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Pacheco’s Last Hurrah Is a Budget Roar

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Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco could have served out his last months in office quietly keeping up appearances after losing his seat in the March election.

Instead, he dusted himself off and led the council’s budget committee and then the entire 15-member council into a contentious debate with Mayor James K. Hahn. Ultimately, the council rejected Hahn’s budget plan, fraying long-term political alliances while raising its own profile.

In the process, the combative Eastside lawmaker with a penchant for charts and golf-themed ties is earning new respect -- just as he leaves office.

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“I don’t know why he didn’t behave this way before,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles and a supporter of Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Assembly speaker who defeated Pacheco this spring. “Frankly, if Nick had been as effective the last three years as he had been in the last three months, he’d still be a council member.”

Pacheco said he did only what he has always done: combined a lawyer’s technocratic approach to bureaucracy with the toughness of the street kid he once was.

“When the budget was released and the analysts ... said we had problems, I literally couldn’t sleep for a week,” he said. “I still have a responsibility to make my parents proud.... They would not have been happy with me if I had abandoned my responsibilities to the city.”

Pacheco’s budget victory has helped assuage some recent blows. In January, his close friend and chief of staff, Lloyd Monserratt, died unexpectedly during surgery. Two months later, Pacheco lost his 14th District seat.

For about a week, he nursed his wounds, complaining that Villaraigosa had not fought a fair campaign. “That was tough,” Pacheco said of the days after the election, when he had to choke back emotion in the City Council chamber as colleagues expressed sympathy.

Then budget season began and Hahn released his $5.1-billion spending plan, which included hiring 320 police officers. City analysts soon warned of potential shortfalls that could add up to $1 billion in the next five years. Pacheco still headed the influential Budget and Finance Committee, and he indicated that he planned to make the most of the post.

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“Starting the ‘04-05 budget in the red is something to be alarmed about,” he warned in April. “I think the mayor’s office has to give us an idea of how it happened.”

That was the first of many Pacheco remarks that challenged Hahn, who had campaigned on behalf of the councilman two months earlier.

At one point, Pacheco reminded Hahn that Los Angeles does not have a strong mayoral system. He also said a compromise plan backed by the mayor would cost city jobs.

Asked about Pacheco’s role as budget chairman, Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook said: “We certainly had our differences.”

Pacheco’s candor won him compliments from unlikely quarters.”A lot of people might have checked out after losing the election,” said Villaraigosa, who takes office July 1. “Nick Pacheco has demonstrated that he’s going to stay engaged as the budget chair all the way through the last day, to his credit. I respect that.”

Throughout four weeks of budget meetings, Pacheco pressed department managers for explanations. He quizzed the Bureau of Street Services about sidewalk ramps and the Department of Parks and Recreation about staffing for local parks. At times, he would not let city officials leave the center table without answering his questions.

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In the end, council members approved their own budget in place of Hahn’s, eliminating the additional police officers, and then overruled the mayor’s veto last week on a vote of 11 to 3.

But when the budget takes effect July 1, Pacheco will be off the City Council.

As he prepares to walk out the door, he said he is proud of the job he has done. “I will put up my four years in the City Council ... and compare them with any council member in the history of the city,” Pacheco said.

He cited a new city facility in Boyle Heights, along with funding for myriad community projects. “You just can’t think of another council member who has maximized the opportunities in front of them for their community,” he said.

During the spring campaign, many residents who said they were leaning toward voting for Villaraigosa said they were nevertheless impressed with the incumbent councilman’s responsiveness to local concerns.

“A lot of things can be said about Nick Pacheco,” Middlebrook said, “but one thing that people cannot deny was that he fought for his district. And tried hard.”

Pacheco has had a history of using often arcane city rules to his advantage. On Wednesday, he distributed more than $1 million from a council trust fund to 33 groups in his district, emptying the account before Villaraigosa takes office. The money, which came from the proceeds of the sale of surplus city property in his district, went to some groups run by Pacheco’s political supporters. He defended the move, saying that the money would help community service organizations.

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Soon after he took office in July 1999, Pacheco gained a reputation as a pugnacious player at City Hall. He formed a nonprofit organization, called CAL Inc., to raise money for community projects, only to shut it down in 2001 amid allegations that he had pressured city lobbyists to donate money.

“We pushed the envelope,” Pacheco said. “We pushed so hard, sometimes people were like ‘What’s going on?’ ”

He also became associated with a brand of hardscrabble politics. During his reelection bid, a close friend sent out mailers attacking Villaraigosa’s character and family; Pacheco denied knowledge of the maneuver. Shortly afterward, he drew criticism for steering money to a community group linked to a political committee that assisted in his reelection effort.

But Pacheco said he never crossed the line into illegal or unethical behavior. He said he came under scrutiny because Latinos are held to a different standard.”I fundamentally believe we don’t play the game any differently than our predecessors who were not Latino,” he said. “As a minority, we have to work twice as hard and be twice as clean.... That’s been very frustrating.”

Still, Pacheco seemed at peace with the election loss. He said he is looking forward to “the next phase of my life.”

In August he will marry. As a former deputy district attorney, he plans to practice law. He said he also is dreaming of creating a program that would offer legal services to Latino immigrants.

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He has hopes for at least one more election. “One day,” he said, “I would love to be a judge.”

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Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.

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