Ramirez: ‘I’m on Threshold Of My Lifelong Dream’

“I stand now at the threshold of having fulfilled a commitment that I made somewhere in 1987, that there was someone who would make a great Mayor: Fernando Ferrer,” said Roberto Ramirez, the onetime boss of the Bronx, breaking pieces off a toasted blueberry muffin with manicured fingers, careful to avoid dropping crumbs on his black turtleneck sweater. “I believe I have done everything I could possibly have done to help that happen.”

It was Monday morning, and Mr. Ramirez—the Democratic candidate’s closest confidant and top campaign strategist—cut a genteel figure at the Mayrose diner at 21st and Broadway, a slick cafeteria north of Union Square. Mr. Ramirez, who wore a full, neatly trimmed white beard and wire-rimmed eyeglasses by Jaguar, looked more Soho than South Bronx, though he owns a Fordham Road co-op. On the table to his left, the spine of a book— If This Is a Man, by Primo Levi—peeked conspicuously from a fold in the wool coat that he had removed moments earlier.

This cosmopolitan-looking gentleman, Mr. Ramirez explained, wasn’t always what he now appears to be. Rather, he was just the latest chapter in a much longer history: the rise of Roberto Ramirez.

“I’m 55 years of age,” Mr. Ramirez began. “I have been a janitor. I have been a dishwasher. I have been a teacher. I have been an Assembly member. I have been a political chair. I now have been a businessman; some people call me a consultant or a strategist. I always keep wondering what the hell that is, but I just show up and do it.”

The Borgesian litany of lives underscores the adaptability of Mr. Ramirez, who, beneath the pretension of modesty, relishes his reputation as one of the city’s fiercest political fighters. He left Puerto Rico at the age of 18, a young striver who didn’t yet speak English, and grew into the very picture of self-made success in New York City. He worked his way through Bronx Community College, spent years as an organizer and activist, and eventually earned a law-school degree at New York University. During his stint in law school, he entered public life, winning a seat in the State Assembly in 1990. In 1996, still an Assemblyman, he became the formidable chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, restoring discipline to the decrepit county organization.

In 2002, he stepped down from that post to form the Mirram Group, a consulting and lobbying firm that shares an airy open office in Manhattan with his partners and Mr. Ferrer’s pollsters at the Global Strategy Group.

The resulting amalgam—Mirram Global Strategies—had received $458,423 by the end of last month to manage Mr. Ferrer’s campaign, according to filings with the city Campaign Finance Board. The firm also has received an undisclosed percentage of Mr. Ferrer’s spending on advertising.

For a guy who keeps “wondering what the hell” his job is, Mr. Ramirez has been a very successful strategist, in financial terms at least.

Mr. Ramirez, however, regards himself as more than an emblem of monetary success. He says that his dramatic rise was fueled by the desire to see Latinos claim a meaningful place in New York politics. To hear him describe it, this is why the dream of ushering Fernando Ferrer into Gracie Mansion assumes a cinematic quality. Listening to Mr. Ramirez, one gets the impression that a Ferrer victory would be the culmination of his life’s work.

“The Latinos are no different from any other group. It’s a question of incremental gains, made both in electoral politics, in economics and just overall in life, in society itself,” Mr. Ramirez said. “Each one of us has a responsibility to advance that, and each time one of us steps up and speaks eloquently and forthrightly and with a level of integrity, then you have begun to mold a different canvas.”

Moments earlier, he had put the matter a bit more bluntly: “I have a personal stake as well in helping to contribute to change the way that … people view people like me.”

However, it’s his personal emphasis on race, in part, that made Mr. Ramirez a lightning rod back in the 2001 Mayoral primary, when Mr. Ferrer lost the Democratic nod to Mark Green. The primary assumed a tone of racial politicking that proved ultimately damaging to both sides. When Mr. Green won his party’s nomination and was judged to be insufficiently repentant, Mr. Ramirez was furious. At a meeting meant to re-establish unity, he stalked out of the room.

By the end of the 2001 campaign, with the political climate marred by racial overtones, Mr. Ferrer’s slogan of “Two New Yorks” had come to suggest, for some voters, a racial divide. Mr. Ferrer’s campaign has used the line cautiously for most of the 2005 campaign, ramping it up just in recent days, with Election Day looming and the polls grim.

But Mr. Ramirez says the core of the message has never changed.

“Freddy has been talking about the crisis of affordability and the fact that there’s a schism in this city between those who are so incredibly wealthy and the rest of us,” he said.

