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The Art of the Public Policy Deal

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Jeremy Loudenback

The way Steve Soboroff remembers it, the most significant development in Los Angeles in 75 years started with a helicopter ride.

As he was riding high above the downtown L.A. skyline in search of potential sites for a National Football League stadium in the mid-1990s, the empty space around the underperforming Los Angeles Convention Center jumped out at him as the perfect spot for a new sports arena and convention center.

But first he had to convince local business and government stakeholders that the idea could work. The biggest challenge was Philip Anschutz, the new owner of the Los Angeles Kings and railroad baron who had just worked with Soboroff during negotiations for the Alameda Corridor project, which created a shipping route for cargo between the ports and downtown Los Angeles.

Soboroff pitched Anschutz his idea for a new sports arena downtown that could also spur development in downtown.

“I told him there’s a great place for a stadium at the intersection of two freeways that’s just unbelievable,” Soboroff said. “[Anschutz] said that sounds great, but it’s impossible. You’re never to be able to get the city to do that.”

But Soboroff was able to work out an agreement between developers Anschutz and Ed Roski Jr. and the city to build the space that would become Staples Center and the L.A. Live entertainment complex, helping to find common ground between sports teams, city planners, business interests, and sometimes-combative city council members. In the years since Staples Center opened, it has thrived, hosting more than 400 events a year and playing a sizable role in the renaissance of downtown Los Angeles.

Over the course of a career of almost 25 years in the public sector, Soboroff has shown a great talent for negotiation and the ability to help leaders from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors work together in the collective interest of the city. He has worked in a broad array of public roles, from mounting a robust though ultimately unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Los Angeles and working on a large development project in Playa Vista to participating on several city commissions, including currently serving as president of the city’s police commission.

Last week, Soboroff regaled faculty, staff, and students at the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader program with stories from a long and varied career in public service. With a strong history of leadership in Los Angeles, Soboroff shared his thoughts on how private-sector leaders can better work with city governments, what Ferguson’s embattled police department can learn from the Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.), and why his run for mayor shaped his business career.

Soboroff first became interested in the public sector when he decided that he didn’t want to wait 11 and a half years for the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks to replace the aging playground equipment at his local park. Rather than waiting for the city to update its rusting, sometimes-dangerous facilities, Soboroff took a page out of Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal. Inspired by Trump’s speedy renovation of the Wollman Rink in New York City, he utilized the same private-sector energy at his park. But the process also taught Soboroff a lot about how he could best work in concert with the city to accomplish his own goals.

“[Trump] did in four and a half months what the city couldn’t do in six,” he said. “I tried to the same thing with a playground in 60 days at the park. But I didn’t do it by yelling at the bureaucracy and telling them how stupid they were or telling them how bad their budgets were.

“I did it by finding out the architect that they used was for their parks by going through their system and by making it easy for the bureaucracy to do what I wanted them to do.”

Soboroff has brought the same spirit of entrepreneurship and collaboration to his current gig, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Since starting his tenure in September 2013, he has made the use of police cameras his signature issue. After hearing from many community members that progress toward installing cameras in L.A.P.D. cars had stalled due to a lack of funds, Soboroff raised $1.3 million of private money for a pilot project to test on-body cameras for police officers in the field. He was also able to bring onboard different groups that haven’t always a history of working together.

“The ACLU and the [Los Angeles Police] Protective League have never agreed on anything, ever,” Soboroff said. “But they both agreed that with certain conditions on-body cameras will protect the people they want to protect: the public and the officers. When they both said yes, I knew I was on to something. Now, every major city in America is following us, watching our test with on-body technology.”

Since starting work with the police commission, Soboroff has been pleased with the implementation of community policing throughout the department, one of the mandates of the recent federal consent decree imposed on the department.

“What is most heartening to me is that community policing is part of the culture for every single cop,” he said. “If you go out with cops like I have more than 60 times, they know people in these communities. They know who people’s cousins are, who this person is and who that person is in the neighborhood. Community policing is practiced all the way through the system, which I think is remarkable.”

Soboroff also finds the L.A.P.D.’s record on equitable demographic representation as one of its most important successes and a stark contrast to other police departments.

“We have the most diverse police department anywhere because we have the most diverse community,” Soboroff said. “But in addition to that, it’s not just about total numbers, the total number of men and women, sexual orientation, gender, and color. We look at it in all areas: rank, command staff, people on the ground, and everything else. It’s a big deal. It’s one of the two or three big differences between us and Ferguson.”

At former Mayor Richard Riordan’s behest, Soboroff made an unsuccessful bid for the city’s top job. While he narrowly lost out to Antonio Villaraigosa and James Hahn in the 2001 mayoral primary, the experience taught him a lot about how to communicate his ideas in the private sector and during his current job as a police commissioner.

“When I ran for mayor, I learned to be disciplined about how to stick to your messages,” he said. “What I’ve decided to do with the police department and with my real-estate transactions is I decided that instead of calling them business transactions, I would call them campaigns. They’re mini-campaigns. These campaigns need messages that move the people the way I need to move them.

“You have to set your messages and define yourself—instead of other people defining you—and stay with your messages. That’s what I did at Playa [Vista], and it was a really wonderful lesson for me.”

That communication expertise is just one of many reasons why Soboroff’s sunny vision for Los Angeles is still clear today, years after a mile-high helicopter ride.

Bedrosian Center