Los Angeles mayoral hopeful Republican Kevin James has softened his conservative positions on two key issues, global warming and undocumented immigration, the candidate said in an interview this week.
Those new stances could make him more attractive to L.A.'s heavily Democratic voter population. But his shift in positions also opens him up to criticism from other candidates that he's pandering to win votes.
A registered Republican, James is running against a field of mostly Democrats in the race to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
While the race is nonpartisan, James' fiscal conservatism and criticism of City Hall have raised his visibility. A recent KABC Channel 7 poll placed him third in the race, tied with Councilwoman Jan Perry, a politician with 12 years experience.
On many social issues, James takes a liberal stance.
The 49-year-old attorney, who is gay, supports gay marriage, for instance.
On the city budget and immigration, he's held far more conservative views and he shared those opinions when he was a local talk radio host, and at Tea Party rallies.
He also penned columns for TownHall.com, a conservative website.
In one 2008 TownHall.com column on proposed state regulation of California residents' thermostats, James expressed doubts about global warming, stating that: "Environmental doomsaying is one of the most powerful tactics that liberals use to obtain and wield power."
Since writing that column, James said his stance on global warming has "evolved."
"I think that's a fair assessment to say that I was skeptical," James said. "But since then, since writing that column, there has been a lot more information that's come forward. So I think it's fair to say, am I more of an environmentalist today than I would have been then? I think that's fair to say."
He likened his shift to President Barack Obama's self-admitted evolution on the topic of gay marriage, an issue the president now supports.
Climate change has emerged as issue for the leading candidates, a group that also includes Council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti, and City Controller Wendy Greuel.
A UCLA report on climate change released late last year challenged all the mayoral candidates to take action on environmental issues if elected. At a Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association debate last week, Perry was also pressed about what she would do about climate change.
At that same debate, moderator Gene Maddaus asked James why he hadn't made the "illegal alien crisis" -- a recurring topic during James' radio days -- a central theme in the mayor's race.
In a 2007 interview with a radio trade publication, James said "the common denominator" for many of L.A.'s problems, from failing schools to overcrowded hospitals to gang activity is the "illegal alien crisis."
During the debate, James told the crowd that since working with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials around 2007 and 2008, he gained a better understanding of the difficulties faced by those who want to legally immigrate to the U.S.
In this week's interview, James' explained his shifting position. He acknowledged he was too "black and white" on the issue of immigration in the past. While backing stronger U.S. border patrols, for instance, he believes the government needs to enact comprehensive immigration changes.
"Illegal immigration is still illegal immigration," James said. "People are still coming here and thwarting the system. What I know now that I didn't know then ... is just how broken the system is."
If elected, James would find himself dealing with issues related to undocumented immigrants. Both Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, for example, recently ended the mandatory 30-day vehicle impound for undocumented immigrants if they have insurance and a clean driving record.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said the challenge for candidates who shift positions is to effectively explain why their stances have changed.
Given that James is the lone Republican among the front-runners in the race, Schnur was skeptical that James' changing views would impact his standing among voters
"If there were voters who agreed with him previously," Schnur said, "it's not as if they are not going to find another candidate with which they agree."
On Thursday, John Shallman, consultant to Greuel, called James a "political pander bear" for his changing views.
"Wendy Greuel has always been about accountability," Shallman said. "When you're running for office, you have to be held accountable for the things you've said and the things you've done."
Replied James' consultant Jeff Corless: "There is nothing wrong with leaders developing their understanding of issues."