Deal Maker’s Pitch Is That He’s No Politician
Steve Soboroff leans back in a chair at his mayoral campaign headquarters in Sherman Oaks and ticks off the real estate deals that made him rich.
The auto parts store in Torrance: “Wonderful.” The Ralphs supermarket in Canoga Park: “A beauty.” And his favorite, a Sav-on Drugs in Mar Vista, the one he bought and resold for more than twice the price: “Enjoyed every bit.” He blows on his fingertips and buffs them on his chest.
“That’s how I’m going to run the city, too,” he says.
He calls himself a “wild man” in the world of strip malls. The 52-year-old landlord and broker built his fortune cutting deals with Mervyn’s, Office Depot, Pep Boys and scores of other retail chains sprawled across the Southland.
His sole ambition since college had been to make it big in real estate. But Mayor Richard J. Riordan stoked his political ambitions, making Soboroff his senior advisor, his parks commission president, his pit bull on school repairs, his trouble-shooter on the Staples Center sports arena.
Now, with Riordan’s blessing, Soboroff is running for mayor as a “problem solver, not a career politician.”
A similar pitch worked for Riordan, who sold himself to a city recovering from riots and recession as “tough enough to turn L.A. around.” For Soboroff, the question is whether the city, after eight years of social calm and prosperity, wants another multimillionaire Republican in charge at City Hall.
Dominating Soboroff’s campaign is his wealth--specifically, how much he has and how much he’s willing to spend. As of last week, he had vowed to put $687,000 of his own money into the race by the April 10 primary, well below what was expected but enough to remain competitive.
Soboroff is the only major contender for mayor who refused to live by the city’s voluntary spending limit of $2.2 million, a move that freed the other five to exceed it too. Rivals have accused him of trying to buy the election. He responds that as the only candidate seeking office for the first time, he must spend his own money “to level the playing field.”
He puts his net worth at less than $10 million, but won’t say how much less. He refuses to release his tax returns. Riordan, a far wealthier man, accepts $1 of the mayor’s $154,000 annual salary; Soboroff plans to take it all.
“I could use the money,” he said.
The Soboroffs live in a $3-million house overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades. It has seven bedrooms and a pool. A locked steel gate keeps strangers out of the neighborhood. On the guard shack is a sign: “Ridgewood Country Estates. A Private Community.”
The family’s half-million-dollar second home is in another gated community, the Indian Ridge Country Club near Palm Springs. Soboroff, a member of the club, golfs and relaxes by the pool. The club’s initiation fee is $52,000.
Soboroff, his wife, Patti, and their five children, ages 7 to 17, take frequent ski trips to Utah; he says they prefer “the places you dress down instead of dress up.” The seven of them have taken a safari in Kenya, snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef, hiked in the Australian rain forest and toured London and Paris. In New York, they stay at the Plaza or the Pierre.
Soboroff’s hard-charging style helped him amass his wealth, but it has made him more than a few enemies in government. But he’s proud that they dislike him. It only reinforces his argument that he is an outsider--even if he is the incumbent’s hand-picked successor. The city, he argues, could use someone like him to rethink the basics, from crime to traffic.
“The left-turn signals-- why do they need to be going on for two minutes at a time when there are no cars?” he asks. “Why aren’t they working on demand instead of on timers?”
Soboroff’s roots are in Chicago. His grandfather, Samuel Soboroff, arrived as a boy in the 1880s after the family fled Russia amid a pogrom. Around 1895, he opened a plant that made baseball caps and earmuffs for Sears. He passed the business along to his two sons, one of whom, Irving, was Soboroff’s father. By the time Soboroff was born in 1948, the plant on Chicago’s northwest side was thriving with 150 workers at sewing machines.
His family lived in Highland Park, Ill., an upper-middle-class suburb. He remembers being a shy, cross-eyed “klutz” of a boy. But already, he was an entrepreneur with a knack for self-promotion: He delivered eggs on his bike, and for advertising glued a picture of himself to an egg, placed it in an egg cup, snapped a photo and printed fliers. New customers got a free whisk.
He also sold homemade dog leashes.
