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Pacheco Aims to Reclaim His Lost Job

October 30, 2005|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Former City Councilman Nick Pacheco has adopted a simple strategy for winning back his old job: He's acting as if he never left.

Pacheco recently showed off a flier. It's nothing fancy, just a letter to new homeowners in the 14th District that lists important city phone numbers.

Pacheco thinks it will get posted on refrigerators, the kind of practical information he believes will convince voters that he's the guy who can fix their problems.

Another campaign mailer reads: "Councilman Nick Pacheco is the only candidate that has served as a council member in the city of Los Angeles and is ready to move all the current projects forward immediately."

Pacheco, 41 and a resident of Eagle Rock, was the 14th District councilman from 1999 through the middle of 2003, when he became the first incumbent in recent city history to lose in a primary election.

The man who beat him, by a 17-point landslide, was former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. Now that Villaraigosa has ascended to mayor, Pacheco believes he has a good shot at the vacant seat.

The often-sour relationship between Pacheco and Villaraigosa has defined the race and supplied its subtext: What will Villaraigosa do to prevent his old nemesis from returning to a council that must approve the mayor's policies and budget?

The new mayor moved quickly to endorse Pacheco's opponent, Jose Huizar, as have 10 of the 13 council members. At an August news conference, several took thinly veiled shots at Pacheco, noting that Huizar was better at returning phone calls and more of a team player.

Pacheco's response: That's politics.

He was raised in Boyle Heights. His mother was a homemaker who made dresses, and his father was a steelworker.

Despite his youth in a rough neighborhood, he went to UC Berkeley and later earned a law degree from Loyola Law School before becoming a prosecutor for the Los Angeles County district attorney.

Pacheco scored what was considered an upset victory in 1999 over a better-funded opponent to win his council seat. But in 2003 he lost the seat to Villaraigosa, who had moved into the district the year before after losing the 2001 mayoral contest to James K. Hahn.

After being unseated, Pacheco ran for district attorney against incumbent Steve Cooley in 2004 and lost by 44 percentage points. He returned to private practice, handling mostly family-law cases.

Pacheco said his desire to return to the City Council was fueled by calls from former constituents urging him to run if Villaraigosa became mayor.

Then local labor leader Miguel Contreras died in May. Pacheco said he decided at the funeral to run.

"The saddest part about losing is that I was just hitting my stride," Pacheco said about his term on the council. "Unless you've been in office and have been in the spotlight, it's not an easy decision to run, especially when you know that it's going to be a tough campaign."

If elected, Pacheco has promised more community policing, focus on economic development and build another job-training center in the district.

In his last year in office, Pacheco was chairman of the council's powerful budget committee. He also pushed for establishment of the city's affordable-housing trust fund, now a priority for the mayor, and wrote controversial legislation to create 150 public toilets in Los Angeles, although just three have been built.

On a district level, Pacheco secured funds for a youth center in Boyle Heights that is under construction, launched plans for the new Arroyo Seco dog park and oversaw the building of a jogging path around Evergreen Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

But there were some very public controversies.

In 2001, a nonprofit phone bank created by Pacheco was used by mayoral candidate Xavier Becerra to send messages impersonating county Supervisor Gloria Molina to attack Villaraigosa.

Becerra was ultimately found at fault, but the incident didn't smooth relations between Pacheco and Villaraigosa.

Pacheco has had to run without the endorsement of the city's popular, high-profile mayor. He also has no endorsements from incumbent council members.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, although she said she isn't getting involved in the 14th District race, also said Pacheco should not be underestimated.

Perry and Pacheco bickered for eight months in 2001 and 2002 over redistricting. Pacheco made no secret that he wanted more of downtown from Perry's district. Perry ultimately won.

She said the fight was often fierce, but not personal.

And Perry praised Pacheco's political skills and resiliency, saying he was someone unwilling to equate an election loss with political death.

"He just keeps coming back," Perry said.

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