Republican strategist Fred Davis in his Hollywood Hills office.
Fred Davis has created ad campaigns for some of the biggest names in politics, including John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But like a lot of Angelenos, he doesn’t pay much attention to local elections.
"I’ve lived here since 1985, and I don’t remember voting in a mayor’s race,” Davis says.
He wasn’t interested in potholes and pensions until he ran into a persistent questioner when he spoke at a C-SPAN event in Culver City earlier this year. It was Kevin James, who approached Davis after the event.
“We sat down for two hours,” Davis says. “I was impressed.”
He says he was impressed by James’ intelligence and understanding of city issues. Davis has attended three debates and says James “blows the other candidates away.”
He has another motive. Davis sees in James a fresh a look.
“Here’s a guy that’s openly gay, who’s as smart as they come, who’s an avowed conservative Republican,” Davis says. “That’s an interesting face on a Republican to me and something the party needs to get to.”
Davis sits in his Hollywood Hills office on Mulholland Drive, just below the “W” in the Hollywood sign. He is surrounded by pictures of successful corporate and political clients and awards .
He says he’s raised about $500,000 – he won’t say from whom. City ethics rules will require him to name them in late January.
He hopes to raise at least $2 million more to spend on an independent ad campaign promoting James. The upstart candidate needs it. He has virtually no name recognition compared to the major candidates – City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry.
James, 49, is a private attorney, former federal prosecutor and one-time late-night conservative radio talk show host who rails against government waste. Some have called Davis’ involvement a possible game changer for James.
“I certainly hope that’s the case,” James says. “But it doesn’t change at all my message of non-partisan solutions, of common sense governance in Los Angeles.”
As the only Republican in the contest, James will likely appeal to GOP voters, which could eat into Greuel’s support.
But the mayor’s race is non-partisan, and Davis hopes to attract voters of all stripes who, like himself, never cast ballots in mayoral elections – people who may be fed up with city government.
“A new guy, like Obama was when he ran for president (in 2008), can get new voters. And that’s part of the calculus,” Davis says.
This Oklahoma-born media man who still speaks with his hometown accent may be best known for outrageous ads. One ad put real ex-cons in pink tu-tus taking dance lessons to attack a Democrat who voted for a crime bill that funded rehabilitation programs.
When Davis worked for California U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, he portrayed her GOP primary opponent, Tom Campbell, as a demon sheep with blood red eyes roaming a grassy field.
Will Greuel, Garcetti and Perry end up as possessed animals? Davis breaks into a smile.
“Of course I can’t give away what we’re thinking,” he says.
The theme, he says, is one man – Kevin James – an outsider against entrenched politicians who’ve wrecked city government.
“It’d probably have to be some kind of one animal verses three," Davis says. "I don’t know what that would be exactly.”
Davis has made successes of long shots before.
“The key word is long shot,” says Claremont Government Professor Jack Pitney, a former research director for the national GOP. “Los Angeles is a Democratic city. Its unlikely a Republican – even a gay Republican – will be elected.”
It should be noted former Mayor Richard Riordan, who served in the 1990’s, was a Republican. But that was after the riots when voters turned to a conservative businessman to lead the city.
Davis is hoping to propel James to a second place finish in the March 5th primary, which would get him into a runoff.
“If he can get Kevin James into the runoff, that will be a major political accomplishment,” Pitney says. “He’s trying to remain relevant in an off-year.” That is, a year that doesn’t have any major elections around the country.
This year was tough for Davis. He came under fire after the New York Times reported on his plan for scathing attack ads against President Obama. Funders backed out. Davis apologized for what some saw as racial overtones to the ads.
But he says the ads still should have run.
“I think I was vindicated by the outcome of this last election,” Davis says. “And the phone has been ringing solidly ever since.”
He pauses and adds this: “We do things differently, and our clients win."
James technically is not a client. Davis is running a Super PAC, which means its activities can’t be coordinated with the James campaign.
But Davis says he nonetheless intends to put James in the mayor’s office.