Later, he addressed this campaign theme more directly: “In 2001, Mr. Ferrer spoke about the other New York, and people said, ‘That’s about race.’ Was it? I believe it was about class; he spoke about it in terms of class. In 2005, Fernando Ferrer has run literally the same campaign that he ran in 2001. He never walked away from it.”

On Tuesday, these sentiments seemed mirrored in a speech that Mr. Ferrer delivered at the Bronx Community College, Mr. Ramirez’s alma mater.

“My friends, there are two New Yorks. There have been two New Yorks my entire life. The work of my life has been to do whatever I could to bring them together,” Mr. Ferrer said.

In 2001, critics saw Mr. Ramirez as a symbol of Mr. Ferrer’s roots in party politics and his explicitly ethnic appeal, in part because of a running feud with most of the borough’s Jewish politicians, which started when Mr. Ramirez backed a racially charged challenge to a Jewish member of Congress. (What would Primo Levi say?) This year, he’s been kept firmly away from the press—his willingness to talk to The Observer apparently an exception to the general rule. In June, a press release from the Ferrer campaign listed Luis Miranda Jr., who is Mr. Ramirez’s partner at Mirram Global, as the lead consultant for the campaign. Mr. Ramirez’s name, mysteriously, did not appear at all.

“Can I tell you why?” said Mr. Ramirez, as if divulging a well-kept secret. “Because Luis Miranda is 100 times smarter than I am. Luis is a fucking genius, and Luis has been doing the job.”

Apparently, reporters’ persistent requests to speak with Mr. Ramirez have become a source of some consternation for Mr. Ferrer’s handlers.

“If the piece fucks with us, I will come to your house and kill you,” Mr. Ferrer’s communications director, Jen Bluestein, instant-messaged The Observer, which had written to request Mr. Ramirez’s photograph. The Ferrer campaign, to put it mildly, would prefer to keep Mr. Ramirez in his office, away from the press.

A Resurfacing?

But in the words of Mr. Ferrer’s address on Tuesday, Mr. Ramirez seemed to be resurfacing, speaking quietly between the lines. Here was a vision of the candidate as a force of the future. Mr. Ramirez, as he’ll gladly explain, envisions Mr. Ferrer’s campaign as part of an unfolding historical narrative, one with the power to affect social currents in New York City and beyond.

“While my company does campaigns, to me, the ability to be able to alter the course of history is a function of your willingness and ability to work very hard because something is worth doing. And Freddy Ferrer becoming Mayor is worth doing,” Mr. Ramirez said.

To hear him tell it, the effects of this race could be downright Biblical. “Freddy’s candidacy for Mayor will change the world. It will never be the same,” he added solemnly. “The consequences of this campaign will live long beyond 2005.”

Unfortunately, the apex of Mr. Ramirez’s ambitions couldn’t appear at a worse time. His candidate faces a self-financed billionaire incumbent, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is expected to spend more than the nearly $75 million he spent on his winning campaign in 2001. Mr. Ferrer, on the other hand, has been strapped for campaign cash and, despite a parade of heavyweight Democrats—Bill and Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and John Kerry, to name a few—who have passed through town to bolster his cause, Mr. Ferrer seems unlikely to inspire the kind of windfall that would allow him to end his campaign with a major advertising push.

Meanwhile, according to a new poll from Pace University done in cooperation with The New York Observer, Mr. Bloomberg leads the Mayoral race by a margin of more than 2 to 1 (58 percent to 27 percent). Mr. Bloomberg’s lead engulfs some demographic groups that are central to Mr. Ferrer’s base: Latinos (53 percent to 35 percent), the working poor (50 percent to 37 percent) and, perhaps most damaging, Bronx residents (52 percent to 36 percent).

“Ferrer may well be correct when he says there are two New Yorks, but they both want to vote for Bloomberg,” wrote Pace pollsters Jonathan Trichter and Chris Paige in their analysis.

But Mr. Ramirez doesn’t buy the polls—he says they have understated Mr. Ferrer’s support in the past. And if his man wins, Mr. Ramirez has pledged not to lobby Mayor Ferrer, or to work in a Ferrer administration.

Mr. Ramirez has other plans: a book perhaps, a teaching gig, a radio show.

And, believe it or not, he may just end up running for office again.

“If, at some point in the future, there ought to be an elected office that will touch my heart, then I will work incredibly hard—as hard as I’ve ever worked,” Mr. Ramirez concluded. “And I will hope that people will give me the benefit of the doubt.”