Book Excerpt

Book excerpt: Luis Miranda looks back on a lifetime of advocating for Latino political power in “Relentless”

City & State publishes a chapter from the veteran political consultant’s upcoming memoir.

Luis Miranda has never stopped organizing Latino voters, as he explains in a new memoir.

Luis Miranda has never stopped organizing Latino voters, as he explains in a new memoir. The Hispanic Federation

Luis Miranda, a veteran political consultant and founding partner of the MirRam Group, has organized and advocated for Latino political power for several decades. He founded the Hispanic Federation in 1990 and in recent years pushed for Hector LaSalle to be the chief judge on New York’s highest court and called on elected officials to improve their outreach to Latino voters. This strong history of organizing, and Miranda’s prominent place in New York politics, is reflected in Chapter 7, “The Senators,” of his book “Relentless,” which comes out May 7. Miranda writes in this excerpt about his central role in several of New York’s biggest campaigns over the past few decades.

Excerpted from Relentless by Luis A. Miranda Jr. Copyright © 2024. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.

I have always been driven by data. I love numbers and what they can tell you. In looking at elections in New York, out of all the knowledge that exists in the city, I have spent a lot of time looking at statistics on subway usage. I look at voting patterns at big polling sites. I want to know where to deploy, where to concentrate resources. Nowadays, so much information is just a Google search away. But when I started my campaign career, it was all on paper and in my head.

That is how I knew back in 1998 that an upstart candidate for the U.S. Senate seat for New York stood no chance of getting the Democratic nomination.

My partner, Roberto (Ramirez), thought it would be a good first campaign for me to help this long-running congressman from Brooklyn.

“Can I get some data?” I asked. The data were not encouraging. He was in single digits, running against Mark Green, the city’s well-known public advocate, and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to be a vice presidential candidate for a major party in this country’s history. He was running against a fierce city fixture and the queen of Democratic politics.

“Why do you want me to lose? This is my first paid campaign,” I told Roberto. “This guy is going to lose.”

“You only look at the science part of campaigns,” he replied. “Campaigns are science and magic. I’m telling you, this guy is going to win.” The three of us met at the Bronx Democratic Party offices: Roberto and I and this enthusiastic, motormouth candidate. He wouldn’t stop talking about how he was going to win. He would win the Jewish votes. He would get the Latino votes because we were going to deliver them for him. He was from Brooklyn, which represented the biggest chunk of votes.

His name was Chuck Schumer, and he convinced me. He was a big character and knowledgeable about everything. I thought that if he talked like this to voters, people would vote for him. He also had policy solutions for everyone. He was in favor of the U.S. Navy leaving Vieques and had said so publicly before meeting us. For us, that was a litmus test. He promised that his first trip would be to Puerto Rico. And he promised that his first judicial recommendation would be a Puerto Rican jurist. He ultimately delivered on all those promises. He reminded me of Ed Koch, although he was less abrasive and more careful with his pronouncements. Schumer would not talk about things when he knew nothing about them, unlike Koch. But they shared a can-do persona, and I loved them both for it.

His numbers were less charming, and his path to success was a very steep climb. He needed the support of every community leader, and he worked hard to win them over. He wanted the support of the Dominican community, and Roberto convinced the elected officials in the Bronx to back him. I put together a meeting with (Guillermo) Linares and other leaders in Washington Heights. Everyone agreed to support him, including Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. While Schumer was working the neighborhoods to build support, Ferraro rested on her enormous name recognition. We were in the streets all the time, and we never saw her or her campaign. As for Mark Green, every time he met a voter, he lost a vote. Schumer’s campaign was well funded, and his real challenge came from the contrast – a woman candidate, not someone with a similar profile. There are more women voters than men voters, and the Ferraro campaign didn’t need to spend anything to tell people who she was. We thought she was a shoo-in.

We concentrated on radio and mail and on driving up the Latino vote. It was the first time that Latino voters had been targeted with a mail campaign in this kind of election, and it worked. Our media outreach was run by Mark Guma and Josh Isay, and they worked wonders. Schumer won the primary by 24 points over Ferraro and 31 points over Green.

