Soul of the New Machine

Not metaphorically. Literally in the basement. The Bronx machine that in the thirties under boss Ed Flynn provided the muscle behind Franklin Roosevelt’s ascent to the White House (Flynn became the national party chairman) could not, by the nineties, cough up enough money to keep its storefront alive. It operated out of a couple of forlorn rooms in the basement of the modest building at the corner of Westchester and Commerce Avenues. “When I got this job,” Ramirez recalls, “I got a call from the landlord of the building, who said to me, ‘Congratulations, Mr. Chairman. You owe me $25,000.’ “

Not a great way to start, but even so, Ramirez managed to see it as an opportunity. “My most core reaction,” he says, “was, this is great, because how much worse can I make it? I figured you can’t help but succeed if you put your shoulder to the wall.”

As a measure of how different things are five years after he took over, consider the county organization’s most recent annual dinner, held this past June. Most county dinners are doing well to corral 400 people. The Bronx dinner drew an off-the-charts 1,600.

County organizations unofficially died about twenty years ago. But ponder these recent Bronx developments. In the 1994 gubernatorial election – the one he lost – Mario Cuomo won 40,000 more Democratic votes in the borough than he had in 1990. In the 1997 mayoral election, Rudy Giuliani mopped up on Ruth Messinger everywhere – except in the Bronx, which she carried by 56,000 votes.

“Simply put,” says Senator Chuck Schumer, who won more than 80 percent of the Bronx vote in beating Al D’Amato, “Roberto is one of the most important players in New York politics, and his leadership has made Bronx County one of the most effective in the state.”

“He’s something very special,” adds Borough President Fernando Ferrer, whose expected mayoral bid in 2001 will be driven by Ramirez. “Amazing work ethic, tremendous gifts as an organizer. And he actually believes things.”

“He’s the best county leader I’ve ever come into contact with,” says Assemblyman Jeff Klein of Pelham Parkway. “Before, this was a county organization in name only. If you had a tough race, you were on your own. Now Roberto makes sure the organization helps you.”

The sentiment from Klein is instructive because he and Ramirez share no ethnic connection, and if Bronx politics is famous for anything in recent years, it’s the hopeless fractiousness among its three main constituencies – Hispanic, black, and Jewish. Ramirez has gone a long way toward burying those old hatchets, erasing the perception that his elevation to county leader would mean, apropos judgeships and so forth, that “only Puerto Ricans need apply.”

He’s done that skillfully – last year, when black assemblywoman Gloria Davis faced a primary challenge from a Latino foe, Ramirez put Klein in charge of her campaign and made sure she beat back the incipiency. A Puerto Rican county leader installs a Jew to help a black beat a Puerto Rican – now, that’s how to overcome old rivalries.

Ramirez has become a sort of model for what a county leader can be in these post-machine days, using both carrot and stick, cultivating young people, and actually putting the party first. Some observers believe it could all come back in deuces for him someday. “No longer is being a county leader a negative,” says Denny Farrell, the Manhattan leader. “So for him, that means he could be mayor someday. He has the capabilities. And with the increased Latino voting power, you have to think about it.”

Not bad for a man who moved to the States in 1969 at age 19 without a word of English. We’re riding in his Lincoln to City Island so he can attend the funeral of Carlos Ramirez, the publisher of El Diario, who, at age 52, lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Ramirez still speaks with a fairly thick accent, but he talks with an almost military crispness (if his speech pattern were a shirt, it’d have extra starch). But he’s funny, too, as when he describes the vertiginous disconnection between being in New York in the sixties and utterly lacking the language and the cultural reference points to be a part of it: “By the time I even learned to say ‘Make love, not war,’ people were on to making money.”

He was, instead, one of seven children of an odd-job-taking father and housewife mother, whose first New York employment was as a janitor in an East Side doorman building called the Churchill. He did the floors, took out the garbage, learned about spaghetti and meatballs from a restaurant across the corner, and got his English from the Daily News, Johnny Carson, and the Watergate hearings. He was also, at that point, deciding that janitorial work would not be his lot. He enrolled in a computer school and won the now-quaint job title of keypunch operator at American Express. “I was making less than I was at the Churchill, but I was working in an office, wearing a suit and tie,” he remembers. “Forget it! I was on the top of the world.”

He soon enrolled at Bronx Community College, where he eventually earned an associate’s degree with a 3.67 grade-point average. Along the way, the university sought a dramatic tuition hike. There was a students’ forum. “I spoke, and people … reacted favorably,” he says. “They applauded. They came to talk to me afterwards. And that was it. I was hooked.”

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.

Soul of the New Machine