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Patsaouras’ Hopes Ride on His Transit Proposals : Campaign: He envisions transportation as the key to improving the city. Critics question his temperament.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the first strains of the bouzouki music drift across the floor, Nick Patsaouras cannot help himself. He is not in control. He must get up from his chair and dance.

Propelled by the slow, melancholy sound of the stringed instrument from his native Greece, he moves gracefully and alone. “When I dance,” Patsaouras rhapsodizes, “it is me and the music. Nothing else.”

That same passion has driven this restless man to build a flourishing engineering firm, to help foist a subway on a car-crazy city, to try spanning a freeway with an erector-set steel monument--and, sometimes, to belittle those who do not share the same vision.

It is the passion that now powers his campaign for mayor of Los Angeles.

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“I don’t see myself as anything else. And I will not be anything else,” Patsaouras said, scorning the idea of running for a lesser office. “I see that as my destiny.”

He has run for political office once before--losing a bid for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1980--and has had limited public exposure as an appointee to a city zoning board and two transit boards.

But supporters see in Patsaouras (pronounced Pat-sa-OH-russ) a shining optimism and charisma in an otherwise bleak and decaying political landscape.

“He is the closest thing this city has to a Fiorello La Guardia,” said urban theorist Mike Davis, conjuring up images of the crusading New York mayor of the 1930s and ‘40s. Historian Kevin Starr credits him with “a unique combination of vision and hardball political skills.”

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Detractors see an enormous ego.

Patsaouras, a 49-year-old self-made millionaire, “is constantly looking for attention. Most of his ideas will be based on what kind of press exposure he will get,” said one observer who followed his career on the boards of the Southern California Rapid Transit District and Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. Political strategist and lobbyist Mark Ryavec said Patsaouras “thinks he can will himself into the mayor’s office,” despite relative obscurity, lack of previous political office and a shortage of campaign funds.

Lacking those standard prerequisites for advancement, Patsaouras instead offers an idea. He believes that Los Angeles can be rebuilt and can flourish along new subway and train lines.

The proposals are outlined in a 10-page blueprint that describes how publicly owned land near future train and subway stations can be used to promote construction of affordable housing, shops, theaters, day-care centers and parks. To pay for the projects in this era of shrinking government budgets, Patsaouras would turn to one of the few still-robust sources of financing: the $184 billion in federal and state funds earmarked for Los Angeles County transportation projects over the next 30 years. Patsaouras also proposes turning Los Angeles into a research and production center for electric cars, subway trains and pollution-free buses.

“More than any other campaign, his is actually tackling issues and taking them on seriously,” said City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who has not endorsed anyone for mayor.

Others object that the plan is too narrow to address all the city’s problems and too unsexy to translate into votes. “People don’t understand the ideas and don’t relate to them,” said one veteran political consultant.

But in his Sherman Oaks office, leaning forward conspiratorially, Patsaouras is so disarming that one almost could forget that he languished at 3% in early polls and that most people did not know his name.

He insists he will advance from the April 20 primary to the June 8 runoff in this way:

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Latinos will vote for him in large numbers because he speaks Spanish, his wife is of Mexican birth and he has the endorsement of City Councilman Richard Alatorre. Republicans will come out in force, although he is a Democrat, because of his business savvy and backing from conservative county Supervisor Mike Antonovich. The San Fernando Valley will give him a few more points because he lives in Tarzana and has business connections in the Valley. So will African-Americans, who “are really responding now.”

And, most important, the immigrants of Los Angeles will turn to him as a someone who has shared their experiences.

In a city in which nearly two in five people are foreign born, the only foreign-born candidate said he will benefit from a certain kinship--one born of self-sufficiency, hard work and success.

He pursues their votes with gusto--sharing enchiladas and ranchera music with Latino engineers, dipping into plates of hummus with professionals from Syria and Lebanon and keeping the names and addresses of 30,000 local “ethnics” in a campaign data base.

This group will push him over the top and into a runoff, Patsaouras concludes earnestly.