The general election was also a tough proposition. The incumbent Republican senator, Al D’Amato, was everywhere. Whenever we went to talk to a community leader, we would find that D’Amato had already met them or was about to meet with them. We were playing catch-up with someone who was seeking his fourth term as a senator. Our strength – apart from the fact that the state was far less conservative than it had been when D’Amato was first elected – was Schumer himself. He was this big persona that D’Amato just wasn’t. D’Amato was great over a coffee but less so discussing the future of our community. There wasn’t a meeting we had that we didn’t leave with a full endorsement for our candidate.

Schumer himself was never shy about meeting with anyone. His work ethic amazes me, even though I have been doing this job for so long. He is a fantastic performer who never tires. In that sense, we have a lot in common. Like him, I will go to any meeting with anyone, anywhere, if it helps build our coalition. I spent eight years building the Hispanic Federation, creating something from nothing. It was as if I walked around with four mirrors pretending that there were four of me, rather than just one, because I met with everybody. Before that, working for Ed Koch, I went to the tiniest places to talk about citizenship. It never scared me. I didn’t care where I went, even in the 1980s, when crime was still high. Maybe I should have been more careful, but that wasn’t me. If someone told me there were going to be 50 people without papers in some basement, I would show up to that basement.

For Schumer, that unstoppable spirit translated into Latino votes across the city. Republicans never paid a lot of attention to Latinos anyway. But those votes helped push Schumer to a stunning victory, unseating D’Amato by a margin of 10 points.

Schumer himself was never shy about meeting with anyone. His work ethic amazes me, even though I have been doing this job for so long. He is a fantastic performer who never tires.

My profile in politics changed after the Schumer victory. Little more than a year later, the second U.S. Senate seat for New York opened up for an even better known candidate: Hillary Rodham Clinton. As first lady, emerging from the trauma of her husband’s impeachment, she was both high profile and untested as a candidate herself. She began her campaign with a listening tour, and I was asked to help her listen to the Latino community across the state.

I didn’t know what to expect from her, but I was blown away. I had never met someone of her caliber: someone who could enter a room of people she had never met before and engage with them as if she already knew them. These were curated groups, to be sure. They were not random meetings. When we went to Monroe College in the Bronx, we knew how many attendees were students, how many were neighbors, how many were community leaders and elected officials. We would brief her, of course. But after one briefing, she had ingested everything. Her command of the facts is stunning.

The biggest Latino event in those days was the Somos New York legislative conference in Albany, uniting the Latino community across the state. Clinton was speaking at a plenary session event that we had created for her, and we were planning the most important things she needed to say. Some of her advisers wanted to write a speech for her, but she insisted on speaking just from bullet points. She proceeded to deliver a speech that was flawless and seamless. She wove one bullet into the next and added some more of her own. Afterward she signed copies of her best-selling book, “It Takes a Village.” She mingled with them all and then went to a smaller VIP area, where she met with a group of people we had briefed her about. She stayed to talk to these people as if they were her long lost friends. She was a superstar, and the community loved her for it. Any place we traveled with her, we needed security to manage the crowds. It was pandemonium. She never lost her cool. She was unfazed by it all.

There was no bigger issue for the Puerto Rican community than the issue of Vieques, which posed an even greater challenge for Hillary than for other Democrats. Her husband was still the commander-in-chief as she ran for the Senate, and she was extremely cautious about being seen to influence his foreign policy. She had suffered, after all, from the searing experience of leading the efforts to reform health care early in his presidency. So her initial position on the U.S. Navy’s presence in Vieques was “That’s an area that I want to stay away from.”

“Well, you can’t,” I told her, “because it’s what we talk about the most in the Puerto Rican community and the No. 1 issue for our leaders. Keep in mind that we are the largest share of the Latino vote.”

