Queen of the Kingmakers
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.
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.
"Irene is smart," Greer noted during the heat of the final campaigning. "The things she has done in the runoff are unbelievable. All of the other candidates are highly visible. Leslie is the only one who hasn't had some involvement in the community, to have his name buzzed around. When I started my campaign, I sent letters to all the parents who had been involved with the girls' basketball league at the temple saying, 'Remember me?' That's how the network works. But Leslie went out there and knocked on doors and worked the neighborhood. Irene helped him create the network in a short time, something we had developed over a long period of time."
The mayor's appreciation for Secada's campaign strategies may be sincere, but it isn't necessarily shared by others in the field. For example, Phil Hamersmith, the well-known political consultant who has been running campaigns in Dade for more than fifteen years, doesn't put much stock in the labor-intensive, one-vote-at-a-time approach Secada takes: "She's not at the same level as Jacquie Basha [his wife and partner] and I. We are at the top of the profession. Irene is not at that level. I'm not a believer in the grassroots part of the campaign. I believe in a candidate raising a great deal of money and waging a media campaign. When you're looking at a county in which districts have 60,000 registered voters, or you're running countywide, grassroots campaigning is nonsense."
Although she is a relative newcomer (two years as a partner in a consulting firm and one year on her own), Secada has already compiled an impressive resume: managing Victoria Sigler's uncontested bid for county court judge in the fall of 1994, running Katy Sorenson's triumphant campaign for Dade commissioner that same season, and directing the campaign field headquarters during Conchy Bretos's ill-fated run for the county commission in 1993. Today she is developing expertise in an aspect of Dade politics generally ignored by more established consultants such as Phil Hamersmith -- neighborhood campaigns for municipal offices. Given the trend toward the creation of new cities within Dade County, it could be a growth industry, though perhaps not a lucrative one. "Sometimes you have a great candidate who doesn't have a whole lot of money," she observes. "They are never going to be able to afford a Hamersmith or television ads or direct mail. So does that mean they should disqualify themselves from running?"
So why doesn't she run for office herself? She's a 35-year-old Hispanic, a University of Miami graduate who was born in Miami and reared in Hialeah. A community activist and member of the Latin Business and Professional Women's Club, the Coalition of Hispanic-American Women, EMILY's List, and the Dade County Women's Political Caucus. Bright. Articulate. You would think she'd be her own best client, a natural for public office.
In fact, if she were a betting woman, Secada wouldn't risk a dime on her own political prospects. She learned that the hard way in 1988, when she borrowed money from her family to make a bid for a statehouse seat representing Hialeah, Miami Lakes, and part of unincorporated Northwest Dade, long a Republican stronghold. That election taught her she was the wrong kind of Hispanic. "I walked door to door in my district," she recalls. "The first thing people asked me was, 'What is your party affiliation?' Democrat. Boom -- there goes the door. I lost a ton of weight. I went down four sizes by walking so hard. But the reality was that I had to be Cuban and Republican to win. Dade politics works that way."
Rather than withdrawing out of discouragement or intimidation, Secada, a self-professed political junkie, got a job with veteran lobbyist and consultant Bob Levy, who taught her about the organization of grassroots campaigns. Three years later, she opened a consulting business with Ray Maury, another consultant's apprentice. That partnership dissolved last year, and Secada launched her own business.
Her style is suited to candidates on a budget because she specializes in a no-frills approach: calling voters, mailing candidate information, canvassing neighborhoods. She enlists a candidate's family and friends because they know the candidate best, will always be loyal, and more important, they aren't going to demand a salary.
That approach, says Tom Cunningham, is exactly what he was looking for earlier this year when he tapped Secada to manage his campaign to become mayor of South Miami. In mid-February, he hired her with four weeks left till election day. His opponents included Shirley Huebner, who had been endorsed by the influential South Miami Homeowners Association. The group had backed Cunningham two years ago when he successfully ran for a seat on the city commission, but withheld its support for his mayoral aspirations owing to a dispute over a tax issue.