“I feel it. I feel it!” he insists repeatedly during an interview, words he draws out and savors. “I feeeeel it. I feeeeel it.”

Some listeners say his Greek accent prevents him from communicating clearly, but Patsaouras finds a silver lining. “People have to listen to you,” he said. “They have to pay attention more closely.”

Those who have been paying attention have seen Patsaouras ride political connections to seemingly banal appointed positions and then refashion the posts into high-profile vehicles for himself and his ideas.

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After losing a 1980 primary campaign for the Board of Supervisors, for instance, he endorsed Antonovich in a runoff. It was a move, many believe, that helped push Antonovich past Patsaouras’ fellow Democrat, Baxter Ward.

Shortly thereafter, Antonovich tapped Patsaouras for the RTD board position--although both men insist the move was not a political pay-back. About a decade later, the supervisor also put Patsaouras on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

In those posts, Patsaouras showed he was a man of verve and action.

He once swerved his Mercedes coupe in front of an RTD bus and jumped out to scold a surprised driver, who had pulled away just as a would-be passenger was about to board. He slashed a seat cushion with a knife to show that the design would never withstand vandals on the Metro Rail subway. And he proposed smoothing traffic in the snarled Sepulveda Pass by reversing lanes at rush hour on Sepulveda Boulevard.

That last experiment has not eased traffic very much--but it has not been fully implemented because of a lack of funds to pay for work crews to place directional signs and traffic cones.

But his proudest achievement--and a regular refrain of the campaign--is his undying support of Los Angeles’ nascent subway system. When others laughed at the idea as unworkable and President Ronald Reagan and others tried to kill its funding, Patsaouras persevered.

Even normally restrained Mayor Tom Bradley said in a recent interview that Patsaouras had never received enough credit for his repeated lobbying forays with local officials to Sacramento and Washington.

When the first subway train pulled in during the Red Line’s inaugural run in January, Patsaouras stood on the platform, tears welling in his eyes. “It is probably the same thing a sculptor feels when he sees his piece of work,” he said later. “Only he can feel it.”

His focus in recent years has been on the expanding role of transit. Two years ago, he took up the idea that the industry could bail out a city and a region that had been so heavily reliant on the defense industry. He proposed formation of an advanced transportation research center to help promote construction of electric cars, subway trains and other innovative products.

Last year, he pushed through the Transportation Commission a program that will require future contractors to put at least 3% of their labor costs into job training--an initiative that is supposed to create up to $60 million in job programs over 30 years.

But critics say that, particularly during his tenure as RTD board president from 1990-91, Patsaouras spent much more energy promoting himself in anticipation of running for mayor. Holding news conferences at least weekly, he embraced a series of programs for the downtrodden bus line--a rider’s Bill of Rights, tours of RTD facilities and a policy of free rides whenever buses arrive more than 15 minutes late.

The public relations staff loved him, although some colleagues questioned the value of the programs. And staff members said they were sometimes unfairly blistered for not moving ahead quickly enough.

“The bottom line is, is something accomplished?” Patsaouras once said. “I truly believe something is accomplished.”

On both the transit boards and the city Board of Zoning Appeals, for which he was selected by Bradley in 1981, Patsaouras gained a reputation for displaying strong feelings. One colleague called them “temper tantrums.”

The obscure zoning panel often handles such arcane matters as building setbacks and height variances--but to participants, the sessions can be emotionally laden.

Whereas some board members approached the matters with a cool, judicial air, Patsaouras, who left the panel last summer, was a demanding, caustic and sometimes nasty inquisitor, City Hall officials said.

When a witness’s plans did not match his promises, Patsaouras would draw on his engineering background to launch a withering cross-examination. “I tell people, whatever you do, don’t lie to the man,” said one planner, “or he will crucify you.”

Board regulars said Patsaouras often bridled under the delays and precise quasi-judicial findings that the board was supposed to make. “He has the most autocratic, benevolent-dictator philosophy of anyone I have ever met,” said one official. “He has no tolerance for the process. . . . It’s a contempt for the democratic process.’

