Kevin James (left) joins Mayor Pete Buttigieg (center) and Mayor Eric Garcetti (right) at LA rally. (Photo by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

Making the Switch from Republican to Democrat

Kevin James


LA Public Works President, Film Chief, and former Republican Mayoral candidate just did it — here’s why.

Turning 18 years old days before my freshman year of college in Norman, Oklahoma, and just two months after the first AIDS cases were discovered in 1981, I had no idea that my twenties would be consumed by worry, fear, stigma, anger, and the brutal early death of friends my age. Eighteen was not supposed to be middle age. For all I knew, I wouldn’t live to be 30.

People were afraid of us. Employers were afraid to hire us. Some family members were even afraid to hug their gay sons and brothers.

I moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s to find a community willing to accept me as a gay man, a community where I had the chance to grow and to thrive even while the darkness, pain, and uncertainty of the AIDS epidemic affected every part of my life. I still had something to offer.

LA offered a home to our community in the middle of a modern plague. LA was also equipped with the best medical care in the world to help our sick and dying brothers and sisters.

LA is special. There were only two or three cities in the world at that time where such a supportive community could have been created.

Feeling guilt and frankly lucky to be healthy, I reached out to AIDS Project Los Angeles to volunteer my help. It was during my early days at APLA that I first met immigrants that I learned were undocumented. They were receiving services from APLA provided because of their HIV status and regardless of their immigration status.

I was an active Democrat during those years. But as the death sentence related to AIDS finally subsided and my term as Co-Chair of the Board of APLA expired, I grew less interested in party politics, and re-registered as a “decline-to-state” voter. Around the same time, in 2002, a high-profile legal case I was handling resulted in my frequent appearance as a guest on talk radio programs, which then led to my own talk radio show.

With economic and financial matters in mind, and a desire to encourage Republicans and conservatives to support LGBT issues, in 2007 I registered as a Republican.

While my earliest actions related to the immigration crisis demonstrated compassion and willingness to help, my subsequent work in my talk radio career did not. I entered that sensitive debate with misguided and ill-informed words and ideas.

My life changed when a listener to my show recommended that I visit a naturalization workshop and meet the participants. I accepted the invitation, and so began my education on the complex issues and challenges facing immigrants. Listening to their individual stories, I realized then how wrong I had been and that I needed to open my mind. Soon after, I began to volunteer as an attorney at those workshops.

Working in Mayor Garcetti’s administration, my views have further evolved. Mayor Garcetti reestablished the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and I have had the opportunity to learn from this office and contribute to initiatives helping our immigrant community. I learned that the foundation of the stories I was hearing was similar to my story — they too came to Los Angeles for a community willing to accept them for who they are and for what they have to offer. Time and again, immigrants are met with obstacles and not opportunities in their citizenship journey, and it is up to all of us to help fix this broken system and change the narrative.

Tijuana is only 140 miles from Los Angeles, but the LGBTQ refugees in Tijuana are a world away. I know because I’ve seen them. I’ve spoken to them. And I’ve listened to their stories.

Abused, beaten, threatened, and often abandoned by their families, they have nowhere to turn. They are not even safe in their own sanctuary — Tijuana’s only LGBTQ center — a small space with one bathroom shared by the more than 30 refugees who live there.

This is a humanitarian crisis, and Washington is unwilling to help.

As I sat there — just two months ago — listening to their own stories of fear, stigma, and the early death of friends their age, in the middle of a crisis in which Washington is unwilling to help, it all sounded too familiar to me. I am thankful that I now understand the challenges facing many people who seek the sacred dream of a better future in America.

During my talk radio career, I made statements that did not comport with sound environmental policies — statements I sought to clarify during my mayoral campaign. Following his election, Mayor Garcetti took a risk by nominating me to the Board of Public Works, and I am grateful to the Mayor and City Council for letting me show how far I have come. There was, without doubt, a learning curve to conquer, and I have worked hard to better understand the environmental issues we face in the country’s second-largest urban center.

Along the way, I have also had the opportunity to work with almost every union, guild, and labor organization that operates within the City. While we don’t and won’t agree on all of the issues all of the time, I have seen firsthand the extraordinary value that collective bargaining brings to our workforce and economy.

Everywhere I look for support in my public service career, I am met by Democrats. And that’s not surprising, because in recent years I have felt isolated in the Republican Party. That’s not just because my views have evolved and advanced. It’s also because the Republican Party has regressed.

I thought my membership in the Republican Party might change the minds of longstanding political foes to my community. As early as 2007, I spoke to Republican groups about why conservatives should support same-sex marriage and LGBTQ people in the military. I hope I was successful in recruiting allies in the Republican Party. Regardless, my time as a Republican is over.

And I’m not alone. In April, Iowa State Rep. Andy McKean, who for 29 years served in the legislature, left the Republican Party for the Democrats. Others, like Connecticut’s Aundré Bumgardner and Maryland’s Meagan Simonaire — both once young, rising stars in the GOP — have also made the switch. And Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, recently lambasted Republicans in the Washington Post as the Party’s fundamental tenets are “degraded and chipped away.”

It is remarkable, exciting, and unbelievable to me that today — a full 35 years after people were afraid to embrace or even touch a gay man for fear of contracting AIDS — we have a major political party giving serious consideration to nominating an openly gay man for President.

The Democratic Party is leading on the environment and on issues of equality, and fighting to protect the rights of the disenfranchised, disempowered, and vulnerable.

My priorities in public service, and in my private life, align with the Democratic Party. I am proud to return to the party I once gave up on, but through it all has stood by me.



Kevin James

President of City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works and Director of LA Mayor’s Office of Film & TV. Former entertainment litigator and Assistant US Attorney.