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The evolving views of Kevin James

Los Angeles mayoral candidates, from left, Kevin James, Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti listen to a question during a debate in Hollywood. Before becoming a radio talk show host, James was an entertainment lawyer.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

First in a series of articles focusing on key periods in the lives of the mayoral hopefuls.

If it weren’t for paparazzi shooting topless photographs of actress Jennifer Aniston, Kevin James might never have become a talk radio show host — or gone on to run for mayor of Los Angeles.

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In an only-in-Hollywood tale, James got his first taste of talk radio in 2002, when he was representing Aniston and then-husband Brad Pitt in a lawsuit against adult magazine publishers who had run the racy photos. When the case settled, he was invited on KABC-AM (790) in Los Angeles to talk about it.

Immediately hooked, James over the next decade found himself doing more radio and less lawyering for Lavely & Singer, one of the city’s top entertainment law firms. Then, last year, he traded his radio mic for the mayoral campaign.

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“I call it my prior life,” James said of his entertainment law days, recounting how he once escorted Farrah Fawcett to an awards show.

“I used to go to lots of movie premieres.... Now I go to lots of debates.”

On the campaign trail, he has become the crowd-pleasing populist, thundering about corruption at City Hall and emphasizing his outsider status. But his record shows there are two Kevin Jameses: the conservative radio host on one hand and the far more moderate mayoral candidate on the other.

His positions today on key issues such as the environment, immigration and President Obama are at odds with his statements in the past.

In a recent televised debate on KABC-TV Channel 7 in Los Angeles, for instance, he lambasted his opponents for not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gases in the city — a signature issue for environmentalists who link an increase in carbon emissions with global climate change.

He accused fellow candidates Controller Wendy Greuel and council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry of failing to develop a “comprehensive environmental sustainability plan” during their years at City Hall. “We haven’t made the progress that we should have made with current leadership,” he said.

As recently as five years ago, however, James appeared to reject the entire idea of global warming. As a conservative talk show host, he wrote a column in Townhall.com calling Democrats “global warming wimps” who are exploiting the issue for political gain. The phrase “carbon footprint,” he wrote, “is code for limitless government intrusion into every detail of your life. Nothing is beyond the reach of a government determined to reduce your carbon footprint in the name of the environment. To these people, nothing is sacred, nothing is private, nothing is truly yours.”

His statements at that time could be incendiary. In a Townhall.com column in 2009, he wrote that Obama should choose Daffy Duck, the Warner Bros.’ cartoon character, as his Supreme Court pick to replace the retiring David Souter. The reasons he cited: The duck is black, disabled (with a speech impediment) and a “professional victim.”

In an on-air quarrel with MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, James suggested that then-candidate Barack Obama was a foreign-policy appeaser comparable to Neville Chamberlain, the former British prime minister who made a deal with Adolf Hitler in an attempt to avoid war.

“You’re BS-ing me,” Matthews chided James, noting later that there is a difference between talks and appeasement, which involves making concessions to potential aggressors. “This is pathetic. He doesn’t even know what Chamberlain did at Munich.... We’re talking to people with blank slates about history.”

Also in his radio days, James urged tea party supporters to reject any new taxes, voiced support for a juvenile death penalty and supported a 700-mile fence on the nation’s southern border.

Even in recent years, he consistently opposed Democratic proposals for a “path to citizenship” — an issue of intense interest to Los Angeles’ heavily Latino electorate.

James says he now supports naturalization for immigrants who have been here at least a decade. He also backs California’s version of the Dream Act, which guarantees access to college for students who have lived here most of their lives. His change of heart came about after participating in immigrant workshops and learning how difficult it can be to gain citizenship, he said.

“People come from all over the world and want to contribute to our society, and I want to help them,” he said. “However, it has to be fair and equitable.”

After studying accounting at the University of Oklahoma, James earned a law degree in Houston and took a job in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles from 1990 to 1993, when he left to join entertainment lawyer Bert Fields. In 1992, he received a Director’s Award for superior performance from the U.S. Department of Justice.

After the Aniston case, he started filling in at KABC-AM as a legal analyst and later took over a morning drive-time slot at KTOK-AM (1000) in Oklahoma — the state’s biggest talk-show station.

“He was conservative and really carried the party line,” said Reid Mullins, who succeeded James. “That of course is our audience, so he was doing his job.”

By 2005, he was back at KABC doing five hours of overnight radio five nights a week. He moved to a similar slot at KRLA-AM (870) and stayed there until stepping down in November 2011 to run for mayor.

James can seem a different man off the campaign stage. Polite, engaging and with a soft Southern accent that gives away his Oklahoma roots, he laughs off his changing personalities with a poke at himself.

“I suppose I used to watch the entertainment,” he said. “Now I am the entertainment.”

Political experts say moderating his position on core Democratic causes is essential if James is to have any hope of reaching a runoff in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic. But his past as a radio pundit and columnist may come back to haunt him as opponents point out his changed positions.

Today, James studiously avoids red-meat rhetoric, emphasizing that as the ballot’s only major outsider, he has the best shot at fixing the city’s ailing budget and cleaning up what he portrays as rampant corruption.

On at least a few major issues, James has consistently departed from the views of many conservatives. He is openly gay and says he supports same-sex marriage. He also supports ending what he has called “the easy access to guns.”

During an appearance last month on Geraldo Rivera’s show on KABC radio, James said he favored restricting high-capacity magazines and a ban on assault-style rifles. Rivera asked his guest why he hasn’t “bolted” from the GOP.

“That wouldn’t be a courageous thing to do,” James said. “I believe I should stay and work on the issues. That is where I should be, trying to get people to agree with me.”

Greuel, the target of increasing attacks by James as they compete for conservative San Fernando Valley voters, has tried to marginalize him as too right-wing for Los Angeles. John Shallman, a Greuel campaign advisor, said James is merely using the race as a way to raise his media profile.

‘He’s a guy who likes attention,” Shallman said. “We need someone who is going to serve the public, not someone who is trying to fulfill his ambition as an entertainer.”

Though he says his views have shifted in many ways, James, 49, says “radio is still my passion.” If he’s elected, he’d like to go back on the air for a few hours a week as mayor, he said.

“You talk to people from all across the city, from every corner and neighborhood,” he said. “You get a real sense of what people care about.”

Among the “hot-button” issues, he says, are the intrusion of group homes in residential neighborhoods, the backlog in analyzing rape kits at the Police Department and the desire to increase parental involvement in education reform, in part through trigger laws for charter schools.

Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers, an industry trade magazine, said James did not have a national reputation as a radio host. But talk-show hosts in general make good candidates, he said, because they know local issues so well.

“Whether they can win or not is another thing,” Harrison said.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

dan.weikel@latimes.com


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