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California

Tim Cavanaugh
Can Kevin James Save Los Angeles?
The mayoral long shot is the only candidate who understands how deep the city’s problems run.
4 March 2013

Los Angeles voters (or more precisely, a small fraction of Los Angeles voters) will head to the polls Tuesday to begin choosing the city’s next mayor. Most likely, ideological heirs of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will finish in the top two spots. That might be good news if you’re Villaraigosa or one of the front-runners, or if you’re among the nine percent of registered voters who voted for the mayor in 2009. But it’s awful news if you’re anybody else in the city.

Villaraigosa’s mayoral tenure has marked a period of civic stagnation few American cities have seen since the days of Coleman Young’s Detroit. By every significant measure of civic and economic well-being, L.A. under Villaraigosa has ground to a halt. Yet barring a major electoral surprise, city controller Wendy Greuel and city council member Eric Garcetti, both Democrats, will emerge as the winners Tuesday and face each other in May’s general election. According to the most recent Survey USA poll, Garcetti leads with 24 percent of likely primary voters. Greuel polls at 20 percent, while city council member Jan Perry has 15 percent.

Currently polling fourth among the eight candidates on the ballot is former AM radio talk-show host Kevin James. The only Republican in the nonpartisan primary, James has made rapid progress in his campaign through targeted appeals to independents and a concerted effort to bring out GOP voters. He hopes to score a huge upset with a second-place finish. James is running as the outsider, with good reason. Unlike the three leading candidates, he’s not part of the city hall establishment. During his time as a KRLA radio host, he focused mainly on municipal and quality-of-life issues—refreshingly down to earth in a body politic almost exclusively concerned with outlawing plastic bags, banning bacon-wrapped hot dogs, registering support for the Occupy movement, and other quests unrelated to improving daily life in America’s second-largest city.

James has run a threadbare campaign, with a war chest estimated at just $383,000, supplemented by about $600,000 in independent expenditures on his behalf. That is dwarfed by the $4 million Garcetti had at the end of 2012. Greuel has raised $4.75 million, helped substantially by late contributions from government-employee unions. Perry has more than $2.2 million.

Despite his financial obstacles, James is optimistic. “I’m first with independents,” he said in an interview. “This is going to be a three-way race. Only two of us are going to make the runoffs.” James says he has a strong apparatus for targeting registered Republicans in an election expected to draw low turnout. “Voter contact, voter contact, voter contact,” James said. “Our base is Republicans and radio listeners, the pitchfork and torch voters of 2009. These are concern voters who feel like city hall has left them behind. We’re getting the word out that there’s a viable alternative to city hall, that the private sector is going to have a voice in city government.”

In theory, a strategy to lock up Republican and independent votes could work. The total percentage of voters expected to turn out is lower than the percentage of registered Republicans (22 percent) and decline-to-staters (19 percent). (Only 15 percent of the city’s 1.8 million voters came out in the 2009 election.) But FlashReport publisher Jon Fleischman notes that Greuel is polling 22 percent among registered Republicans and Garcetti 20 percent. Garcetti, whose Zelig-like efforts to appear comfortable with all groups, faiths, and ethnicities have gone beyond parody, recently sent out mailers to GOP voters improbably promising to “continue the Republican revolution.”

Garcetti’s fiscal-conservative claims come as a great surprise to any voter who has lived in the councilman’s Hollywood district or can recall his tenure as city council president. His Hollywood is a pothole-filled experiment in “smart-growth” intervention, its visibly decaying infrastructure contrasting with ever more surreal claims about how the leadership is designing a city for the future. During six years living next to Paramount Studios in Hollywood, I saw five major sewer-line floods, one of which closed off a portion of Willoughby Avenue for a month before it was repaired.

Garcetti’s and Villaraigosa’s transit-oriented plan for Hollywood development is an unreconstructed New Urbanist scheme to create Manhattan-style living. It’s at odds with the history of Los Angeles and has not fully taken hold even in downtown L.A., where it would be most likely to succeed. Garcetti’s tenure has also been marked by a host of notable green-energy and redevelopment boondoggles, such as a $30 million guaranteed loan to CIM Group for a retrofit of the Dolby Theatre to house Cirque du Soleil’s Iris. In person, Garcetti oozes false sincerity, and he has presided over what James accurately calls “one of the most non-responsive city councils in history.”

Greuel, for her part, sat on the city council from 2002 to 2009, but she has effectively distanced herself from that unpopular body through her work as controller, where she claims to have discovered “$160 million in waste and fraud at City Hall.” Her record has come under heavy fire during the campaign, though, with Garcetti branding her audits “nearly useless” and claiming that the actual waste figure is a much more modest $239,000. James calls Greuel a “press-release controller” and skewers her for her close relationships with labor leaders at a time when pension and benefit costs are sinking the city’s budget. The other major candidates have lambasted Greuel for racking up campaign-related travel and other expenses on the taxpayers’ dime. The Los Cerritos Community Newspaper recently published an investigative report detailing how Greuel “spent an overwhelming majority of her official schedule for the past three years attending lavish dinners, lunches, breakfasts, and social events in an effort to advance her 2013 mayoral campaign.”

Such misrule might be survivable in a period of civic expansion, but L.A. has experienced negative economic growth under Villaraigosa. Adjusting for inflation, and comparing Bureau of Economic Analysis figures from the beginning of Villaraigosa’s administration with the most recent numbers, the city saw a nearly 10 percent decline in real GDP by metropolitan area—a statistic anecdotally supported by the large amount of vacant retail space around town. Los Angeles County’s population flat-lined over the same period, and government efforts to draw in newcomers have been counterproductive, leaving the city with an overbuilt, largely vacant downtown and a declining rate of public transit usage, despite massive light-rail expenditures.

James is better at harping on the dysfunction of the city’s politicians and targeting well-known knaves, such as the L.A. Department of Water and Power, than describing the kind of radical changes (notably, massive deregulation) necessary to make L.A. competitive again. In our interview, he declined to articulate a vision for transportation that rejects the rail mirage and focuses on mobility in the land of King Car.

But James can express the frustration of daily life in L.A. better than any of his rivals. “Just try and get a permit downtown,” he said. “You have to go through 12 or 14 departments, amid a real culture of corruption. Numerous departments are under investigation and numerous people are under indictments for shaking down individuals in the permitting process. Garcetti was the president of the city council through most of that. And people wonder why we’ve got sinkholes popping up all over town.” He took aim specifically at Garcetti’s controversial Hollywood Community Plan. “They pass these plans and then they ignore them,” James said. “They’ll variance and waive their special friends into the stratosphere. We’ve got to do a better job of enforcing the plans that we already have in place. That just hasn’t happened with this city government.”

Such populist appeal will face an uphill climb against Garcetti, who has secured the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times and fawning personal testimonials from celebrities such as Salma Hayek and Will Ferrell. Meantime, Greuel, a former Dreamworks SKG lobbyist, has the support of director Steven Spielberg and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, along with U.S. senator Barbara Boxer. James, who is quick to say that he’s being treated “fairly” by the media, lacks such glittery attention—though he did pick up endorsements from former Mayor Richard Riordan and the L.A. Daily News. But like none of his opponents, he understands that Los Angeles is a deeply troubled city.

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