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Soul of the New Machine

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By his senior year, he was student-body president. He sued the college over the $35 student fee, ultimately losing the court battle. "But I learned two important things," he says. "First, I learned the difference between may and shall. You know, the resolution said the college 'may' something. Second, I learned that you never leave the table until every last thing has been agreed upon." Good lessons to keep handy in Albany, on which he set his sights shortly thereafter. "I knew back then that I wanted to be a member of the New York State Legislature," he says. "I didn't know what it did, but it's what I wanted to do."

He spent the eighties starting law school at NYU, running community-based anti-drug programs in the Bronx, getting himself wired into local politics. He ran for the assembly in 1986 and lost -- to the same Gloria Davis he helped re-elect last year -- but in 1990, another seat opened up, and he won, while still in his second year of law school. "I was making laws in Albany and learning about laws at NYU," he says.

So he was still a novice when, in 1993, the city's Hispanic leadership looked around and saw there were no Latinos running for citywide office. He let himself be persuaded to take a stab at public advocate. "I was like the rookiest, most junior, most inexperienced citywide candidate to run for office probably ever," he says. "I had no idea what to expect. No idea how large Brooklyn was, driving forever and ever to get to places." Mark Green won, but Ramirez got himself known, impressed people with his knowledge of policy. People sometimes ask why politicians run for offices when they know they won't win. Ramirez's 1993 race provides the answer. Without it, he wouldn't have become the county leader -- wouldn't be, today, taking calls from Harold Ickes and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, making the Bronx, of all places, important again.

Ramirez sits in his (street-level) office at county headquarters, behind Ed Flynn's old desk. Ted Sorensen's Why I Am a Democrat is on his desk; a little list of basic principles to bear in mind -- Ramirez's own fourteen points, you might say -- is on the wall behind him (honor the institution comes first). He meets with a small group of young volunteers and workers to talk about voter registration and how to finance a trip to a national Young Democrats convention in Little Rock.

Next year should be an easy one in the Bronx; Hillary and Gore (or Bradley) will walk. But it's 2001 that will be the test. Ramirez will act as one of Ferrer's key advisers, and even though Green and Alan Hevesi are rated the front-runners, the Ferrer effort will represent a ripe moment for the Bronx and for Latino power. "The Hispanic community's coming of age is here," Ramirez says. "This city and this state are going to change so quickly and so drastically." Yes, if he has anything to do with it.


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