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Intense Drive Fuels RTD Chief's Rising Fortunes in Politics

July 08, 1985|RICHARD SIMON | Times Staff Writer

Nick Patsaouras, president of the Southern California Rapid Transit District board of directors, once used his Mercedes 450 SL coupe to block an RTD bus that failed to stop for a a woman who was running to the bus stop.

"I asked the driver why he couldn't wait a minute to pick up the lady," said Patsaouras. "He said he had to meet a schedule.

"I told him one-minute waiting wouldn't kill him," Patsaouras said. The RTD president then returned to his car and drove away.

That kind of intensity has marked the career of Patsaouras, a wealthy, politically ambitious San Fernando Valley businessman involved in many major activities in Los Angeles.

"Whenever he does anything, he throws himself into it completely," said former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, a close friend of Patsaouras.

Metro Rail Proponent

Patsaouras (pronounced Pat-sigh-or-us) is perhaps best known and--with his distinctive Greek accent--most recognized as one of the most vocal proponents of Los Angeles' proposed Metro Rail subway. He has been in the forefront of an intense and uphill political struggle to put together the complex, delicate and still elusive financing plan for the $3.3-billion project.

Besides presiding over the nation's largest bus system, Patsaouras, 41, is board chairman of Los Angeles-based Marathon National Bank. He is a partner in an electrical engineering firm. He is chairman of the Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals. He is a leader in Los Angeles' Greek community. And, politically active Los Angeles attorney Mickey Kantor said, he is "one of the most significant fund-raisers in California," primarily supporting Democrats like himself but some Republicans too.

"He's really made himself a political force in Southern California in a very short time," said former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, a Patsaouras friend and neighbor.

A once-poor immigrant who became a millionaire in his mid-30s, Patsaouras is--Stevenson said--"the personification of the American dream come true."

"Here is a man who came here at age 17, with little knowledge of the language, without anybody, and because of hard work and determination became a successful businessman," said Stevenson, herself of Greek descent.

Dedicated, Hard Working

A handsome, impeccably dressed man, Patsaouras starts his day with a 5:30 a.m. workout at his health club and often doesn't return home until after midnight. He is a dedicated, hard-working man who, on the night his wife, Sylvia, gave birth to the first of their two children, returned to his engineering office until 4 a.m. to finish a job he promised would be ready that morning.

He does not like to play second fiddle. When asked to serve on the Southern California finance committee for Democrat Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign, he demanded to be named chairman. He got his way. As a result, he said, he personally raised between $150,000 and $200,000 for Mondale's campaign, a figure that Democratic Party officials do not dispute.

He is direct and impatient. Critics say he is abrupt and rude. While presiding over RTD meetings, Patsaouras often says "thank you" to board members while cutting them off in mid-sentence to speed up the proceedings. At one recent meeting, Patsaouras told fellow board member Jay Price, "You already spoke twice. Say something new."

"His style is no-nonsense," said a colleague of Patsaouras' on the RTD board who asked not to be identified. "I think he feels there is too little time in this life to spend on niceties."

"I don't like small talk," Patsaouras said. When he takes a business call, he said, "I don't want to hear someone ask, 'How was your weekend?' I want to conduct business."

Greek Dancing

Patsaouras' favorite pastime is dancing Greek-style alone on the dance floor in a taverna.

"Sometimes, I go to a restaurant and say to myself, 'I'm just going to have a drink. I'm not going to dance,' " Patsaouras said. "But when I hear that bouzouki, it does something to me. It makes my whole body awaken, and I get up and dance," he said, referring to a Greek musical instrument.

But his passion is politics.

"I like being able to influence decisions," he said. "I'm good at it."

"He likes the role of kingmaker," said Peter Katsufrakis, a retired Los Angeles municipal judge who serves with Patsaouras on the board of the Hellenic-American Chamber of Commerce, a group that Patsaouras founded in 1982 to promote Greek culture.

"He wants to be a mover and a shaker," said Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "He feels that America has given him a great opportunity, and he wants to give something back."

Actor Telly Savalas, a Patsaouras friend, said, "He's a guy who's paying the country back."

Others feel that Patsaouras, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1980, has a burning ambition to make himself better known for another try at elective office.

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