Longform

Queen of the Kingmakers

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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.

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Oscar Musibay