“I wanted to have a few bucks,” he said.
Tough Times Prompt Family’s Move West
In the 1960s, the family hat business collapsed, a casualty of shifting fashion trends. The Soboroffs moved to Arkansas for six months as Irving tried--without success--to revive the firm with cheaper labor. His parents hoped for better fortunes in California, so when Soboroff was 16 the family moved to Woodland Hills, where Soboroff attended Taft High School. He ran track and joined the wrestling team, but 35 years later has nothing but scorn for Taft.
“All the kids were talking about was hubcaps, and how much they were going to spend on their car,” Soboroff said. “Let me tell you, they haven’t done anything to that school since I left. They haven’t emptied the trash.”
Tragedy struck the Soboroffs soon after their arrival in California. Steve’s older sister, Lucy, broke down with schizophrenia. It hit with the suddenness of an airplane crash, he said. For the rest of their lives, his parents would be consumed, emotionally and financially, by caring for her.
“It was quite a shock and quite a heartache,” said Soboroff’s aunt Eleanor Levy. “They did everything they could possibly do, but there’s only so much you can do. Very, very sad.”
Lucy has spent most of her adult life in mental institutions. She lives at a group home in Mar Vista. Soboroff and his younger sister, Amy Audino, take care of her, paying medical bills not covered by insurance. He goes on walks with her and takes her to lunch.
With the hat business gone, Soboroff’s mother, Evelyn, became the family breadwinner. She opened a custom linens shop in Beverly Hills that quickly took off. His father, who wore a suit to work every day, minded the books in the back room until he died in 1993.
Soboroff, after graduating from Taft, moved to Tucson to study finance at the University of Arizona. Vietnam War protests, the drug culture and sexual revolution were flourishing. But Soboroff followed his own path.
He volunteered as a mentor in the Big Brothers program. (He has been a Big Brothers leader ever since and is chairman emeritus of its Greater Los Angeles chapter.) He attended football games with his fraternity buddies, went to bed each night at 9 and kept his room tidy.
“He was immaculate,” said roommate Don Kain.
To break into real estate, he turned to Joseph Eichenbaum, a pioneer in shopping malls and a family friend. “What should I do to be like you?” he asked.
From Tucson, Soboroff sent him a plan for a mall with an Orange Julius, a pharmacy and two department stores. His reaction? “It’s lousy, but if you ever come to L.A., call me.”
Soboroff did. “I was going to make myself so important to this guy that he was going to adopt me,” Soboroff said.
His job was to lure tenants to the malls of Eichenbaum and his partner, developer Ben Weingart. Soboroff said they taught him “the psychology of deal-making,” an art he plans to apply as mayor.
“It’s bringing people together and letting them feel like they got something instead of feeling like they lost,” he said. “It’s not taking the last dime. It’s being open.”
But their protege was eager to move upward. To build his reputation and a network of investors, he organized a UCLA seminar on shopping malls. It worked. He met hundreds of players in real estate. Some provided leads that produced multimillion-dollar deals and paved the way for his independence.
In 1978, he opened Steven Soboroff & Co. in Westwood. The heart of the business was finding buildings that Kinney Shoes and other retail clients would lease for new stores. He got a commission on every lease. The business, now Soboroff Partners in Santa Monica and Encino, prospered as the number of clients expanded. Among the biggest are Circuit City and Orchard Supply Hardware.
From Broker to Landlord
Over the years, he has shifted the emphasis of his business from brokering to being a commercial landlord, in large part to give himself more time with his family.
“All you need is a mail slot to do that, because the checks come in,” he said.
Before long, he and his partners acquired retail properties in North Hollywood, Sun Valley, Buena Park, Fontana, West Covina, Sacramento, Tucson, Phoenix and Louisville, Ky.
Their showcase holding is the Cross Creek Shopping Center on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Soboroff said it alone produced $120,000 of his income last year.
“In my niche, I’m a wild man,” he said. “I could turn on a dime. I would commit to something in 10 seconds.”
He says such traits would be useful in running the city. Yet the tactics used in business can sometimes produce, at the least, unwelcome publicity in politics.