She quickly realized that she needed to take a position, which was the right one: the Navy needed to leave Vieques. Because of national security, we needed another place to continue to train, but it couldn’t be Vieques. I don’t know what she did behind closed doors, but that position soon became the official policy of the United States. Her listening tour began in July; by December, President Clinton had announced an end to live-fire training in Vieques and a full end to exercises within five years.

By the time the real campaign came around in 2000, we were tasked with the fieldwork in all the Latino communities across the state. That took me to Latino pockets upstate in Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester. Of course, the bulk of the votes was in New York City. But the campaign had resources, so I asked for support and got it. It was like living with a rich family. By the time we were processing payroll for all the get-out-the-vote workers on Election Day, it was several hundred people. We had field coordinators everywhere. I spent my day running from place to place, jumping between the top Latino voting locations across the city all day long.

We won comfortably against Republican Rick Lazio by a margin of 12 points. If Giuliani hadn’t melted down after just a few weeks of campaigning, with a highly turbulent affair and divorce, perhaps it would have been closer. But that was Rudy Giuliani. He would have lost to Hillary anyway.

The month after winning her race, she invited us to the White House Christmas party. It was the first time I had walked into the president’s home, the seat of American power. We arrived a little early and got a tour of the executive mansion. I had never seen so many Christmas trees in one place. Every tree meant something. This kind of thing always baffles me. In my head, it’s just a tree with red ribbons or green ribbons. But there was significance in all of it, and every tree was special. Luz, on the other hand, appreciates all of that.

“It’s just a Christmas tree,” I told her.

“It’s a Christmas tree in the White House,” she replied. Regardless of our opposing sentiments about the tree, we were amazed we were there. We took pictures in front of Nancy Reagan’s portrait and then Jackie Kennedy’s. We met Hillary and Bill Clinton in the receiving line, and we talked about New York, including Bill Clinton’s account of his visit to the Bronx for his wife’s campaign.

It was a strange time to be partying in the White House because the world was still waiting to learn who would succeed President Clinton in office. The presidential recount between Al Gore and George W. Bush was ongoing through the holiday party season and would not be resolved until mid-December. We thought President Bush needed to be defeated. His emphasis on the military and tax cuts was never my cup of tea. Al Gore ran on a platform of economic reform and government involvement in fixing the climate catastrophe and helping poor people, of whom Latinos are a large share. In retrospect, Bush seems “un nene de teta” in comparison to the next generation of Republicans led by twice-impeached Donald Trump. But let’s not be romantic – Bush was a bad president for this country.

By the time Hillary was running for president herself, in 2007, our children were old enough and mature enough to make informed political decisions for themselves. We would have discussions about the election, and we adored both Obama and Clinton. But our children would say that while they loved Hillary, we needed to move to the next generation of leaders. As a New York political consultant, I didn’t have a mechanism to become involved in a national campaign. It made sense to continue to be involved in significant local elections. I wanted Hillary to win the nomination because we would have elected our first woman president. But I wasn’t upset with the outcome. Instead, we got our first Black president. This was a win-win in my view.

From my perspective, and based on the Latino community’s priorities, as much as we loved President Obama, we were sometimes frustrated that things didn’t move quickly enough. At points, I would remind myself that we had felt the same during the Koch years, when we controlled everything and still couldn’t move quickly enough. I felt that Obama’s main unfinished business was to move the needle on immigration. His DACA program for so-called Dreamers – the undocumented Americans who had arrived here as children – was the bare minimum. I could see it in my own household. If either Luz or I had been born on the other side of Eagle Pass, Texas – in Piedras Negras – and our family had crossed the border when we were 2 years old, are you telling me that we are not American? That we have another fucking country to go to? If we hadn’t been born in Puerto Rico, we would have been Dreamers. We would have had to apply every couple of years for something that should have been a right.

The Democrats had control of the whole of Congress, but they were not moving the needle. We had too many marginal Democrats who depended on being silent on immigration because the issue has been demonized and weaponized against the party. So even when we controlled everything, we did nothing. I was at one Congressional Hispanic Caucus dinner where Obama was talking, and a whole bunch of young people interrupted his speech to start screaming at him. For a second, I agreed with them. You know what? Yeah. You should recognize this failure on your watch. Then I reminded myself that it wasn’t him: it wasn’t high enough on the agenda because Republicans and too many marginal Democrats would never vote in favor of immigration reform with a path to citizenship.

