Republican mayoral hopeful Kevin James, shown at a recent candidates forum,… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Republican Kevin James received two significant boosts Friday to his long-shot bid for Los Angeles mayor: the endorsement of former Mayor Richard Riordan and the first of nearly $400,000 in television ads purchased by a committee backing his campaign.
Political observers say the developments could improve James' standing in the March 5 primary, but some questioned whether they would be enough to counter the city's heavy Democratic tilt.
"It increases his prospects and puts him credibly in the ballgame to make the runoff … and it makes the race more interesting," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races.
He said that Riordan's reputation as a nonpartisan Republican could aid James' efforts to make inroads with moderate and independent voters. But the most important effect may be in his fundraising, Hoffenblum said. "Money begets money. As long as people believe he may be able to make it, it makes it easier to raise money."
With a little more than two weeks to go, and voters already casting ballots by mail, Riordan announced his endorsement on Friday.
"He's the only one who is truly independent of the special interest groups, especially the unions," said Riordan, who served as mayor from 1993 to 2001. "The others can't possibly run our city well because they can't make major pension changes. They are owned by the unions."
Riordan said he waited until now to offer his endorsement because he wasn't sure at first whether James, 49, had a shot at advancing beyond the March 5 election. But the former mayor said James now has a chance of getting into the runoff because "people are picking up that he is much more independent than the others."
Riordan, a multimillionaire, said he would donate to James' campaign but not to the independent committee formed by GOP adman Fred Davis.
That group, Better Way L.A., cannot legally coordinate with the campaign but can raise unlimited sums and its ad went on the air Friday. The ad offer a significant boost for James, who has never held elected office and needs television exposure to introduce himself to voters in Los Angeles' sprawling neighborhoods. His own campaign lacks the money to go on air.
Warning that the city faces bankruptcy, the ad cuts to grim black-and-white pictures of the three elected officials who are James' main competitors in the contest.
"Loss of services. Crumbling streets. Bankruptcy, caused by the votes of Wendy Greuel, Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry," says the narrator over ominous music. "Nothing would change if they became mayor."
A color image of James, an attorney and the sole Republican in the contest, appears on the screen, with uplifting music.
"Only Kevin James can solve our problems because only Kevin James did not cause them. Which will it be? Bankruptcy or Kevin James," the narrator concludes.
Davis' group has raised $700,000 from two wealthy donors, but he said he expects contributions to increase with James' growing momentum.
James' campaign said the two moves reflect what they see in their polling and come at an ideal time in the race.
"In a race like this, you want to be the candidate on the move when people are starting to make their minds up," said strategist John Weaver.
Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for City Controller Greuel — James' chief rival in the race for fiscally conservative voters — dismissed the value of either development.
"This endorsement and PAC ads can't hide the fact that Kevin talks a good game but he's never had to make the tough choices leadership requires," Murphy said. "We're at a crossroads, and Angelenos need more than a radical right-wing radio host."
The ads must be placed in the context of what the other campaigns are doing, said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College.
"The ads matter. They help introduce him to voters," he said. "But the problem for James is that Greuel has been advertising much more heavily."
And the moves come as James' better-funded and better-known adversaries and their allies are ratcheting up their efforts. Greuel and City Councilman Garcetti have both been on the air for more than a week, and an independent effort backing Greuel's bid reported a new $500,000 ad buy on Friday. The previous day, Garcetti supporters announced they were launching an independent committee to supplement his effort.
Independent groups had spent more than $1.5 million in the mayoral campaign as of Friday. One notable contribution to Working Californians to Elect Wendy Greuel for Mayor 2013 came from former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who gave $50,000.
Some of James' own supporters worry that it is too little, too late.
"When you compare that to the money and support that the others have, it's really sad," said North Hills voter Mary Armenteros. "I'm really sorry to say I don't think his chances are good."
Before voting, Armenteros wants to see public polls. If it looks as though James has a shot at placing in the top two in the primary, she'll vote for him. If his numbers are dismal, she'll go with City Councilwoman Perry.
Otherwise, she said, "you're throwing away your vote."