In business, for example, Soboroff has been known to hold a grudge. For years, he resented a Tucson developer who refused to take his phone calls.
So Soboroff bought a lot that the developer needed to build a shopping mall. “I was basically standing in the way of progress,” he recalled. “It was nothing but revenge.”
In the end, Soboroff said, he sold his rival the lot, and they both made money.
He’s also willing to manipulate at times. He learned to stave off clashes with neighbors of his strip malls by slipping the word “preservation” into the the names of his holding companies. “Cross Creek Preservation Co.,” he said. “It works. It’s soft.” Neighbors figure “we’re preserving the creek.”
Soboroff’s career in real estate has not only made him wealthy, but also cushioned his move into politics. His friends in the industry have provided a large share of the $2.9 million raised by his campaign. Page after page of his finance reports list donations from developers, brokers, property managers and the like--California Home Builders, CB Richard Ellis and the Irvine Co. among them.
It was Soboroff’s real estate lawyer, Jeffrey L. Glassman, who steered him into the Riordan administration. Glassman, an attorney at the mayor’s firm, Riordan & McKinzie, recommended Soboroff for a City Hall appointment. Riordan, a former parks commission chief, had met Soboroff years before when Soboroff was raising money to fix up a park in Pacific Palisades. So, just after taking office in 1993, he named Soboroff to the city Harbor Commission.
Soboroff’s main assignment was to strike a deal with three railroads to allow construction of the Alameda Corridor, a freight rail artery linking the harbor and downtown.
He succeeded. The competing railroads agreed to share the line. Harbor colleagues say Soboroff’s talks with railroad executives were a key factor in removing a final obstacle to the $2.4-billion project, now under construction.
“He put on his Superman outfit and he made it happen,” Riordan said.
Making Some City Hall Enemies
Nothing else in his work for the mayor would seem so easy. When Riordan put him to work on Staples Center, Soboroff’s aggressive advocacy of the sports arena drew praise from the developers. But Soboroff made enemies of City Councilman Joel Wachs, a fellow mayoral candidate who crusaded against taxpayer subsidies of the arena, and Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose district is home to Staples Center.
“He thought he could come in and stampede folks,” Walters said. “He upset a lot of people in City Hall.” As it happens, Walters also chairs the council committee that oversees parks. So from 1994 until last month, he would need to work with her in his role as Recreation and Parks Commission president.
He left a bad impression. Walters said she found him rude and unpleasant, and she called his personality “explosive.”
Soboroff has been dogged by questions about his temperament, and at public events he has shown flashes of anger. But family, friends and co-workers deny that he has a bad temper. He is “not a bull in a china shop,” Riordan said.
As former parks commission president, Soboroff takes credit for renovating 200 parks and creating 153 community advisory boards. Park advocates applaud him for backing 30 agreements with the school district to open schoolyards for recreation on weekends and after school. Not enough, they say, but it’s a start.
They fault Soboroff--and Riordan--for doing little to acquire new parkland, especially in largely African American and Latino areas of the city with scarce open space. Overall, Soboroff says the park system is “grossly underfunded” and “grossly understaffed,” but promises no additional money as mayor. “It depends on what the other priorities are,” he said.
His most visible role under Riordan was as chairman of the school repair and construction oversight committee. It monitors spending of $2.4 billion in bonds that voters approved in 1997 under Proposition BB. For three years, Soboroff, whose children attend private schools, used the platform to bash the school bureaucracy.
The Los Angeles Unified School District “has no business in the school building business, and they prove it over and over again,” he said. “Without that oversight committee hanging there, this would have been an unmitigated disaster.” He championed more than 1,000 new repair projects after South-Central students and parents complained that their schools were getting shortchanged. “He took it on, and he was consistent until he delivered,” said Karen Bass, executive director of the Community Coalition, a South-Central advocacy group. “We were thrilled.”
Soboroff calls funding of the projects his biggest accomplishment on the school panel.
Soboroff also scored points with environmentalists for pushing a new policy of planting grass and trees in schoolyards instead of replacing cracked asphalt. How much greenery will actually get planted remains an open question.