All the data suggest that we need immigrants in this country. There are jobs that go unfilled when immigration is stopped. The immigrants who are here belong here. Their children do better. They go to college and get the next job. My brother-in-law owns farms in southern New Jersey. We don’t talk about politics, but what he says makes me believe that he’s Republican. One day he told me how mad he was at Republicans because he normally employed Mexicans and Central Americans to work on his farm. I know enough about him to know that he’s a decent boss, that he doesn’t exploit people, that he pays well and has good accommodations for his workers. But he couldn’t hire people because of the attacks on immigration. The Republican Party has changed fundamentally. I saw what Ronald Reagan did in 1986. Now the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant narrative has paralyzed our ability to tackle this issue, and now with the surge of asylum-seekers, even Democrats like Mayor Eric Adams are adding wood to the fire. I have no idea how we can go back to something more acceptable, or even what that something is. Someone needs lots of political courage, and I see no one out there who fits the bill.

Kirsten Gillibrand was a member of the House representing an upstate district when Hillary Clinton quit her Senate seat to become secretary of state in 2009 under President Obama. We all thought that Caroline Kennedy would become the next senator for New York, taking the seat her uncle Bobby had once held. But the day before the announcement, my partner, Roberto, who was close to then-Gov. David Paterson, told me that Kennedy wasn’t going to make it. We were both pushing for Freddy Ferrer to take the job, but it was hard to read what Paterson was thinking.

The next day, I was on the USS Intrepid, hosting a birthday party for Miguel, when I saw that Roberto was trying to call me. I ignored him a couple of times before Luz tapped me on the shoulder. “Roberto called me,” she said. “It’s important that you call him.”

I stepped out of the party and called him back. He wanted to know if I knew Gillibrand because she was going to be the next senator for New York. I said yes. “I read somewhere that she sleeps with a rifle under her bed,” I joked. “And she voted against an immigration bill.”

Roberto told me the more urgent news: she wanted to meet us. That day. In a few hours. By this point, my voicemail included calls from Governor Paterson, from the new senator, and from our friends and partners at Global Strategy, the consultants who had done the polling in Gillibrand’s House race.

“Why do we want this in our lives?” I asked Roberto.

“I’m asking you,” he said.

“Please be at this meeting.”

I had little choice but to show up at our offices on Broadway to meet a woman who was already being demonized for her votes on immigration and gun control.

That wasn’t who showed up at our office that cold January afternoon in 2009. She was warm, inquisitive, and direct, explaining that she had this big thing she was now doing, that she needed our help and was willing to learn and willing to change. I asked her about the rifle, partly joking, but also because I had expected her to show up with it. Why just leave it under your bed?

“Luis,” she said, “I’m from upstate. Hunting is a part of life up there. It doesn’t mean that I own a semiautomatic rifle. Having it under the bed is a bit of hyperbole. I was trying to get elected to Congress in a red district.”

“You voted against an immigration bill,” I shot back.

“Luis, that was a reconciliation bill that had seven thousand things attached to it,” she explained. “At the time, it didn’t feel like I had voted against an immigration bill.”

I knew from my own time in government that if you cannot pass something on its own, you attach it to something that needs to pass. Sometimes people make those tough choices.

“You’ve got to help me,” she said.

What I saw was someone who had a real desire to learn what our community was all about. What I saw was someone who was asking us to try to understand her position.

“It’s up to Luis,” said Roberto.

I hate it when Roberto does that. He does it whenever he wants to do something but I’m on the other side opposing it. It’s up to Luis. We have known each other for so long that we know when to play that card. And we play it very few times. I have invoked it too, so I know what it sounds like.

“I really want to think about this,” I told them. “Thanks for coming to meet us.”

