“I had severe asthma,” he explains. “I sometimes slept in an oxygen tent when I was young.”
As an adult, James loves to talk. For almost nine years, until 2011, he was a late-night, conservative talk radio host. On this day, he readily offers a reprise of his on-air shtick.
“It’s Kevin James on another night across Los Angeles,” he booms. “So where should we start? Let's talk about this really exciting mayoral candidate. His name is Kevin James!”
James, 50, was born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas. A fraternity brother, Brent Mills, recalls a driven upperclassman.
“It was always, ‘You’re not studying hard enough,’ and ‘You need to get better grades.’”
After earning a law degree from the University of Houston, James arrived in L.A. in 1993. Ironically, the conservative Republican came to Los Angeles in part because he wanted a more liberal environment. James is gay.
“I was concerned that I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I wanted if I had stayed in Texas or Oklahoma.”
James went to work for the conservative law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher. He spent time as a federal prosecutor before landing at one of the best-known entertainment law firms in the country, Lavely and Singer. A colleague there, Todd Eaton, calls James a “fierce advocate” whose front may sometimes be deceiving.
“Kevin’s style is that of a person who’s sort of a, for lack of a better phrase, an ‘Aw shucks’ easy going mentality,” Eaton says. “And it’s genuine.”
But when it comes to politics, James often bellows.
In a 2008 appearance on MSNBC, James questioned then-candidate Barack Obama’s fidelity to Israel.
“Barack Obama is the one who is endorsed by Hamas. Barack Obama is the one who is needs to be making good with the people in Israel right now,” James shouted.
“Why are you screaming?” host Chris Matthews asked.
LA.’s city election is officially non-partisan. James, for his part, makes no secret that he is a Republican. But opponents accuse him of moderating his views to attract support among the city’s mostly Democratic voters.
James has chastised his opponents, for example, for not doing enough to create a more environmentally sustainable city — even though he’s called climate change activists “global warming wimps.”
“I don’t think I’ve done anything [environment-related] for the campaign,” he says. “But I will tell you over time, I’ve evolved."
Asked whether he believes humans are contributing to global warming — as nearly all climate scientists do — James offers this response: “I don’t know. I’m not a scientist.”
James’ primary focus in the campaign has been the city’s financial crisis. He says his three main opponents — City Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, and former council member, now City Controller, Wendy Greuel — led the city into its current deficit. Under his watch, pensions for city employees would shrink, even if he must get the support of voters.
“I will go around the city council, around the union leadership, and we will re-create a version of Mayor Riordan’s pension reform plan.”
That plan, which former Mayor Richard Riordan attempted unsuccessfully to get on this year's ballot, would have required city workers to contribute more to their pensions, and moved new employees into 401 (K)-style plans.
“He is playing the role of the outsider, the contrarian,” says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. He adds that James has changed the debate among the candidates.
“They may not have brought up as much the issue of pension reform, even though it’s the elephant in the room,” Guerra says.
James has raised a fraction of the campaign cash of his opponents. An independent committee funded in part by Dallas billionaire and GOP stalwart Harold Simmons has spent more than $600,000 promoting him in TV ads. But polls show him running a distant third in the race.
James is trying to appeal to conservative voters, though perhaps not like he did at a Tea Party rally in Van Nuys four years ago.
“The answer to their raising our taxes, no matter what the stated reason, is not only ‘No,' he boomed. "It's ‘Hell no.’”
Like most Republicans, James points to President Reagan as one of his heroes. Unlike many in the party, he also admires another president.
“Bill Clinton is a political hero of mine," says James, "because for the first time I felt like, as a gay man, we had a seat at a political table."
James doesn’t talk about the possibility of becoming L.A.’s first openly gay mayor, but says he could be an important role model for young gays and lesbians.
At the end of an interview he returns to the subject of his old radio career and makes a pledge.
“If elected, I will go back on the air on the weekends as a broadcaster, as mayor.”
Mayor-broadcaster. That would be a dream come true for Kevin James.
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