A fundraiser put on by heavyweights in Los Angeles' liberal-leaning environmental community should have been a tough crowd for Kevin James.
But James, affable, polite and the only Republican candidate in a Los Angeles mayoral race dominated by City Hall Democrats, had no trouble chatting up guests as he made his way around the crowded event for the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters.
Richard Mueller, an executive with a multinational manufacturer, and Dave Alba, his business partner, seemed happy to corner him. The men spent several minutes outlining a massive freight automation project they are hoping to bring to San Pedro — a tough sell in labor-friendly L.A. They were at the party hoping to line up support for the project.
James listened intently, asked questions and took cards from both men before moving on. Afterward, Mueller declared himself impressed. James' candidacy gives the business community hope that private-sector interests will be given real attention in the mayoral race, he said.
"In this city, you have to work both sides — business and labor," Mueller said. "He'd be a win-win."
James, 49, an Oklahoma native with a sharp legal mind, has emerged as the dark horse in a field made up of career politicians. Although the lawyer and talk-show host has never spent a day in the rough and tumble of public office, he says he'll curtail what he characterizes as the cronyism and scandal that dogs City Hall, cut red tape for businesses, foster jobs and demand reductions in public worker pensions to bring stability to the city's chronically underfunded budget.
And he can do that, James insists, because he's the only outsider of the major candidates who will appear on the March primary ballot. The others are Controller Wendy Greuel, previously a city councilwoman, and council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry.
If elected, James would make history as the first gay mayor of Los Angeles. He's never tried to hide his homosexuality, he says, but he also does not make an issue of it. He's now a well-regarded litigator in private practice, a former radio talk show host and a longtime activist with AIDS Project Los Angeles who served for a time as its chairman.
In debates and at events, James displays a commanding grasp of city issues. And he seems to be everywhere, shaking hands wherever there might be potential supporters. The GOP establishment has taken note.
Former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has endorsed James, and a "super PAC" made up of well-connected GOP donors recently formed to independently support his campaign without being subject to the city's contribution limits. Those moves, political analysts say, have given his run a new legitimacy.
"In the past couple of months he's gone from being an afterthought to a long shot to a plausible outsider candidate," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist and director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
Friends call him hard-working and passionate about what he thinks should be done to return L.A. to economic vibrancy. Todd Eagan, an attorney who's worked with James for years at Lavely and Singer, an entertainment law firm, said James was the firm's go-to guy when facing a tough legal issue.
"Kevin is the person who can cut through to the main issues and solve the problem," Eagan said. "He has a tremendous grasp of the details of any situation."
Another longtime friend, Steve Reymer, said James has a big heart for animals, adopting a rescue Dachshund, Lisa Marie.
Raised in Norman, Okla., James received an accounting degree from the University of Oklahoma and later moved to Houston to earn a law degree. In college, he registered as a Republican. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1988, he interned at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, one of the city's premier law firms. He also worked for three years as an assistant federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office, handling criminal cases involving drugs, money-laundering and insurance fraud before returning to private practice.
James said that as he became involved in AIDS Project Los Angeles — serving six years on its volunteer board and still serving as an honorary ambassador — he switched his party registration to Democratic because he thought the GOP was too slow to respond to the AIDS health crisis. In later years, as he began to focus more on economic rather than social issues, he said, he switched his voter registration to decline-to-state.
Craig E. Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, called him an "effective and well-spoken" board member during his tenure. In board meetings, even when voicing a dissenting point of view, he was always calm and reasonable, Thompson said.
AIDS Project Los Angeles often used James as its official spokesman during those years because he was personable and articulate, Thompson said.
James began filling in as a host on KABC-AM (790) talk radio in 2003 and moved to Oklahoma City the following year to host a morning drive-time show.
In early 2005, he returned to his Laurel Canyon home and switched his registration a third time, back to Republican. The move was prompted by his growing concerns about the economy and his feeling that if he delved more deeply into politics, the GOP would benefit from having more openly gay members in its ranks.