Kevin James, an attorney and former federal prosecutor, is running for… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
Kevin James, if you haven't already heard, is running for mayor of Los Angeles. If you're out there thinking, "Sure, why not try a comedian/actor," I'm sorry to disappoint, but this is not the guy who played "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
This Kevin James is an attorney and former federal prosecutor who used to host a radio talk show. I met him a year ago and asked what would happen to his show if by some strange happenstance he got elected, and James said he'd work himself to the point of near-collapse all week, correcting the horrific mistakes of his predecessors. And then he'd field questions about it on a weekend radio show.
I did not report this at the time because the 2013 mayor's race was and still is a long way off (next March), and because James is what can politely be called a long shot. He seems to believe he has connected on his radio show and the campaign trail with dissatisfied taxpayers, and I'm sure that's true. But when a Clydesdale gets his picture taken by an appreciative fan, it doesn't mean he's going to win the Kentucky Derby.
I'll give James this much, though: when I wrote about City Hall inefficiency earlier this year and said I'd like to hear how the candidates would address it, James was the first one (as well as the only one) to raise his hand to volunteer his thoughts. This week, we finally met at lunch to talk them over. During the next few months I'll work my way through the rest of the mayoral field.
If there's something for James to feel good about, it's that a Loyola Marymount survey last month found that two-thirds of those polled don't have a favorite candidate. And James fared better than former Antonio Villaraigosa job czar and Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, a guy virtually nobody had heard of. Maybe Beutner, who did well in business, should buy a radio station and give himself a show.
On the leader board were Councilman Eric Garcetti, City Controller Wendy Greuel and someone who hasn't even entered the race — county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Next up was City Councilwoman Jan Perry. James' argument, of course, is that those are all longtime political insiders, and it's time to break up the club and deliver what residents want rather than what special interests buy.
OK, sounds good. But the city is looking at a shortfall in the $240-million range, which could turn out to be an optimistic number, and that doesn't count the cost of all the needed infrastructure repairs and upgrades that haven't been budgeted. You can blame the economy, the state budget crunch and the approval by the mayor and City Council of employee salaries and pensions the city can't afford to pay.
But what can James do about it?
"Which of the candidates do you think would be more likely to go to the public sector unions and tell them where the concessions have to be?" asked James, the only Republican in the race so far, and a guy who doesn't owe any favors to anyone.
The unions will point out, correctly, that this isn't all their fault, and that they have already made some concessions. But James said more is needed and he believes city workers must face the fact that we're in a crisis that threatens their job security.
"I don't like layoffs at all," said the Laurel Canyon resident, saying he would rather see pay cuts that preserve jobs and services. "But we need concessions and givebacks now to keep the city out of bankruptcy."
James said he's against any new taxes, arguing that residents have no faith that they won't be wasted. He's got big questions about a downtown football stadium that doubles as a convention center, fearing taxpayers could get left holding the bag if L.A. doesn't get a team or if cost overruns come into play. And he thinks offering a tax holiday to lure new businesses to town is unfair to existing ones.
All of that should definitely be part of the back and forth in an election year. I frankly don't see how James gets close to closing a $240-million budget gap, which can seem a lot easier to do from a radio studio or the campaign trail than from City Hall, but he says he'll be rolling out more ideas later.
He'll need them, frankly, because for a guy whose greatest appeal is that he's a fresh face and non-politician, here's some of the warmed-over porridge on his campaign website:
"It is essential to make progress in the elimination of the gang culture."
"We must restore trust in our elected officials and public offices."
"Our ports need to become more competitive with other major ports in the region."
And as an asthma sufferer, he wants "clean-environment" technology "balanced with the real need we currently have for jobs and economic growth in L.A."
I think James needs to demand concessions and givebacks from his writing staff.
His stronger play, at the moment, is his argument that Greuel is "all of a sudden" finding problems as controller and mayoral candidate that she didn't seem to notice as a council member. That Garcetti has been "at the helm of a decade of decline." That Perry is much like the others. That Beutner can't possibly escape blame after having run 13 city departments.
And that Antonio Villaraigosa makes a strong argument for letting a complete outsider give it a go.
Steve Lopez's 10-year collection of columns is available at http://www.latimes.com/store