MAILANDER’S LA - The long, strange trip of Kevin James, former Federal prosecutor, former head of AIDS Project LA, former AM talk radio conservative talk show host, former Mayoral candidate, and enthusiastic endorser of his former opponent Mayor Eric Garcetti, got a little longer, stranger, and trippier last Friday, as Mayor and noted Obama supporter Eric Garcetti nominated unrepentant Republican James to the City's Public Works Commission.
In a courtship that involved at least four face-to-face meetings after the March primary election, James as insurgent outsider candidate proved to be the single most valuable endorsement of the whole Mayor's race. Now the new Mayor has demonstrated his gratefulness for James's endorsement in a big way, nominating James to one of the City's most powerful commissions--and the only civic commission that pays a meaningful salary. The post requires confirmation by the largely Democratic City Council.
"I'm optimistic," James told me of his prospective confirmation as we sat in the shade of an umbrella outside of James's favorite smoothie stand The Body Factory on Sunset a little after noon on Saturday.
While many Democrats who supported Garcetti against Greuel are privately stewing about the appointment of the Republican James to the City's top Commission, not many are anxious enough that they might be drawn offsides by opposing James so early in the Garcetti mayoralty. "Are you in touch with any [who aren't comfortable with James' appointment]? I asked a Garcetti campaign operative and a top LGBT advocate. "Yeah, all my Dem friends," the operative responded.
I couldn't find any of those Dem friends who were willing to go on the record. But they snarled things like, "I thought Garcetti was the one who was questioning [Wendy] Greuel's Democratic bona fides?" and "Wasn't Garcetti going to change things? This is pure political payback!" and "James is as conservative as Walter Moore, but he gets a pass because he's gay, I think."
James smiled when I asked him about criticism from Democrats. He repeated what he told the New York Times' nearly six months ago. "You know what I said to Adam Nagourney, right?" he asks me. "Sometimes it’s easier coming out gay to Republicans than it is coming out Republican to gays."
Quite a few staunch advocates on behalf of LGBT rainbow politics are entering Garcetti's administration, including another prospective Public Works commissioner, former Deputy Mayor Matt Szabo. The Garcetti campaign proved especially fertile as a repatriation center for the LGBT advocates who worked lesbian advocate and former Deputy Mayor Torie Osborn's campaign a year ago.
James, the former head of AIDS Project LA, offered the LA Weekly a specific reminder of his sexual orientation at the time he declared his candidacy for Mayor. In our conversation, he was unguarded but mostly on Garcetti message as we pecked free-range over many City Hall topics, including his courtship by both campaigns for Mayor, the other appointments to the Public Works Commission, and the Mayor's recent request of City department heads that they re-apply for their jobs.
"I was happy about it," James told me about the way Garcetti asked the department heads to reapply. "They should have known it was coming. I've seen him talking about it for a year now. It was a regular applause line for him at the debates. It is not business as usual. It is a responsible thing to do for the voters who elected him. He ran on it."
It was in the long stretch of Mayoral debates most of all that James became a credible figure in Los Angeles, erasing some of the doubts caused by a highly-circulated online video of an appearance of James's on Hardball in which James took President Bush's side in an apparent critique of then-Senator Barack Obama and was relentlessly pressed by Matthews on the events that led to charges of appeasement by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in WWII.
I admitted to James that as a reader of history I've likely read a dozen books on World War II but would be hard-pressed to call to mind the precise events that lead to the appeasement moniker either.
"Well, I know those events now," James said through a grin.
The finer points of twentieth century history may not play so large a role in the twenty-first century local to LA politics. James's message of accountability and transparency in local government as well as his outsider status garnered him over 16% of the voters in the primary, more than seated Councilmember Jan Perry, who also endorsed Garcetti and whom Garcetti appointed a Deputy Mayor.
There were even a few communities in the City that James won outright, and quite a few more in which he finished second--typically to Wendy Greuel--making his favor especially valuable to both candidates. Greuel met with James no less than six times after the primary.
"It would be a working endorsement," James, who actively campaigned for Garcetti, assured all parties.
That working endorsement paid dividends to Garcetti in many communities, and was hailed by many insiders as the single most important endorsement of the race, eclipsing even President Clinton's endorsement of former Controller Wendy Greuel.
James actually carried some Westside neighborhoods, even by healthy margins, and all these would be won even more healthily by Garcetti in the runoff. In Playa Del Rey, James finished the primary on top alone, with Greuel second and Garcetti third. But in the runoff, Garcetti completely bagged Greuel in the LAX beach enclave by apparently bagging 90% of James's votes, and trouncing Greuel by nearly 40% with 70% of the vote.
Greuel also barely beat James in the primary in much larger Westchester, with Greuel netting a scant 17 votes more than James did there, and Garcetti again placing third. But in the runoff, Garcetti trounced Greuel again, sweeping every precinct west of the 405 and again garnering 70% of the voters.
Similar stories played out in San Pedro--where Garcetti had an admittedly good ground game--and in Porter Ranch, where he didn't.
But politics aside, it is especially James's former work as a Federal prosecutor and Assistant US Attorney that lends him the most credibility as a watchdog commissioner on a board that oversees City contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"I bring a different kind of experience in the end," James said.
The confirmation discussion for James and the other nominated Public Works Commissioners will come up for City Council the week of July 22 or July 29.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)
Vol 11 Issue 57
Pub: July 16, 2013