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As Ferrer's Gray Eminence, Roberto Ramirez Is a Force


October 7, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

[PHOTO: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times]

Roberto Ramirez, center, seasoned in street politics and state government alike, has worked for years to promote the ascension of Fernando Ferrer, left.

As Fernando Ferrer sprints toward the run-off for the Democratic mayoral nomination, he is being guided by one of the city's last reigning party bosses, Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic leader and master of borough-style realpolitik. The Rev. Al Sharpton may have overshadowed others on the Ferrer team, but no one seems to wield more influence behind the scenes than Mr. Ramirez.

He is the gray-haired confidant and glib promoter, the backroom arm-twister and architect of electoral strategy. Through it all, he has honed a single message: with this campaign, it is finally going to happen. A Hispanic will become New York's mayor.

Mr. Ramirez has long painstakingly plotted the ascension of Mr. Ferrer, whom he met by chance on a South Bronx street corner in the early 1980's when Mr. Ferrer was putting up posters for his first City Council race. By the mid-1990's, Mr. Ramirez had concluded that the city's Hispanic population had grown enough to catapult one of its own into City Hall.

Try to doubt Mr. Ramirez and he'll pull out a map of the city that highlights its changing ethnic composition. The demographics, he says, don't lie.

"I have been thinking about this for six years," said Mr. Ramirez, who stepped down from the State Assembly last year to devote his energies to Mr. Ferrer, the Bronx borough president. "There has been a historical presumption that this constituency would not come out to vote. And I had this firm belief that it would."

His hopes were realized on primary day: 23 percent of the electorate was Hispanic, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls. In 1989, the last time such a survey for a Democratic mayoral primary was conducted, Hispanics were 8 percent.

To his admirers, Mr. Ramirez is an up- from-the-bootstraps organizer who has rebuilt the borough's Democratic machine and forged the Hispanic and black coalition that was instrumental to Mr. Ferrer's first-place primary finish. He was a luminary in Albany – he rose to become chairman of the Assembly Social Services Committee – but grassroots groups say he never turned his back on them.

His enemies – and he has collected many in the hurly-burly of Bronx politics – describe him as ruthless and all too willing to jettison his principles to advance his ambitions or Mr. Ferrer's.

Last year, he breached party protocol by supporting a black challenger, Larry B. Seabrook, against a white incumbent, United States Representative Eliot L. Engel, in what was widely perceived as a bid to improve ties with black leaders, particularly Mr. Sharpton, thereby helping Mr. Ferrer's prospects. Mr. Seabrook lost.

Democrats in the State Senate bitterly recall how in 1996, Mr. Ramirez promised to find a strong candidate to face State Senator Guy J. Velella, the Bronx Republican leader. When the deadline rolled around, Mr. Ramirez revealed his choice: Mr. Velella himself.

Mr. Ramirez gave the Democratic line to Mr. Velella, which perhaps was not that surprising, given that the two men had earlier reached something of a detente. Mr. Ramirez moved Mr. Velella's pet projects through the Democratic-controlled Assembly, and Mr. Velella did the same for Mr. Ramirez's in the Republican-controlled Senate.

(Last year, when beleaguered Senate Democrats found their own candidate to oppose Mr. Velella, Mr. Ramirez was accused of sabotaging her chances, and she lost.)

Mr. Ferrer's showing this year has earned Mr. Ramirez plaudits from Democratic insiders and speculation about his role in a Ferrer administration. Would he supervise the government as a first deputy mayor or hold another powerful post? Or would he become a highly paid lobbyist, following in a tradition of political advisers who parlayed their connections into billable hours?

Mr. Ramirez has spoken of building his 10-member law firm – Oquendo, Ramirez, Zayas, Torres & Martinez – into a powerhouse, and its lawyers have already benefited from his connections. Mr. Ramirez made one of his partners, Ricardo E. Oquendo, the administrator of the panel that screens the party's candidates for judgeships in the Bronx. At the same time, Mr. Oquendo and other members of the firm have earned tens of thousands of dollars in fees from legal assignments doled out by judges.

For now, Mr. Ramirez rules out an official position in a Ferrer City Hall. Stressing that he was sensitive to ethical considerations, he also said that neither he nor anyone in his law firm would lobby a Ferrer administration.

In other words, Mr. Ramirez said he does not envision himself as the next Raymond B. Harding, the Liberal Party boss who gave crucial support to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and then prospered lobbying the Giuliani administration.

"Fernando Ferrer will be given a golden opportunity to show that he can be a great mayor," Mr. Ramirez said. "For me to be part of a lobbying firm would detract from that, and raise either clear or indirect perceptions that I would never want to saddle Mr. Ferrer with."

Mr. Ramirez, 51, came to New York from Puerto Rico as a teenager and worked as a janitor before graduating from Bronx Community College and New York University. He aspired for years to become a lawyer, but did not graduate from N.Y.U. law school until 1993, after he began serving in the Assembly.

He said that after the election, he would resign as Bronx party chairman, leaving him with no official power base. He said he might focus on his law practice, teach or open a political consulting firm, though he did not rule out running for citywide office. He let it be known that in his eagerness to try new things, he had even taken sky-diving lessons.

"I would like to be able to step off the public stage, having left a legacy for people living in the Bronx, who would be able to say that Roberto Ramirez stepped into the shoes, did the job, did it well, and left us with pride," Mr. Ramirez said.

His rivals in the Bronx question his sincerity, saying that they did not believe that Mr. Ramirez could drop out of politics should Mr. Ferrer win.

"He is at the brink of probably becoming one of the most powerful men in this city," said State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. Bronx, who has been engaged in a long-running Hatfields-vs.-McCoys feud with the Bronx party over the last decade.

Mr. Espada said he broke with Mr. Ramirez because he ruled the party like a despot, refusing to consult with other prominent politicians in the borough, but Mr. Espada expressed grudging regard for Mr. Ramirez's work on the Ferrer campaign.

"I cannot say that I like him personally," Mr. Espada said. "I can say that I respect him as a formidable foe."

Others said that should Mr. Ramirez leave politics, he would be missed. Michael Kink, legislative counsel for Housing Works, a social services group for people with AIDS and HIV, said Mr. Ramirez had been an important ally in Albany.

"No one has to teach Roberto Ramirez about poverty or homelessness or AIDS – it's something that he understands in his bones," Mr. Kink said. "At the same time, he is not a limousine liberal or policy intellectual. He is a sort of hard-punching, gut-punching politician. To have someone like that go to bat for you was a great thing."


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