Longform

Queen of the Kingmakers

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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.

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Oscar Musibay