Some City Council aides considered the sessions so difficult that they tried to send co-workers.

The case of Rebecca’s restaurant illustrates Patsaouras’ passion.

He just happened to be visiting the trendy Venice restaurant a few years ago when he noticed that the valets were charging for parking. This violated one of the restaurant’s operating conditions, which had been instituted by the zoning board. The board members felt that only free valet parking would keep patrons from parking on residential streets.

When Patsaouras found the restaurant had also improperly stored its trash bins, he was livid, say those familiar with the case.

“When you do not abide by these conditions, you offend me and you offend the city,” Patsaouras said he told the restaurant’s operators.

He led a campaign to revoke the permit and close the restaurant--only relenting when he was assured that the chastened owners had learned their lessons.

Patsaouras was “a hero,” recalled one woman who lives near Rebecca’s. Another Venice local, Bonnie Faulkner, said: “Nick Patsaouras stood up for the neighborhood against the moneyed interests.”

But for restaurateur Bruce Marder--owner of several successful Westside eateries--the punishment was out of proportion to the offense. “I don’t understand why he has to rant and rave,” said Marder, who added that he spent $60,000 in legal fees to keep Rebecca’s open.

The case also illustrates that Patsaouras is not an automatic champion of business interests, despite his own business background and his current pledges to be a mayor who welcomes entrepreneurs to the city. Board officials described Patsaouras as an unpredictable force--who often took the side of homeowners.

When he left last summer, his commendation called him the “emotional engine” of the board.

Georgia Rosenberry, a longtime friend who is also of Greek descent, sees Patsaouras’ style as rooted in his native land “where it is hard to talk politics in a calm way. We tend to argue strongly, but there is not anger.”

Born in Athens as Nikolas Patsaouras, he was the eldest son of a telephone company watchman. From his father, he inherited his good looks and from his mother a determination to do better in life.

When the shy, studious Nikolas reached 17, his family sent him to California--where friends had said a college education would be cheaper and easier to come by than at home.

The rest, if not history, is now the stuff of mayoral television ads and mailers. Patsaouras--working a full-time job and learning English all the while--managed to earn an engineering degree from what is now Cal State Northridge.

He has never abandoned those long hours--now rising before 5 a.m. for a gym workout before pursuing a day that is often broken into 10-minute intervals to get more done.

Along with his wife, he raised a daughter and son, and he became an inveterate joiner--of business associations, Greek festival committees and political organizations. He gave substantial funds to Bradley’s campaigns and, in 1988, he led a fund-raising charge in Southern California for fellow Greek-American Michael Dukakis that brought in more than $1 million.

In 1988, he led an effort to raise more than $30 million for a Los Angeles version of the Statue of Liberty--a monument to immigrants.

But then the design for the monument emerged as a giant maze-like steel structure to straddle the Hollywood Freeway. Many people envisioned the monument as an avant garde junk heap.

“There is no precedent for it, so it will take time for the public to understand it,” Patsaouras said at the time. The project, which was to have included theaters, shops, gardens and other amenities, has been shelved indefinitely.

Today, he speaks of “going back to dreaming big things” and predicts that his transit plan will also prove him to be a man ahead of his time, even if he is not elected mayor.

“The next mayor will pick up my plan,” he said. “This much I know.”

And to critics who call the plan simplistic or naive, he adds: “It will be a different story when their children read in the books that the . . . Greek was right.”

Profile: Nick Patsaouras

Born: Dec. 4, 1943, in Athens, Greece

Residence: Tarzana

Education: B.A. in electrical engineering from Cal State Northridge.

Career Highlights: Owner of Patsaouras & Associates, electrical engineering firm; founded Marathon National Bank; member of boards of the Southern California Rapid Transit District and county Transportation Commission and the city Board of Zoning Appeals.

Interests: Greek dancing.

Family: Married. Wife, Sylvia, is an urban planner for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. Two college-age children.

Quote: “I know what to do within an hour of taking office about jobs, public open space, transportation--use infrastructure to connect us physically, emotionally, spiritually. That is what transportation does. It forms the city.”

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