By the time Secada signed on with Cunningham, the attacks against him had become personal. Members of the homeowners association drew attention to complaints filed with city police, alleging that he had threatened a man and had torn down a campaign sign. There were also whispers that the openly gay commissioner was not fit to be mayor. "In the beginning, the momentum of the homeowners association was building against him," explains Grant Miller, publisher of Community Newspapers and a friend of Secada. "A candidate endorsed by the association had never lost. So Irene put together some nice mailers and helped him focus on what the issues were. Tom isn't the kind of guy that brags about his record, but Irene helped him get it out in the literature so people could read it. Talk about a grassroots, home-grown political machine -- that is where the power is."
Secada felt that Cunningham's political strength was being drained by his efforts to respond to the allegations, so she advised him to ignore the charges and concentrate on the issues. "Before I came onboard, Tom was making some tactical mistakes," she says. "I saw the literature he had prepared, I saw the campaign signs, and I decided we needed to do a makeover of Tom Cunningham. There was a lot more to Tom Cunningham that was not portrayed either in his literature, his letters, or his signs. Part of what I did was re-create the vision that South Miami residents had of their mayor."
The man Secada reintroduced to voters was one of eight children. He was a war hero who served in Vietnam, an entrepreneur who runs a South Miami floral business he began fourteen years ago, and a community activist who chairs Cure AIDS Now, which runs a highly regarded food-delivery program for homebound patients. His leadership abilities were spotlighted in his role as a South Miami commissioner. "She brought credibility to my campaign," Cunningham acknowledges. "She took control and let people know exactly who I was."
As election day neared, activists from South Miami's black neighborhoods on the west side of South Dixie Highway invited Cunningham and other candidates to a forum at St. John's AME Church. Some 50 people showed up to listen and ask questions. After about an hour, a woman rose and asked the candidates to drop the sound bites about "crime and children in trouble," and challenged them to address other issues that were important to residents. Recalls Secada: "So one candidate gets up and says, 'I think we need to talk about beautifying the area.' Then Tom gets up. I had been in the area with the men on the streets during the daytime, and I was praying from the back of the room that he'd say jobs."
Secada closes her eyes, re-enacting the moment. She jabs her fist at the air and shouts, "Jobs!"
"And Tom says, 'What we need is jobs.' Boom. He got it. He knew it already. He didn't need my help, he didn't need my telepathy. He was right on target and he explained it and he got an incredible response. That's a guy who knows his community. That's why he won."
Despite the homeowners association's opposition, Cunningham received 57 percent of the vote this past March 13, 331 more ballots than his closest competitor.
Fresh from that victory, Secada jumped into the rollicking political birth of neighboring Pinecrest and the candidacy of Leslie Bowe. With a post-Lotto, pre-tax income of more than $850,000 per year, Bowe could have afforded to hire James Carville, President Clinton's political divining rod. But he was impressed by Secada's work during the Cunningham campaign and was counseled by friends to hire her. "I didn't want to spend a lot of money because people would have said I was trying to buy the election," Bowe recalls. "I wanted to focus on my qualifications and not on the money."
The first thing she asked of Bowe was for him to make a list of people he considered to be friends, to which Secada added some names of her own. Lisa Ginsburg brought Secada to the women's political organization Democratic Power, where she pitched Bowe's candidacy. Local playwright and Pinecrest resident Anna Garcia became one of 25 telephone-bank volunteers who called residents on Bowe's behalf the day before the runoff election. Another important addition to Bowe's list was publisher Grant Miller, whose friendship with Secada led to her use of his two dozen office phones after business hours. Friends and family descended on the newly incorporated city. They and their candidate walked door to door, they stood in the rain with their campaign signs, they urged their neighbors to support Bowe.
And in the end, they inspired a minor miracle. Leslie Bowe came from behind, from obscurity, from a racial minority, and on election day he overtook the much better-known Richard Renick. Bowe won by 250 votes.
