By Len Lazarick
The U.S. Senate campaign in Maryland was plodding along quietly this fall. Democrat Ben Cardin, the incumbent liberal seeking a second term, was blithely fending off upstart conservative Republican Dan Bongino, a political novice who left a career in the Secret Service to try to end Cardin’s 46-year career in elected office.
Suddenly in September, independent Rob Sobhani began popping up on TV screens across Maryland. He talked directly to voters about his plans to create thousands of jobs with billions in private investment and he was spending millions of his own money to get his message out.
Cardin, Bongino alarmed
Cardin raised the alarm with his financial backers. “A conservative millionaire entered the race, using his own cash to buy up TV ads in an attempt to capture the election at the eleventh hour,” Cardin said in an email Tuesday.
Cardin has a huge financial edge over Bongino, raising $4 for every dollar the Republican raises -- more than $4 million to slightly more than $1 million. The latest official Sept. 30 fundraising reports are not available, but Sobhani’s campaign has already spent $4.4 million on the race, more than the other two campaigns combined.
Sobhani’s money is paying off. A Gonzales poll released last week shows him neck and neck with Bongino at 21% each, splitting voters looking for an alternative to Cardin, who has 50% support.
The Bongino camp was perplexed. “After 16 months of countless interviews, surveys, and a grueling primary election Dan Bongino's candidacy has been thoroughly examined,” deputy campaign manager Sharon Stern said in an email. “Senator Cardin's 45 year record of voting for tax increases is extensively recorded. Rob Sobhani, however, has had far less scrutiny regarding his background, thanks in part to the convenient timing of his entry into the race for U.S. Senate.”
Republicans asked: What about all that money he spent on outside firms to collect signatures to put him on the ballot? One of those firms, Arno Political Consultants, has been accused of deceptive practices in other campaigns. How can a man who ran twice for Senate as a Republican claim to be an independent outsider? What about his ties to Middle East autocrats he has worked with in his energy company, Caspian GroupHoldings, that has brought him his wealth?
In an interview, Sobhani was unconcerned about the charges, especially one about buying the election. “It’s unfortunate when someone doesn’t have concrete ideas, they go on the attack…. Neither man has concrete ideas to move Maryland forward.”
Is he concerned that one of the firms he hired to collect signatures has been accused of fraud? “No,” Sobhani replies simply.
“I got more signatures than Dan Bongino got votes in the primary,” Sobhani said. “That’s a diversion from the real issues.”
And, campaign manager Sam Patten points out, the signatures were verified by the Boards of Elections. (As of his June 30 report, Sobhani had spent $144,000 collecting signatures, with $42,000 going to Arno.)
Proud of his ties to Middle East leaders
What about his ties to the Middle East leaders?
“I’m proud of my connections,” Sobhani says. “I’m proud to know the president of Azerbaijan,” with one of the biggest synagogues in the Caucasus and some of the largest oil reserves. “I’m proud to know the king of Bahrain … to know King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia … the amir of Qatar,” lots of Israelis, Norwegians and others involved in the oil and energy business.
Sobhani, who has a Ph.D. in political economy from Georgetown University and has taught there, doesn’t just know King Abdullah. He’s written a laudatory book about the Saudi ruler that came out this year, and he gave a video talk on the book on the man he sees as a progressive Arab statesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It is these energy-rich nations that would be the source of Sobhani’s grand promises to bring thousands of jobs to Maryland through public-private partnerships and major infrastructure projects, such as $3 billion to build a deck on the Capital and Baltimore beltways or $500 million for cancer research.
“I’ve done those kind of projects before,” Sobhani says. “If I don’t achieve them, I’m not going to run again.”
Sounds like he’s running for governor
All this makes it sound like he’s running for governor, rather than U.S. Senate.
“I can create jobs the moment I get elected,” putting together trips to the Middle East for Maryland businesses, he says. “There are opportunities in the global economy that Mr. Cardin never in a million years could understand or act on.... Texas and California are eating our lunch. Someone is not doing their job.”
Politicians like Cardin are “dishing out your money and my money and claiming to be heroes. That’s taking advantage of a broken system.”
Aside from the wealth that is making his campaign possible, Sobhani is running as an independent because “I believe both political parties are bereft of ideas. We have a moral deficit, but we also have a political deficit. We’re filling in the void.”
Favors flat tax
What we haven’t seen in the Sobhani ads are some of his positions on hot button issues this campaign year, such as taxes and the budget.
“It’s a corrupt tax code.” Sobhani says. “That’s the fundamental objection that I have. And it only serves the interest of crony capitalism; it does not serve the interest of the average individual. I believe in the flat tax. I believe in a transparent tax.”
His “flat” tax would have two rates, “one for the rich and one for the rest.” And he would maintain only three itemized deductions: mortgage interest, charitable donations and -- a new one -- the costs of college.
“I don’t know how the United States budget works,” he says. “It’s not transparent.” He adds that he would need to hire an independent forensic accountant to figure out the spending. “These guys -- Democrats and Republicans -- have bastardized our budget system.”
Immigration at the core of budget problems
Perhaps the issue that sets him most apart is his detailed stance on immigration, the subject of another book he published this year, “Press 2 for English.”
“There’s a direct correlation between immigration and [federal] debt,” says Sobhani, and to structural unemployment. He’s referring primarily to the 1.4 million people who enter the country legally each year, not illegally, many a part of “chain migration” in which talented engineers and scientists gain entry, then bring over their parents and siblings, who are often a drain on U.S. resources.
It is an unusual stance for someone who was born in Kansas and moved with his parents to their native Iran and maintains wide connections throughout the world.
“It’s a failed foreign policy that leads to immigration,” Sobhani says. “People leave their country because of lack of opportunity and hope.”
“Mexico has all the ingredients of a successful country,” natural resources and a hard working people, he adds. But it has a corrupt political system that leads people to flee. “Who gets the short end? The middle class of America.”
“We need to create wealth south of the border,” Sobhani says. “We need to create opportunity in Russia.”
“It’s the most devastating thing to the African-American population,” and the cause of so much inner-city unemployment. With more controls on immigration of all types, “you would not see the poverty that you see in Baltimore.”
Sobhani lays out an immigration plan in the book that includes making English the official language, encouraging more and faster assimilation and putting a five-year moratorium on all immigration, with less permissive policies on family reunification.
No debates so far
So far, Sobhani has not had an opportunity to defend his views before Cardin and Bongino, who have been negotiating about debates this month. Several media outlets have offered a venue for a three-way broadcast debate, but neither the Democrat nor Republican has agreed. Sobhani has already aired TV ads about being shut out from debates.
A fourth candidate for U.S. Senate, Libertarian Dean Ahmad, will also appear on the ballot, but according to the Federal Election Commission, Ahmad has filed no reports of campaign financing activity. Candidates need not file such reports if they have neither raised nor spent $5,000 in the campaign. Four candidates are also registered as write-ins.
For more on Rob Sobhani, watch the 10-minute video on MarylandReporter.com.