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Deal Maker's Pitch Is That He's No Politician

He planned from childhood to be rich, and made it as a hard-charging real estate developer. But critics question whether his recipe for success is right for running a city.


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.

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