The Business Journal presents the second in its weekly series of interviews with the six major candidates for L.A. mayor. This week: Steve Soboroff, commercial real estate broker, adviser to outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan and a former city commissioner. Soboroff met with Business Journal editors and reporters last week to discuss his reasons for running, his plans to help L.A. businesses, his recent proposal to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District and other issues.
Question: Given that you've never held elected office before, why are you making the mayor's post your first campaign?
Answer: I grew up in L.A., went to school here and have spent much of my career here. I know this like the back of my hand and I love it. As a parks commissioner, I've been to every one of the city's 385 parks, all the museums. I know the neighborhoods because I'm chairman emeritus of Big Brothers Los Angeles.
I also know the school system here like the back of my hand not from a political perspective or taking what consultants have told me. I've been to 438 schools. I was the head of the citizens' oversight committee that was to make sure the L.A. Unified School District didn't totally blow that bond money the citizens of L.A. voted to give it. We did 5,000 projects in two and a half years.
I also know about doing business in L.A., because for the last 30 years my only paying job has been to recruit businesses to come to Los Angeles. That's been my only job and I love it.
I'm a problem solver, not a career politician. I'm the only candidate who is not a career politician, who is not term-limited out of office and looking for another place to land.
Q: With Riordan endorsing you, people have characterized you as basically wanting to govern as Riordan has, a sort of "Riordan lite." What do you say to those people?
A: Look, Dick Riordan endorsed me because I'm tough, I'm independent and I get things done. Not because I'm "Riordan Junior" or "Riordan lite." If there is anyone who can bring people together, it's a real estate broker. I have no portfolio; I only get paid when the store I help locate actually opens. We're completion-driven instead of perpetuation- and press conference-driven.
I have a different management style than the Mayor does. I think that I will be able to get along with the City Council and all 120 members of the City Council staff better than he has. My administration and my staff will work well with the Council and its staff.
Q: Who among the five other major candidates do you see as your main rival?
A: There are five other candidates in this race, all of whom are strong political candidates. I don't pay attention to any one or the other. It's more like a horse race. You know why they put blinders on the horses? So they don't get spooked by the other horses. The same here. I'm different from all the other candidates. I have different positions from all the other candidates on school break-up, on reducing crime and increasing arrests and improving morale in the police department. My No. 1 support industry is the entertainment industry. No. 2 is real estate.
Q: Really? You've got more entertainment industry support than real estate? But doesn't the entertainment industry tend to stay out of local politics and move more in national circles?
A: What's motivating them is fear. They are afraid of runaway production. They are afraid of a big strike. They want to work in Los Angeles. From the big stars to the people who own the catering trucks, they want to stay in Los Angeles while their children are here. Above all else, they want a businessman sitting in this office right now.
Q: What are you going to do to address the issue of runaway production?
A: What I'll do is have a meeting around a conference table and bring the people together. I'll say to them, "Instead of me telling you what to do, you tell me what we as a city need to do to keep you working here?" We can't affect the value of American currency to Canadian currency. But we can affect a lot of things to be friendly to the industry.
We've had a booming economy the last several years. But that's over. At best we'll have flat economic performance this year; I think we're going to see a recession. We really need a businessman as mayor of Los Angeles now more than we did when Dick Riordan was elected eight years ago.
Q: You're the only candidate who has said they will break the spending limits set by the city to receive matching funds. Doesn't that give the appearance that you can't compete on an even monetary playing field with the other candidates?
A: No, that's not correct. Look, Hahn has raised more money than I have and will spend more money than I will. What I'm saying is, if you've got all this money, why should you take money from the public that could be spent on hiring new police officers and spend it on your 30-second spot. You (other candidates) are the guys with 30 years of name ID. I don't have it. You are the guys with 90 percent name recognition among voters, and I've started with 3 percent ID.
Q: But people out there are saying that you are going to be another Al Checchi or Michael Huffington, willing to spend millions of dollars in the pursuit of public office.
A: Look, Al Checchi and Michael Huffington are wonderful guys. But they are different than Riordan was and different from what I am. I'm not doing this because I don't have anything else to do or I've got a lot of money and I'm bored. I've been doing this (public service for the city) for free for eight years, and for 25 years before, I was doing the same thing. I don't want anything else out of this. I don't want to be governor, I don't want to be vice president or hold any other political office. L.A. is what I know and that's why I'm doing it.
Q: So just how much are you willing to spend on the campaign?
A: Look, I have to spend over $2.2 million to win this election, and once I go over that limit, they can spend up to $10 million or even more. Why am I breaking that limit? I started from 3 percent name recognition while they started from 85 percent.
I can't give you an exact figure as to how much I will spend, but I know what it's going to take to win. I'm doing 54 commercials a day on television and will continue to run 54 commercials a day right up until the election. I want to send out mail and do whatever it takes to get my message out.
Q: What would be the first thing you would do upon taking office as mayor on July 1?
A: I have a list of 11 things I would do on my first day. The first is to stop construction on our streets during rush hour. Next, I would convene a group to look into the feasibility of breaking up the L.A. Unified School District. And there's a whole host of other things, like creating a deputy mayor for the environment.
Q: Why break up the L.A. Unified School District? Some contend that just means more superintendents and staff, not less. Others say it leaves inner-city schools adrift.
A: The district is simply too big and there are all these thousands of administrators downtown. We need to take the bureaucracy out and have smaller districts, where superintendents can also be school principals. The future of business, and of public safety and the future of the city itself depend on this.
Q: What are the three main things you plan to do as mayor to help business?
A: The first thing I would do is set up an L.A. housing team, to assist and promote the building of affordable housing in L.A. That and schools are the top things businesses look for when they consider whether to come to L.A. Next, I would double the size of the business teams, to reach out to more businesses wanting to locate and expand here. And finally, I would make L.A. more competitive by reducing the business tax.
Q: What is your position on Mayor Riordan's firing of Police Commission President Gerald Chaleff?
A: I think it was the right thing to do. As a commissioner, there are four or five things you need to be addressing, not just one. The Police Commission doesn't just address the issue of police department reform. That's a big deal, but not to the point where the rank-and-file cops leave the force because they believe the political structure here is fighting a war on rank-and-file cops instead of a war on crime. Other things need Police Commission attention: a rapidly rising crime rate and a rapidly falling arrest rate. The police officers on the street feel they have no support for the job that they do, so they are not making the arrests.
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