Real estate broker, Parks and Recreation Commissioner, and Staples Center deal-maker Steve Soboroff likes to speak of his summer job, when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, driving actor Kirk Douglas around town and answering his fan mail. Thirty years later, he says, Douglas called him up.
"'Steve," Douglas said, handing him his current slogan, "you're a problem solver, not a politician.'" Soboroff recounts that Douglas, whose park-building activities have extended as far as East Jerusalem, charged him with improving and/or building new parks, a feat he says he accomplished with far more aplomb than anyone imagined possible. "We built hundreds of parks in the time previous administrations were hard put to build eight," Soboroff tells voters.
I met Soboroff on a weekday afternoon while he held court for various media representatives at a Starbucks in Studio City. Dressed casually in slacks and an oxford shirt, Soboroff seemed as enthused and engaged as during the times I saw him debating rivals at various synagogue forums. "You should have heard my daughter's idea for a slogan," he said, laughing. "Vote for Steve or leave!"
This is the second in Sheldon Teitelbaum's series of interviews with the leading mayoral candidates.
Sheldon Teitelbaum: Jewish upbringing?
Steve Soboroff: Was never strong. We moved so much. I was never bar mitzvahed. I won't say I found myself in Israel, but I got a lot of validation that I was a good guy.
ST: What's the secret to getting hundreds of parks finished in the time it once took, as you've said, to do a handful?
SS: The people who work in the depth of the department, like me, they feel like they are doing something, that they are important in the organization. They feel motivated. That's the key. I bought these hats that say "Team Record Parks" and I give them away when I see someone doing a good job. I gave out 4,300 hats.
ST: So next time we want something done in this city we should give out hats?
SS: It isn't about money.... I had this idea about the Staples Center, that we should try and save this convention center that's been losing $16 million a year. Let's try to bring in the Lakers and the Kings. I knew the guy who bought the Kings because I worked on the Alameda Corridor with him, so I called him and said, "Why not down here? There's only two rules. You have to build the building yourself, and no taxpayer money."
ST: Apparently there is taxpayer money involved, no?
SS: None ... They bought the land for $70 million. The city borrowed the money, and the taxes that came in from that project paid the mortgage. There was never ever public money.
ST:: Do you have a vision for the city?
SS: Yeah, the Staples Center was a vision. The Alameda Corridor is a huge visionary project. I have a very simple vision for this city. I want people in eight years to say I live in L.A. because I want to.
ST: Do you think people live here because they don't want to?
SS: I think many people live here because they can't go somewhere else and feel they're trapped by their job, and they're not happy with the traffic and public education and public safety. And I want people to say, "No, I love being here. We do have a public education system that works; we're not in total traffic gridlock," while these guys are dreaming about double-decking the freeway system. Why don't we do some common-sense measures now, instead of something that will take 40 years and cost $120 billion? ... We should have reversible lanes on major streets like Sepulveda. We should stop construction during rush hour. We should have staggered work hours downtown. We should have uniformed traffic officers at busy intersections. We should have traffic lights that work on demand instead of timers.
ST: You're fond of saying that if the vending machine is broken, give it a swift kick. Is that all we need in L.A. -- a swift kick in the pants?
SS: The recent talk about secession, with the Daily News leading the charge, has been taking the entire city's operation and putting it in a fishbowl. I think it's extremely healthy.
ST: So you don't see in secession an attempt by the middle class to unburden itself of the lower classes?
SS: That's one way to interpret it. The middle class feels like it's putting a dollar bill in the machine and only getting two quarters in services back. They're concerned with walking out of their house and having the trees trimmed, not tripping on the sidewalks, not having potholes in the streets, having traffic that works, sending their kid to a school that works, and above all else pushing 911 and having someone actually show up. I don't want to see a separation of classes. I want to work our way out of it, and I've done it before.... I've been as warmly greeted in Latino and African-American communities as I have in synagogues.... I'm going to ask organizations to nominate people to be involved in the city and get a good cross-section that way.
ST: Is there no contradiction between your concern for the environment and your apparent affiliation with developers?
SS: I don't see any at all. The kind of work I've done and I think is possible to do can be sensitive to the environment and can at best case mitigate some of the past wrongs.... As parks commissioner, I created and renovated an awful lot of parks.... As a real estate person, I'm only paid for closing, for finishing things. I'm never paid for whining at press conferences or making up stories.
ST: When you mentioned term limits at one of your debates as a motivator for your rivals, people hissed and booed. Why is that?
SS: I don't know why. What I'm saying is, I believe that in L.A., now more than ever before, we need a mayor that has more than a career in politics.... We're going into a recessionary period now. We need someone that has a balance of business and public service and philanthropic life. To listen to these stories from career politicians that [say], "Well, I'm against this."... Nobody had anything to do with Rampart. Give me a break. There were a number of failures implementing Christopher Commission reforms by the political structure of the City of Los Angeles. Period. But no, let's just turn it over to the federal government -- they can handle it.... I believe 90 percent of the LAPD are wonderful citizens who work hard, and instead of watching their name besmirched, they want to quit. They want out because there is no political support; they can't make an arrest without risking their careers. They certainly don't deserve to have to hand people they are arresting a card saying, "If I was rude to you, call my supervisor." There's no morale in the department.
ST: What's your beef with Wachs?
SS: I think Joel's reputation is based on standing alone and complaining about what other people are doing. I don't think Hahn has the experience or the depth. His father may have. Look, I think they're all lovely, OK?
ST: Any Jewish issues get your attention in this election?
SS: You bet. The insensitivity of the MTA is one. You've got this booming observant community in L.A., corridors all over the place -- Hancock Park, Lankershim, Chandler, Pico, and these light-rail systems bisecting these communities is a major issue. The traffic needs to go through the freeway, where it belongs, not on light rail. A lot of people are crossing the street on Shabbos and don't push buttons on lights. We have to figure that out. The communities will pay for the little things, like timers, they need. We're not talking religion but culture, tradition, heritage and religion, and the city can be more respectful of a lot of communities, not just the Jewish community.
Also, education. Many people choose to educate their children in Jewish schools, and they're paying through the nose for this public school system. I believe by creating neighborhood school districts, for the same amount of money you could have a system that educates children instead of one where 80 percent can't read or write. Jewish people don't mind giving if there is something coming in return. And if there's something coming in return from these big school systems, it's graffiti on our walls and gang members and kids who can't read or write, and when you go to a restaurant you don't get what you ordered because people don't have basic math skills. All you need to do is provide the kids with a proper education, and at least Jewish people will say, "Well, at least my money is going to something worthwhile and not being wasted."