Queen of the Kingmakers

If you're a political candidate with big ideas and little cash, the first call you make is to Irene Secada

It was 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23, and cars were quickly filling the rear parking lot at Palmetto Elementary School. Men and women, some with children straggling behind, walked briskly to the cafeteria, which had been converted, by the addition of a ballot-counting machine, into election central for this historic occasion: the inaugural vote for leaders of the brand-new city of Pinecrest.

Anxious candidates milled about among the lunchroom tables, nervously glancing at the entrance doors as interested citizens arrived. No one noticed the short brunette, dressed in a white silk blouse and Indian-print harem pants, as she entered alone. And why should they? She wasn't running for any seat on the city's fledgling village council. She didn't even live in Pinecrest. But political consultant Irene Secada had a keen interest in the election -- she'd been working for council candidate Leslie Bowe. "If we just get him in the runoff, that would be pretty good," Secada said. "But I don't usually like to do just 'well' -- I do this to win." She also believed Bowe, a Dade County Public Schools administrator best known for hitting the $17 million Lotto jackpot in September 1994, would be a positive force in the community, the kind of honest and trustworthy politician she herself would be. Rejection at the polls would be like a slap in the face. "I try to find good candidates," she said earnestly, "candidates I know I can live with when they get elected."

Although the outcome of this election would determine if Bowe were to continue to the runoff, he was avoiding the scene at the school cafeteria, preferring instead to cool down at home after a long week of door-to-door campaigning and intense telephone work. Secada was his surrogate here, dutifully recording precinct results as they were posted around the room.

Totals from absentee ballots and two early precincts showed attorney James Wallace taking the lead, followed by former state senator Richard Renick, architect Mark Fine, and Bowe.

As results trickled in, the momentum began to shift from Wallace to Renick, and soon it became obvious that the real battle would be for second place, between Wallace and Bowe. Secada grabbed a cell phone and called her candidate at home. "You'd better get over here," she told Bowe. "Now!"

Secada hovered over the ballot counting. Each and every one mattered, and each one, as it was tallied, elicited a reaction from her A pain or joy. At last the truth emerged, and she could barely contain her excitement. "We made it to the runoff!" she whooped. "We're in the runoff! Can you believe it? This is a hell of a win!"

And indeed it was. Leslie Bowe, a virtual unknown, a black man in a community that is heavily white, and who had resisted the temptation to use his personal wealth to overwhelm his opponents, had squeezed into the runoff by a razor-thin 48 votes. Yes, he had knocked on a thousand doors and had made hundreds of phone calls in a bid to introduce himself to Pinecrest, but now he faced the well-known Renick, brother of Dade County School Board member Robert and the late television anchorman Ralph Renick. This was a challenge of a wholly different order. Secada knew she and her candidate would need to do something beyond visiting more homes and making more phone calls. They would need a major boost to have even a chance. A boost, perhaps, from Pinecrest's new mayor, who had swept to a decisive victory that same day.

Mayor Evelyn Greer had led the grassroots effort in Pinecrest to incorporate, and if Secada could secure her endorsement of Bowe in the runoff, it would be like a blessing from the pope, an opportunity for instant credibility. But Secada had to work fast; she had to get to Greer before Renick's people did.

Surrounding the new mayor was a thick knot of well-wishers, all bidding for her attention. Rather than attempt an immediate assault on the crowd, Secada set her sights on the next best thing -- an endorsement from the man Bowe defeated for a place in the runoff, James Wallace. She caught him as he was heading for the parking lot. "I think he's a hell of a nice guy," Wallace said of Bowe.

"I need it in writing," Secada shot back, referring to a formal endorsement. She walked away with Wallace's promise of support and slipped back into the cafeteria, once more in search of Mayor Greer, still swarmed by admirers. But after spotting Secada, the mayor broke away from the pack and strode across the room to greet her. "I'll help him any way I can," Greer promised.

"When can I call you?" Secada responded, beaming.
"When do I get up?" answered the mayor as she wrote down her home number in Secada's daily planner.

During the seven-day sprint to the runoff election, Greer brought Bowe into her political circle. She not only endorsed him but added his name to her election-day slate, her pick for each of four remaining council seats. Secada included the mayor's seal of approval in Bowe's campaign advertisements, mailers, and a script read by volunteers over the phone to voters. Greer, for her part, made appearances at polling sites on election day, hoping to persuade her supporters to vote for her choices for the new government.

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