Longform

Queen of the Kingmakers

Page 5 of 7

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.

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Oscar Musibay