Moderate Republican Steve Soboroff had an insurmountable challenge: He was a self-styled “problem solver” in a season without one overwhelming public concern.

Where his mentor and anointer Richard Riordan had sailed into office as the guy “tough enough” to cope with a riot-scarred city in 1993, Soboroff — after toying with the gang threat in his TV ads — was left with traffic congestion as his defining challenge. He found his campaign stalled in the Valley, unable to reach the Westside precincts that propelled Riordan into the mayor’s chair, and finished in third place.

Among the 200-some supporters at the Radisson Valley Center Hotel in Sherman Oaks, a few shared concerns beyond gridlock. At least two attendees had been hoping for an administration friendly to new construction. Eric Wickland, an architect and builder, said he‘s been “run out of town” by a dysfunctional system where “everything turns on 15 council egos . . . and so almost grinds to a halt.” While still living downtown (“one of the few surviving Republicans there”), Wickland now pursues his projects — converting brownfields and tank farms into industrial parks — outside city limits. Howard Kabakow, an Internet entrepreneur and writer for housing-trade magazines, was expecting a Soboroff regime to bring “a sensible approach” to expanding the housing stock. The other major candidates, he said, seem “intent on finding more ways to regulate,” demanding so much from developers that they just won’t build. “It may make a few malcontents happy,” said Kabakow, “but it won‘t help the rest of us.”

Charlotte Austin-Jordan, CEO of Save Our Future, a South-Central youth program, hoped that a man with Soboroff’s experience in making companies grow would run the city like a corporation and keep businesses from leaving town. Alan Gecht, in commercial real estate, was confident Soboroff would find ways to cut red tape.

But aside from a business-friendly orientation, Soboroff supporters cited only his personal qualities or a vague affinity with “family values” in explaining their leanings.

While polls had shown Soboroff‘s support to be predominantly Valley and white, the Radisson crowd was by no means homogeneous. There were three Korean-American political-science students from UCLA, dozens of Latinos from as far away as Silver Lake, and a sprinkling of African-Americans, including a green-beret veteran and a bishop. Russian was heard in some corners, as well as Spanish.

The evening got off to an encouraging start, as Soboroff ran neck and neck with City Attorney Jimmy Hahn in early returns. Former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa’s weak showing in the first hour and a half after polls closed was a surprise to the crowd, as his campaign was believed to have conducted a strong absentee-ballot effort.

Around 10 p.m., Soboroff and family, accompanied by a twinkly-eyed Mayor Riordan, descended from the upstairs suite where they had been monitoring returns. Their entry to the fourth-floor ballroom was greeted with warm but restrained applause — the only person jumping and whooping was Alexei, a Kiev-born artist from West L.A. excited about the prospects of “another Russian immigrant” rising to the city‘s top spot. After a flowery introduction by Bishop E. Lynn Brown of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Soboroff told the assembly he had “never felt so surrounded by love,” thanked them for their support and vanished upstairs. Moments after he left the room, new reports from the registrar of voters threw his runoff spot into question as Villaraigosa moved up sharply.

By 11:15 p.m., new updates put Soboroff further behind the top two contenders, and the ballroom crowd thinned considerably. Some of the die-hards staked their hopes on an overnight turnaround: “The Valley precincts are going to come in later.” Others were willing to face (if glumly) the choice in June — Hahn or Villaraigosa.

Staying home in the runoff seemed an early favorite among some. “They’re both racists,” charged one Cal State Northridge student and Soboroff volunteer, who was at a loss to document his claim. Grimaces over Mayor Hahn got a shade grimmer in contemplating Mayor Villaraigosa. “He was in the ACLU, so he‘d be last on my list,” said “Brodie” Broderson, San Fernando Valley chair of the Reform Party and a Daniel Moynihan look-alike in bow tie and long white locks. “He was with MEChA,” added Broderson’s companion Dan Carasso, “a group that figures this was Aztlan and they want to take it back.” Carasso conceded that the ex-speaker “is an engaging guy,” before seguing into a defense of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, but he didn‘t sound like a Villaraigosa voter.

Shortly before midnight, a more sober Soboroff — now minus the mayor — made a second appearance to call it a night. “The helicopters are just coming in from outer areas,” he promised the 75 or so devotees still on hand, “then you’re going to see our muscle.” In the morning, it turned out, that was a promise he couldn‘t keep — the copters had been outmaneuvered by the ground forces of Hahn and Villaraigosa.

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