Secada could now boast of two campaign victories in as many months. And for all her frenetic work and sleepless nights she earned a grand total of $4000 A $1000 from Cunningham and $3000 from Bowe. "In city elections, people don't spend a lot of money," she says, smiling at her understatement. "And if you charge too much, you are not going to get hired. But there is no way I'm going to charge that little in the future."
Irene Secada, like her client Tom Cunningham, comes from a large family. She is one of nine children born to Albert and Irene Secada, who emigrated from Peru to South Florida in 1954. Her father worked as an aeronautical engineer and her mother was a secretary at a small airline company. All the children were educated in Hialeah, starting at Immaculate Conception Catholic School from kindergarten through middle school and finishing at Archbishop Curley High School. In 1969 Secada's mother began studying at Miami-Dade Community College to become a nurse. Nine years later, after Secada had completed her junior year at Curley, Albert took a job in Brazil and the couple split apart.
That same year, 1978, young Irene transferred to Hialeah High School, where she lettered in softball, volleyball, basketball, and tennis, received the Hialeah Optimist Athlete of the Year award, and graduated sixth in her class. The following year she entered the University of Miami on an academic scholarship. While there, she wrote a column for the Miami Hurricane newspaper and criticized the school's decision to drop the women's volleyball program, despite its being ranked in the top twenty nationally. It was her first foray into activism.
"There were ten people on half scholarships [for volleyball], plus the price of the coach's salary, plus travel A so you're talking about less than $100,000 or $150,000, and they dropped it," she fumes. "I thought, There really is something wrong with this, so I started doing research and I interviewed the president of the university and the coach, who had to tell her players that they had to go somewhere else [to school]. I was never satisfied that [the university] cared as much for women's sports as they did for men's. People were saying that the university was justified because women don't attract as many fans. Well, you tell me A if they gave the same media attention to women's sports as they do to men's, you'd think you would have a bigger audience. The same goes for high school sports and college. If they're never given the same amount of print and other media, you will never have the same audience. Never."
Secada graduated from UM in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in history and a minor in math (her father's legacy). Subsequently she was awarded an internship at the Washington, D.C., office of the National Organization for Women, and soon she was traveling around Florida with NOW president Eleanor Smeal, who was giving lectures and encouraging women to run for public office. In 1986 Secada returned to Miami, enrolled at Florida International University to take women's studies courses, and organized a NOW chapter at the school. Two years later she was nominated by the Latin Business and Professional Women's Club to be their Woman of the Year.
Inspired in part by Geraldine Ferraro's selection as running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, Secada leaped into the statehouse race for District 109 against Republican Luis Rojas. She raised about $40,000 and enlisted her brother Alex as her campaign manager. "She ran in one of the fading-redneck, soon-to-be-Hispanic, very Republican districts," recalls political consultant Bob Levy. "She was very young, very feisty, very aggressive, and to be honest, I don't even remember who she ran against. But she was kind of a sacrificial lamb, because a Democrat couldn't win the seat. It was just a basic reality. I mean, you can't win a majority Republican district as a feminist Democrat. That district is a very conservative area, where feminism doesn't extend much beyond the kitchen. So Irene didn't exactly fit the stereotype of someone who could win a seat like that."
True to predictions, Rojas outpolled her two to one. Secada's self-composed biography reads: "Though she earned the recommendation of the Miami Herald, the Miami News, the Police Benevolent Association, the United Teachers of Dade, the firefighters, the realtors, the Builders Association of South Florida, and others, Ms. Secada was unable to overcome her biggest hurdles -- that she was a first generation Peruvian American and a Democrat."
