and black liberals.

Candidates in the race to succeed Villaraigosa are just starting to set up committees and build support, but they are already grappling with how to build their coalitions.

For some, it's fairly simple: County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has represented parts of the Westside and the Valley as a councilman or supervisor for decades; he starts from his district, then expands with liberals and Jews. City Council President Eric Garcetti is going after those same liberals and Democrats, and also will be reaching out to Latinos -- Garcetti's father, former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, is of Italian and Mexican heritage. City Councilwoman Jan Perry expects support from African Americans -- she's the only black candidate so far in this race -- along with pro-business moderates. Investment banker Austin Beutner has yet to declare officially, but already he has claimed the first major endorsement in the race (from Riordan), and he hopes to put together the same moderate and business base that put Riordan into office.

For others, the path is a bit more complicated, and for none more so than Kevin James, the radio talk show host who's trying to drum up interest in his candidacy. In a city with 980,000 registered Democrats and 279,000 registered Republicans, James is the only declared Republican so far in the hunt. Moreover, he's openly gay and a champion of same-sex marriage, which could either help him broaden his base or alienate some of those conservatives who might otherwise be his natural supporters.

James has clear strengths: He's charismatic and articulate, and comfortable with the issues of city government without having been tainted by that government's difficulties. His radio show gives him at least some sense of the electorate, though it's hard to imagine that KRLA listeners who tune in from midnight to 3 a.m. to listen to James are typical of those who will elect the next mayor. He's also done yeoman's volunteer work, notably on behalf of AIDS Project Los Angeles.

We met last week in part because he and his political consultant were frosted by a column I wrote recently laying out the major candidates in the race without mentioning James. That was no accident; James falls well below the threshold to be taken as seriously as his better-known rivals. Even those who have never held elected office -- Beutner and developer Rick Caruso -- have significant experience working with the city, Beutner as an aide to Mayor Villaraigosa, Caruso as a police commissioner and a member of the Coliseum Commission, among other things.

James, like other lesser-known candidates, will first have to make a case to voters for why he should be taken seriously. "Why the hell am I qualified to be mayor?" he asked rhetorically at our lunch. Career politicians have mucked up City Hall, he went on to explain. His background as a lawyer -- he's a former federal prosecutor and now an entertainment lawyer -- would be helpful in navigating some of the city's thornier issues; and though he hasn't worked at City Hall, he's been analyzing its defects on his radio show for years.

But can he or any of the other dark-horse contenders win? That will depend on their ability to do what Los Angeles demands of its mayoral candidates -- to build a base and then expand it.

"Here's my map," he explained. If he can run the table with Republicans (a big if with Beutner or Caruso in the race), tap into conservatives angry at the city's elected leadership and pick up some stray moderates, James figures he might land a spot in the runoff "if my voters are motivated in a low-turnout race."

As James knows, in a similarly crowded field in 2005, James Hahn got to the second round with just 89,000 votes. Two things about that, though: Hahn was an incumbent mayor with universal name recognition. And he got thumped in the runoff. Hahn's coalition was just good enough to lose.

That doesn't mean James can't win. But it's a long way from late-night radio to the mayor's mansion.

jim.newton@latimes.com

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