The following day, in the Latino media, the headlines weren’t pretty. Gillibrand was the devil with two heads. Everybody had been expecting Kennedy, this iconic liberal New Yorker, the daughter of the beloved president. We had all grown up with a photo of JFK hanging on the wall next to a picture of a very white Jesus Christ. She was the daughter of one of the angels in our homes. I knew this kind of reaction was unjust, and I had just talked to Gillibrand. I knew that she didn’t have two heads. I understood her tough political choices because she had needed to be elected in a red district. Other than a handful of issues, she and I agreed on almost everything.

So I called Roberto and said, “We’re going to help her.”

We didn’t have much time to change her profile in the community. There was just a year and a half before the Democratic primaries, when she would have to campaign for the Senate seat she had just been handed. All we could do was use our human capital: use our relationships to get in the door and ask people to give her a chance.

That same day, I set up a lunch between Gillibrand and Rossana Rosado, the then publisher of El Diario, which was a consequential voice in the Latino community. I asked my successor at the Hispanic Federation to meet with her too. Then we called all the Latino elected officials to meet her.

All these meetings were horrific gambles for her because the only way people were willing to meet was if the conversations were on the record. Within days of her appointment, she was in the hot seat, being grilled by Latino community leaders about her real feelings. She courageously agreed to the meetings. This was her listening tour, taking place after her appointment.

Gillibrand studied like there was no tomorrow. Like she was cramming for the orals for a dissertation. But it wasn’t just a high school or college test. She evolved on immigration and became one of the best allies we have in the Senate.

As a result of her relentless hard work, Latinos really showed up for her. She won her primary with 76% of the vote, and she won the general election by a margin of 28 points – in the 2010 cycle that was a catastrophe for Democrats across the country.

Luis, I’m from upstate. Hunting is a part of life up there. It doesn’t mean that I own a semiautomatic rifle. Having it under the bed is a bit of hyperbole. I was trying to get elected to Congress in a red district.
then-U.S. Senate candidate Kirsten Gillibrand

The year Hillary Clinton ran for president again was a very busy one for me. It was the year of the ascendancy of “Hamilton.” A lot of my waking hours were dedicated to trying to understand this phenomenon. Lin-Manuel needed some structure, as his fame and his musical were exploding. We’d had a taste of it from the experience of “In the Heights.” However, “Hamilton” was something entirely different. All of a sudden, Lin-Manuel was a superstar, and I had to protect my kid. It’s the most important job I have; I have always been clear about that. Politics is always second. Too much was happening in his life for me to do anything else. I was spending my time with my daughter setting up financial support around him, getting to know the people involved in his life, being available to discuss what he might want to do next.

When Election Day 2016 came around, we voted in the morning and then Lin-Manuel and I flew to Mexico City to promote his movie “Moana.” Like the rest of the country and the world, we were certain that Hillary was winning. We watched the results come in together, even though Lin-Manuel says he hates politics. He spent the entire night FaceTiming with his college friends as they all watched TV and freaked out about what was happening. When I freak out, I prefer to do it alone. In public, I need to maintain my composure and be the voice of reason. I’m not allowed to freak out. I don’t know enough about the Electoral College to predict everything, but I knew enough about elections to realize that Hillary was going to lose. I told Lin-Manuel to go to sleep because it was over.

We were no different from the rest of New York in our assumptions about Donald Trump. We knew he was an asshole who said stupid things. We all figured he would continue to be an asshole who would continue to say stupid things. We had no idea he would become an ideological dark force. He would say bad things on the campaign trail, but he also fired people on TV who were really not fired. It all seemed like a show. He would blatantly lie about where Obama had been born just to get attention for himself. Part of me continued to believe that all his hysterics were just histrionics, not that he would ultimately lead a movement to bring the most extreme and nativist forces of this country together under one banner. Not in my wildest dreams, or nightmares, did I envision that his movement would threaten democracy as we know it.

