This article has been updated with corrected information.
WASHINGTON-Independent candidate Rob Sobhani sent ripples through the U.S. Senate campaign when he injected more than $4.6 million of his own money into the race and began popping up in TV ads all over Maryland.
But he hasn’t come completely out of the blue. This is Sobhani’s first run as an independent, but he has campaigned twice before, in 1992 and 2000, as a Republican, losing in the primaries.
With that kind of money in this year’s game, Sobhani can tell voters his narrative: He’s an entrepreneur, a professor and, above all, a public servant.
“If you have the opportunity to serve your country, to serve your state, to serve your community, by all means do it,” Sobhani said to a group of University of Baltimore students in September. “There is nothing more noble and more rewarding as public service.”
Sobhani’s story began in Kansas where he was born in 1960 to Iranian immigrants. Ten years later he and his family moved back to Iran. Sobhani returned to the U.S. in 1978 to attend Georgetown University where he eventually attained his doctorate in political economy.
A year later, the rest of his family fled Iran during the revolution.
Those experiences helped shape Sobhani’s appreciation for his country.
“In this situation you realize how precious this country is,” he said. “I want to give back to the country that gave my family a second chance.”
Sobhani then started working at Georgetown as an adjunct professor in U.S. foreign policy, concentrating on the Middle East, energy and security.
He stopped teaching seven years ago, but sometimes his old habits come back on the campaign trail — like feeding pizza to a roomful of University of Baltimore students.
“You sure know how to attract a crowd of college students,” a student said jokingly to Sobhani.
After the pizza was eaten and the students were gone, Sobhani said he loved it because, “I was back in the classroom.”
Although he was established in America, Sobhani never lost his connection to the Middle East. In 1990, he traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, to lecture at the Academy of Sciences. Excited to have an Azeri-speaking American as guest, a meeting was arranged with Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov.
At the time, British Petroleum was trying to close a contract with Azerbaijan, but Sobhani’s meeting with Mutalibov steered them to an American company.
The conversation was chronicled in the book “The Oil and the Glory” by Steve LeVine, who did extensive research about the attractiveness of the Caspian Sea to many oil companies, but the closed Soviet Union government made it difficult to secure deals.
“As it happened, Sobhani had just read a history of BP, and he wasn’t bashful about expressing his opinion,” LeVine wrote. “He told the Azeri leader that, considering BP’s less-than-praiseworthy history in neighboring Iran, the company might not be the best choice for Azerbaijan…What company would you suggest? an interested Mutalibov inquired. Again Sobhani drew on the history he had read, recalling one company that had treated the Persians well. It was called Amoco.”
Sobhani was able to secure for Amoco exclusive rights to the Azeri Oil Field in 1991.
“I was trying to marry American interests with these rich resources,” he said.
This kicked off his private business, Caspian Energy Consulting in 1993, where he said he was, “a good partner to the country and a good corporate citizen.”
That same year he married his first wife, Erica Eager, who became involved in the business, according to court documents.
Now, two children and a second wife later, the company has been renamed Caspian Group Holdings, with Caspian Energy Consulting a subsidiary. His company invests in various projects, particularly in energy in the Middle East. According to a 2011 Dun & Bradstreet report on Lexis Nexis, Caspian Energy Consulting makes around $300,000 a year.
However, campaign spokesman Sam Patten said the company’s income fluctuates because Sobhani is taking risks when investing in different projects.
“There have been some years when he was in the red,” he said. Other than these few reports, very little is known about Sobhani’s company since it is a privately held business, and he would like to keep details private.
Clearly, Sobhani has been able to make enough to finance his campaign and a comfortable lifestyle. A Montgomery County resident for 33 years, he and wife Guilda Sobhani live in a $1.2 million house in Potomac. Sobhani’s first wife and their children, Ashley, 18, and Cyrus, 15, live in an $850,000 home paid for by Sobhani, according to court documents.
The entire family is behind his campaign, but the Sobhanis like to keep the lives of their children private. Guilda Sobhani works for her husband in both the campaign and his business.
“I enjoy helping him,” she said. “I think we make a good team.”
