Fred Davis, who has worked on campaigns for Arnold Schwarzenegger and George… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
Looking to dramatically tip the scales in the race for Los Angeles' next mayor, a nationally prominent Republican media strategist has formed a "super PAC" that aims to spend millions of dollars to elect dark-horse mayoral candidate Kevin James.
Fred Davis, a GOP advertising man who has worked on campaigns for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina and former President George W. Bush, said the Better Way LA committee has raised nearly $500,000 on behalf of James and plans to collect at least $3.5 million more.
The PAC is the first outside committee to form on behalf of a mayoral candidate in the March 5 election. Davis, who lives in Hollywood, said a victory for James, a former prosecutor who is both gay and Republican, could ignite a "rebirth" of the GOP in California, where Democrats hold two-thirds of the seats in the Legislature, and Republican voter registration has fallen below 30%.
Since the campaign began, James has struggled to raise the big money needed to carry his message on 30-second television ads and multiple glossy mailings. Davis said he would even the playing field by putting the blame for the city's financial crisis on the other three leading candidates -- City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry -- and identifying James as "the only one capable" of fixing the city. "He's the only one of the four who wasn't part of the problem," said Davis, chairman of Better Way LA, which filed papers with the city Ethics Commission last week.
Campaign finance rules prohibit citywide candidates from receiving more than $1,300 from each donor during an election cycle. But independent expenditure committees such as Better Way LA can spend as much as they want on a candidate's behalf, a practice used for years by the public employee unions and, to a lesser degree, business groups.
"There's no real definition for a super PAC," said Bob Stern, a government expert who helped draft the city's campaign finance law. "They're basically called that because they're not connected with the candidate and raising lots of money. That's the super part."
Whether Davis' role in the mayor's race will trigger a Republican rebirth is far from clear. Just 16.3% of voters in Los Angeles are registered with the GOP, less than one-third the number who identify themselves as Democrats, according to figures provided by the registrar-recorder/county clerk.
Davis said a second organization, Fix It LA, has been assembled as a nonprofit 501(c)4 advocacy group in case there are donors who want to help James get elected without having their identities revealed.
James, for his part, said he was thrilled that Davis is "excited" about his campaign but did not know of the details. "If private citizens want to step up and support my campaign, or ... get involved in this race, I'm willing to have any kind of support that's willing to come my way," he said.
For weeks, James has marketed himself as the mayoral campaign's only true outsider. Appearing at a candidate forum Wednesday, he said Perry, Garcetti and Greuel -- all city elected officials for more than a decade -- should not be rewarded with a promotion given the city's service cuts and ongoing financial crisis.
Those arguments have not translated into financial firepower. By Sept. 30, Greuel and Garcetti had each raised 10 times as much as James, who had collected $275,000, according to campaign finance reports. Perry, who has raised $1.3 million, said recent elections have shown that money doesn't necessarily decide the outcome. "If that were the case, Jackie Lacey wouldn't be the district attorney now," she said. "I can think of many examples -- Meg Whitman, Al Checchi -- but Jackie is only the most recent."
Rose Kapolczynski, senior advisor to Greuel's campaign, offered a similar message, saying Mitt Romney's super PACs "showed that you can spend millions in secret funds and still not guarantee victory on election day."
Better Way LA could draw attention to James for reasons that have nothing to do with City Hall. Davis drew fire earlier this year for pitching a commercial against President Obama that, had it aired, would have exploited his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Davis also took heat for a campaign ad in Michigan that depicted a Chinese woman speaking broken English and talking about jobs that had been exported to China. Davis, 60, dismissed that criticism, saying "people are more concerned about winning than the press on a couple ads."
Davis said he met James after giving an address in Culver City in July. They wound up speaking for two hours about "elections and how you get elected," he said. Soon afterward, Davis called other like-minded business people about forming Better Way LA, he said.