Although the loss was a blow despite the odds, it didn't compare to the death of her brother Alex, who shortly after the election became seriously ill with AIDS (he was finishing his doctorate at Columbia University at the time). "When my brother was ill, the priest who had married my brother Frank was doing Alex's confession," Secada recalls. "He told my brother, 'Whatever you have done to get this dreadful disease, when you get out of here, you must stop.' And I saw Alex crying. I thought, This is the best [a priest] could do? I had to leave the hospital room. I was stunned, and I think I cried that day, too." (The Roman Catholic Church's positions on divorce, homosexuality, and other issues have prompted Secada to bolt from the fold.)
After her brother's death in April 1989, she began searching for a new challenge in politics. Eventually, at the suggestion of a friend, she called consultant Bob Levy, who happened to be in Tallahassee on business. "She was practically at the airport when I got back," Levy recalls. "I said I was coming back on April 19 or whatever and I'd be happy to meet with her. I had a meeting with [State Rep.] John Cosgrove that day, and when I got to the office, she was there. She had called John's office to find out at what time my meeting was and she was there. She was kind of in my face. I mean, I had no choice, so I met with her and I guess she kind of told me she was going to work for me and we would work out the details later."
Cosgrove, who would later find himself dealing with Secada on a regular basis both in Miami and Tallahassee, remembers that she quickly adopted Levy's penchant for working long hours. "I used to call her psychotic -- in good humor," he says, "because she worked like a crazy person. A lot of the time she would come to my [Miami] law office and ask to use the phone and make some copies. And then hours later I would have to chase her out. I would even go to a Heat game and come back at ten o'clock at night and she'd still be there, and I'd say, 'Irene, you've gotta go.' And she would say, 'I've got a lot more work to do.' She is just an incessant worker."
Levy recalls that her hard work paid off for one project in which she took a special interest -- the 1991 passage of the Midwifery Practice Act, which opened up midwifery to nonnurses, allowed for school certification, and set criteria for the licensing of midwives. Her interest in women's issues worked to Levy's advantage as well, as he supports feminist causes. "Because of the nature of the feminist community, any man's support is viewed suspiciously," he reports. "Irene's support of me lent credibility to my credentials, and she gave me a lot of insight into that community."
The demands of political lobbying in Tallahassee eventually took their toll on her, however. Secada conveyed this to Levy in a sign she made for her boss, which still hangs in his office: "No sleep, no friends, no life, no lunch, no regrets from the employees of Robert M. Levy and Associates." Today she concedes, "I was relieved to leave. I wanted a life again."
After the 1993 legislative session, Secada and Ray Maury, who had worked with lobbyist Rick Sisser in Tallahassee, started their own consulting firm in Miami. They handled Nancy Liebman's successful campaign for the Miami Beach City Commission in the fall of 1993, Annie Betancourt's winning bid for the statehouse the following year, and Matti Bower's failed run for a Beach commission seat last year.
It was Conchy Bretos's campaign for a Dade County Commission seat in 1993 that would be a career-altering experience for both the candidate and the consultant. Phil Hamersmith engineered Bretos's campaign strategy, crafting her image through radio and print, while Secada organized volunteers, stroked prospective contributors, and directed a phone bank out of Little Havana.
District 5 was a political hotbed that included Overtown, Little Havana, and stretched across the causeway to Miami Beach. Each community had distinct allegiances but Bretos, initially at least, received support from both the Jewish and Hispanic community. That base of support quickly eroded as Bretos came under attack from opponent Bruce Kaplan, who charged that her husband was a puppet of the Castro regime, that she was a communist sympathizer, and that she was an adamant supporter of gay rights. Bretos was trounced on election day, carrying only 6 of 43 precincts.
Secada admits the campaign team screwed up. "We didn't anticipate all the stuff that was going to be thrown against us," she says. "And when you don't anticipate, you can't respond quickly enough. When you're put into the position of reacting, it changes everything."
In the weeks before the election, Bretos now says, most people knew her situation was hopeless, but Secada did not dissuade her from finishing. Secada did, however, caution her when she was in danger of doing something that could hurt her candidacy, such as taking money from controversial sources. "She would give you advice, she would warn you about this or that, and she is very wise," recalls Bretos, who now works for the American Association of Retired Persons in St. Petersburg. "But after that, if you decided to do it anyway, she would be with you. And I think that's very important in a campaign. That you feel you have the support but that you also have the criticism of the people who know what is going on."