Sobhani is a good role model, combining ideology with action, she said, and he has the potential to show others that you don’t have to be affiliated with a party in order to win.
She and Sobhani say fixing a broken political system is one of the top reasons Sobhani is running. He also wants to emphasize public service and preserve and improve the U.S.
“We don’t have leaders anymore,” Sobhani said. “Other candidates put their party before the country and I don’t think that’s right. That’s why I switched to unaffiliated.”
In his campaign, Sobhani has pledged to bring around $5.75 billion to Maryland through:
-$3 billion from public-private partnerships for Maryland’s roads and bridges;
-$1 billion from public-private partnerships to improve residential homes in Baltimore;
-$500 million from global non-profit organizations to support cutting-edge cancer research and treatment in Maryland;
-$150 million from global nonprofit organizations for scholarships and internships for low-income students;
-$1 billion in exports for Maryland companies and connect the state to the global marketplace.
“None of that is from a tax increase,” Sobhani said.
Sobhani hopes that by continuing to cultivate a relationship between U.S. companies and Middle Eastern nations, he can bring most of the money to Maryland from the private sector.
The theme of connecting the Middle East and U.S. has driven much of his life. For example, he paid $60,000 in 2006 to lobbying company, Livingston Group, to press for “Incentives for American professors to teach in the Middle East,” according to a lobbying report.
“I was hoping that professors would be like diplomats from our country,” he said.
Sobhani’s platform also calls for reforms in government spending and immigration policy.
“Everyone needs to sacrifice, no program should be left off the table, including defense,” he said.
Sobhani said the budget needs to be managed and the U.S. needs leaders who are willing to determine which programs need cutting and which can’t be touched.
The immigration system needs to be fixed, said Sobhani. While he is a supporter of the DREAM Act, he said current immigration law needs to be enforced.
The problem is a lack of opportunities in countries such as Mexico, Sobhani said. The U.S. needs to help create wealth and opportunity south of the border.
“These countries should not be deporting their people,” he said.
Immigration has devastated the African-American community by taking jobs, said Sobhani. There are more African-American men in jail than in school, he said.
This has been the topic of several articles he has written for the Huffington Post, The Hill, The Washington Times, CNN, Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, The Hoya and Forbes. It was also the topic of his most recent book “Press 2 for English.”
His success as a candidate — a recent Gonzales Research & Market Strategies poll shows him nearly even with Republican nominee Dan Bongino, although a new Washington Post poll puts him 8 points behind Bongino — has drawn criticism.
Bongino has said that petitioners who collected the 77,000 signatures to put Sobhani on the ballot were paying people to sign. The allegation stems from Sobhani hiring Arno Political Consultants to collect signatures. The company has been accused of fraud, including a 2007 incident where reporters saw some of their petitioners in California offering homeless people food for their signatures, according to previous reports.
Bongino has also criticized Sobhani’s past campaign contributions. Sobhani consistently donated to Republican candidates between 1997 and 2006, but in 2011 he donated to Democratic congressional contender Milad Pooran. Bongino said this shows that Sobhani is a political opportunist, switching parties when he couldn’t win as a Republican.
“I donate based on what the person is capable of,” said Sobhani.
Sobhani campaign spokesman Patten said Bongino’s claims are acts of desperation, considering Sobhani received more signatures than Bongino got votes in the primaries. Bongino won 68,597 votes.
Patten claimed that Bongino has used racism to attack Sobhani, saying that in October a Republican volunteer accused the campaign of being connected and funded by al Qaeda, according to a report in The Gazette.
Bongino’s campaign denied the allegations and accused Sobhani, an usher at St. Francis Episcopal Church, of lying about the incident.
Sobhani wants to remain focused on his race against incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin.
“He is a good man, but not a good representative,” he said.
Replacing Cardin as senator will be a daunting task. Cardin has held the position since 2006 and is polling a little above 50 percent.
“Could we have put a man on the moon?” said Sobhani. “Who could’ve thought that Barack Obama would be elected president? And yes, Senator Cardin can be beat.”
Sobhani is excited for the election, saying that he has better chances than his Republican challenger. But if he were to lose, he said, “I won’t be the loser. People who don’t have a job will lose because people won’t care for them. They are going to be let down.”