Trump’s first year in office changed my views. Throughout that year, I could see how people such as Steve Bannon were realigning themselves. By 2017, I knew that we had to work harder than we had ever worked before to get this guy out of office and begin to recruit the next generation of leaders. That was when Latino Victory came to me with the opportunity to become chair of their board. I saw that as a vehicle to do what I have always done: to organize Latinos, only this time on a national scale.

Trump became a bit of an obsession for me. You can ask my family members. I was on social media all day long. Now I had some resources that we had not had before, thanks to “Hamilton.” So I could personally donate to candidates in ways that I couldn’t before. I also gave money to independent expenditure groups that were totally anti-Trump.

Latino Victory, however, was the real vehicle for me to marry my passions for electing new candidates and bringing together different communities. The organization was founded in 2014 by the actor and producer Eva Longoria and the former DNC Finance Chair Henry Muñoz to drive Latino voters and elect more Latino officials across the country. I was clear from the beginning that Latinidad, our shared identity, wasn’t the only measure of success. There were real ideological boundaries that I wasn’t willing to cross. I wouldn’t support people whose political elasticity moved them to places where I could not go. Especially when it came to immigration and the border. I understand that we cannot open our borders. But I do know that when we open ourselves to new immigrants, we continue to attract the best people from their countries of origin. We have nothing to fear. Immigrants work disproportionately for the good of society in general to build a community that can help them advance. So immigration became tied together with the need for an economy that really takes care of people. Government has to play an enormous role in people’s lives because it’s the only organization with the shared resources to change lives.

That was very clear when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. We could each do our best, but the federal government was the only entity with the resources to help in a large way. Instead, Trump stuck it to Puerto Rico in the worst possible way. My life revolved around Puerto Rico, getting rid of Trump, and electing Latinos through Latino Victory.

When the chance came around to fire Trump in 2020, my mind was very clear. I knew that Bernie Sanders was the choice of most of the staff at Latino Victory, and I believed he could not win. But I was in a position where I couldn’t make independent decisions. I was chair of a board and needed to bring everyone along.

On top of that, I was close to Kirsten Gillibrand, who was also running for president. One day, she called me to say she was heading upstate and would it be OK to stop by our house. She showed up with security, three staff members, and two kids. It was great spending time with her, but I couldn’t support her.

It took a little while for the board of Latino Victory to unanimously support Biden. But we did. Just before the Arizona primary, we organized a local event to support Biden. Our staff was apprehensive. Almost all the national Latino organizations were either supporting Bernie Sanders or waiting on the sidelines.

We got so much grief for not supporting Bernie Sanders. However, I just knew that he couldn’t win. For me, defeating Trump with someone decent was more important than losing with someone closer to my political beliefs and having Trump for four more years. But not everyone agreed with me. I had been working on Latino issues for a long time. I had never heard of Bernie Sanders being a defender of our rights. Perhaps he didn’t have the platform that he has now. Our eclectic Latino political community, I strongly believed, needed someone who was good enough on the issues but who would come across – and have a history – as a moderate.

I had met Joe Biden several times. We had often seen him with the Obamas at events at the White House. He always came across as a good guy who would take care of business, who knew what government can and should do. And that was exactly what we got. I wasn’t looking for a Bernie Sanders or his ideology. I was looking to get rid of someone who I believe is dangerous to the overwhelming majority of people in this country. Certainly to Jews, certainly to African Americans, certainly to Latinos, certainly to queer people, and certainly to women. Trump is dangerous to democracy itself.

I see these people at Trump’s rallies. I am sure many are good people who love their families and go to church. But they’re sharing space with neo-Nazis and racists. They are just totally lost. They are ideologically at sea. That’s what a daily quota of Fox News is capable of doing.

Many of my progressive friends thought Bernie was the candidate for change in the Democratic Party. They said this was the moment to move our progressive agenda forward. If we lost the White House, we would still be moving our agenda forward.

But I wasn’t going to do that. I was stuck in the middle, saying, “Reality is not like this.” It was an unusual experience for me. But I trusted my gut, just as my therapist had taught me. We had to win at all costs, and we did.