Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Republican eyes race for L.A. mayor

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012 - 10:48 am

Kevin James is a former talk radio host and federal prosecutor who aspires to become mayor of Los Angeles, and is promising to restore fiscal order to City Hall, all perfectly understandable.

Here's where it starts to get different. James is a Republican in a Democratic bastion. Republicans with a national profile think they can help him win the March election, though GOP registration sits below 20 percent in Los Angeles. Dreaming of breathing life into a party gasping for breath, they see James as a new face of that brand in California.

And, by the way, James is gay. He has a long record of participating in the fight against AIDS and supports same-sex marriage. You might think questions about marriage equality have been answered.

Polls show attitudes are turning. Voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state supported same-sex marriage on Nov. 6. But some Californians Republicans are unwilling to let go of the issue, at least not yet.

James deftly returns to the fundamental issue in the race for the nonpartisan office of mayor: the mess at Los Angeles City Hall and "how do we put L.A. back on track and move back from the brink of bankruptcy?" Owing to the radio talker-lawyer that he is, however, he openly discusses all manner of issues.

"I don't think same-sex marriage is an issue for the mayor's race. But the question is, 'Do I support it?' And I do," James said. "I support gay marriage. I happen to believe it is an equal protection issue."

Early in the year, a prominent Los Angeles pundit dismissed James' candidacy as quixotic. Perhaps it is. Los Angeles hasn't been Republican turf for decades. James lags badly in the all-important race to raise money, behind city Controller Wendy Gruel and council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry.

"It is a real challenge to run for mayor here as a Republican," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who has worked on every Los Angeles mayoral race since 1993 and is Garcetti's strategist. "He has to demonstrate he can put together some coalition that expands way beyond Republican voters."

In the wake of the Republicans' shellacking this month, James is the rare California Republican who is making forward progress. Republican strategist Fred Davis last week announced he has established an independent campaign on James' behalf and hopes to raise millions. John Weaver, a friend of Davis', told me that he has signed on as James' senior strategist.

Davis helped elect George W. Bush and did ads for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Weaver helped elect George H.W. Bush and was McCain's chief strategist for a decade ending in 2007. This year, they worked in and around former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign, which means they all but sat this one out.

They've had their wins, losses and stumbles. But there is no doubt that Weaver, who lives in Austin, Texas, and Davis, who lives in the Hollywood Hills, are serious players.

"If you elect a Republican as mayor of Los Angeles, no matter who the president is, it's a big deal," Weaver said. "We need oxygen, and a pathway to show that we can become relevant nationally."

Weaver, like James, has no doubt but that the Republican Party "needs to accept the right of people to marry." He has made that point often and publicly. "If we're going to be the freedom party, we have to be for freedom for everybody."

He understands better than most that other forces within the Republican Party have used the issue to gin up conservative voters to help the top of the ticket.

"I wish we had never used it as an issue," Weaver said.

The marriage conflict has bedeviled the GOP for a decade, and is part of the debate raging now among Republicans about their way forward. Conservatives insist GOP standard-bearers must give social conservatives a reason to vote. Others believe the party must turn the page on an array of issues, marriage included.

Marriage will be in the news again this week. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to hear challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California. No matter how the justices rule, the issue won't disappear.

If the court decides marriage equality is a right, there will be an attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution. If it decides marriage is an issue best left to the states, there could be ballot measures in as many as seven states in 2014. If the justices reverse the appellate court ruling that struck down Proposition 8, there probably will be a marriage measure on our 2014 ballot.

In short, Frank Schubert won't be without work any time soon.

Schubert is the Sacramento consultant who gave up his corporate practice this year to devote himself to the defense of traditional marriage, running campaigns in the four states that voted on Nov. 6. As he followed his heart, Schubert got his head handed to him. Traditional marriage had not lost at the polls until now.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I'm disappointed," he told me. But there are reasons for the defeat. The four states are blue, he said, although they are hardly California, which rejected same-sex marriage only four years ago. Supporters of same-sex marriage outspent Schubert's side 3-to-1, though he had enough money to get his message to voters.

Schubert believes the outcome on Nov. 6 might have been different if Mitt Romney had emphasized his opposition to same-sex marriage during the general election campaign. Schubert believes Romney went silent on the issue because of advice from "Republican elites" who see the issue as overly divisive.

The fact is, attitudes are shifting. Older voters who oppose same-sex marriage are dying. Ethnic opposition is softening. Younger voters have a hard time understanding why gay people cannot marry whom they want.

As the marriage fight goes on, Schubert and James' positions reflect the debate within their party. One hopes the old will become new again in 2014. The other is convinced that marriage equality is coming, but focuses on fixing City Hall.

A few national Republicans believe they have a shot at starting to remake their once Grand Old Party, beginning with a new face in the very Democratic city of Los Angeles.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Morain, Senior editor

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