To Soboroff, his leadership of the school panel illustrates his ability to get things done.
“I climbed 60% up an absolute slippery pole, with a whole lot of people sitting on the top of that pole pouring grease down it,” he said.
But his swaggering approach did not always work.
Fellow school committee members David Barulich and Michael B. Lehrer were impressed by Soboroff’s energy and enthusiasm. But Barulich said Soboroff’s mayoral aspirations got in the way of good judgment when he rammed through, with inadequate planning, a project to install school air-conditioners.
“He’s a guy who wants to make a deal happen,” Barulich said.
Lehrer, an architect, detected “well-meaning naivete” in Soboroff’s toughness with school officials bedeviled by project delays, contractor mix-ups and management turmoil. “Get-things-done and can-do sometimes can be too fast,” Lehrer said.
At school district headquarters, rancor toward Soboroff runs deep. Officials call him a bully who drove people out of their jobs when they resisted his will.
“He’s kind of an ask-questions-later person at times, and that would often rub district officials the wrong way,” said Erik Nasarenko, a former district spokesman.
Emulating Riordan’s Formula for Success
Other rich businessmen who turned to politics have faced similar criticism. Whereas Riordan--in an extraordinarily different political climate--proved that the transition is possible, it is far more common for candidacies like Soboroff’s to fail.
As much as he can, he is mimicking Riordan. His appeal is aimed at the same white Republicans, San Fernando Valley residents and Jewish moderates who formed the mayor’s base. He has made a point of courting Latino and African American voters, but it has been a tough sell. He is the only major candidate for mayor committed to fighting the federal court consent decree mandating Los Angeles Police Department reforms to curb police misconduct. The city must “stop fighting cops” and “start fighting crime,” he says. He also favors splitting the school district into neighborhood districts--a popular idea in the Valley, even if it would be outside his mayoral authority.
Soboroff says it never occurred to him to run for mayor until Riordan asked a few years ago if he might be interested. At times, his inexperience shows.
Over lunch downtown, he struggled with questions on abortion. First, he said teenagers should be required to notify parents before getting one. Should the government fund abortions for women who can’t afford them? “I would probably prefer not.” A moment later, he wobbled. “I just haven’t taken it to the different levels in my own thinking, and the realities of it haven’t hit me.”
The next day, he called to clarify: He opposes parental notification requirements and favors public funding of abortions for the poor.
Another time, Soboroff boasted at an environmental forum of driving an electric car. He needled the other candidates for their “gas guzzlers.”
“You guys talk the talk. I walk the walk,” he said. The next day, he pulled up to a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in his other car, a gas-guzzling Ford Expedition.
“I’ve got five kids,” he said later with a shrug. “What am I supposed to do? I’ve got to drive them around.”
But to Soboroff, inexperience in politics is not a failing; it’s his calling card. Thirty years in real estate and eight in the Riordan administration, he argues, have trained him to run Los Angeles.
“I’m not doing this because I’m out of work,” he said. “I’m not doing it as a career politician who’s only been in politics. I’m doing it as someone who has a balance.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* Born: Aug. 31, 1948, in Chicago.
* Education: University of Arizona, bachelor of science and master of science in finance, insurance and real estate.
* Personal: Married to Patti Soboroff. Five children: Jacob, 17, Miles, 15, Molly, 13, Hannah, 12, and Leah, 7.
* Party: Republican
* Career: Senior advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan, 1996-2000; Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission chairman, 1994-2001; Proposition BB Blue Ribbon Citizens Oversight Committee chairman, 1997-2000; Harbor Commission chairman, 1993-94; Soboroff Partners, managing partner, 1978-present; J.K. Eichenbaum Associates, 1971-78.
* Strategy: Soboroff casts himself as a political outsider in the mold of Riordan, hoping to capture--and expand upon--the mayor’s base of white Republican, San Fernando Valley and Jewish voters. He emphasizes proposals to step up anti-gang programs, break up the Los Angeles Unified School District and ban road construction on major arteries during rush hours.
About This Series
The Times today presents the third of six profiles of the major candidates for mayor. The articles will appear in the order in which the candidates will appear on the ballot.