Katy Sorenson's run for the county commission the following year was a complete turnabout in approach and outcome. Secada's experience during Bretos's campaign changed the way she did her job and altered the demands she placed on the candidate. "I wanted to be sure that we did not make any errors with Katy that would hold her out to the kind of attack that Bruce Kaplan was able to level at Conchy."
Secada coordinated the first phase of the campaign on her own. "She really is a kick-ass, take-names kind of person," says Sorenson. "I have never seen anyone with that much intensity. She was driven. She was almost confrontational. How the hell did I think I was going to beat this guy Larry Hawkins? How the hell was I going to raise money? Every day she would ask me how many people I had called, how much I had raised. Had I studied the issues? Was I ready for the debate? She never stopped."
Secada was especially adept at debunking rumors and correcting misinformation, says political consultant Ric Katz, who joined Sorenson's campaign team during the runoff. "She was everywhere, from very early in the morning until very late at night, picking up on rumors that were buzzing into the campaign office, some which could have potentially tied up the entire campaign office," he recalls. "Other people could be standing there with a problem unfolding before them and they wouldn't even recognize it. Irene was always on top of things."
She chooses candidates based on her belief in their integrity, which in turn elicits her loyalty and dedication. "I think that people who run for office are running generally for very good reasons," she says. "I like to see that people are honest and up front. You get a sense real quick whether they are lying to you or not. Certainly if I find out early in a campaign that somebody is a sexist pig, then I am not going to work for them. I will be out of that campaign because I have to be in day-to-day in contact with that person, and if I don't feel I am given respect and credibility on the issue of my sex, if it displays itself somewhere in a way that is embarrassing to the person as a candidate and an individual, then I'm outta there. I would be stunned if a candidate I was working with said something at a debate that was derogatory of one group or another, and I would have to have a heart-to-heart with the candidate afterward and decide if I would stay with the campaign. But it has never happened to date.
"I will not be a millionaire when I die, not unless I win the lottery," she continues with a grin. "And I don't play, so I don't win. That's okay. For me it's important that I can be good at whatever it is I do, and then I can live with myself because I'm doing good work with good people."
Secada supplements her income by offering her skills to cities and businesses that need help marketing themselves. Last year she began a new sideline as a producer after accepting an offer to produce Anna Garcia's play, ¨Que Pasa, Miami? She hopes to get involved with other productions this year.
What little free time she has, Secada devotes to softball. She plays on an all-female team, the G-Spots, that competes on weekends at South Beach's Flamingo Park. Secada is clearly the most athletically talented of the players, says Victoria Sigler, who coaches the team, which is made up of attorneys, accountants, and other professionals. "She approaches everything with the understanding that anything you set your mind to, you can accomplish," Sigler says. "She never admits the possibility of losing. She'll always be out there, working until the last vote has been cast."
Or until the last pitch is thrown. On April 21, the G-Spots, who had already trounced last year's champions, faced a team called Play Deep. The Spots were expected to win, but it wasn't to be. Secada went to bat twice and scored the only run for her team. The game was called in the fifth inning by the umps because it had turned into a 10-to-1 thrashing.
Despite derisive jeering coming from the victors' dugout, Secada congratulated her teammates on a good effort, and turned her attention to one player who was particularly upset. "We have to play our game," she counseled. "And if they start getting out of hand, then we have fun with ourselves. You can't let them get to you. It's only a game.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- ACLU at 50 Names Its Dozen Most Significant Cases for New Times
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:30pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 12:00am
Sat., Oct. 17, 10:00am
- Angry Florida Woman Arrested for Stealing Boyfriend's Fake Teeth
- The Six Phases of a Gentrifying Neighborhood in Miami