First, meet Luis Estrada. If there was an opposition research book on him, it would be scathing.
He spent 22 years behind bars for his role in a string of robberies in the 1980s. He’s been sober for 34 years after struggling with addiction to alcohol and cocaine. He’s also a first-rate political adviser to mayors and the sitting governor, someone who forces every campaign he’s ever been involved with to decide whether his talent is worth the inevitable risk. It can be a toss-up.
Now meet Jordan Hevenor. She is pretty much everything that Estrada isn’t: a white, college-educated, by-the-book progressive, trained on Capitol Hill, schooled in the ways of the best community organizers, someone who’s made an important mark pushing issues that are deeply felt by women.
“She complements everything I don’t,” Estrada said.
“When we talk, we just get each other,” Hevenor said.
The entire Rhode Island political establishment seemed to convulse with joy this week over the federal government’s announcement that our state grew just enough in population to hold onto both US House seats.
Behind every great political effort, there are the often unsung people who made things happen. And in the effort to get an accurate Census count in Rhode Island, it was the unlikely duo of Estrada and Hevenor who found the bodies and saved the seat.
Estrada, 60, approaches conversations with the skepticism of a guy who has had friends testify against him in a courtroom. He prefers to remain behind the scenes unless he’s telling his life story to troubled kids or sobriety groups. But he possesses the gift of gab that you see in a salesman, as if he’s always trying to win you over.
Hevenor, 45, is guarded when talking to the press, too, but for different reasons. She’s thinking about who is going to read what she’s about to say, who might be offended, who deserves more credit. She’s polite. She apologized before accurately describing how the press was way more interested in the political intrigue of losing a US House seat than about all the federal money Rhode Island could have lost.
Together, these two polar opposites spent months leading an effort that both admit felt disjointed at times.
With no paid staff to work with, Hevenor came up with creative plans for connecting with minorities, seniors, and especially college students, most of whom had gone home to other states because of the COVID-19 pandemic but are still supposed to be included in Rhode Island’s count.
Estrada took a different approach. He had spent enough time in recent years working on political campaigns in Providence, Central Falls, and urban Newport to know there were a lot of undocumented people living in the state. He said they were especially hard to reach because they knew that former president Donald Trump didn’t want them to be counted in the Census.
He instructed volunteers to look for basement windows with curtains, which could indicate that someone was living in a make-shift apartment there. He also looked for names on mailboxes and tried to locate residents who might have moved.
There were other tactics, too. During one event at Clínica Esperanza in Providence’s Valley neighborhood, the team was giving away free food and trying to sign people up for the Census, but they weren’t getting a lot of traction. Estrada handed out $20 bills from his own pocket to people in 10 cars, and word quickly got around that someone was handing out money.
“Everybody loves something for free,” Estrada said. “That word carries a lot.”
Most insiders – even within the congressional delegation – assumed it was a fait accompli that Rhode Island was going to drop to one seat in the US House of Representatives for the first time since George Washington was president. The Frog and Toad store was practically printing up Rhode Dakota shirts.
It’s not that we were losing population. It’s that Rhode Island wasn’t growing as fast as other states, like tax-friendly Texas, North Carolina, and Florida. The experts thought that Rhode Island needed to add between 7,000 and 20,000 residents to retain both congressional seats.
The people who care most about the Census tend to be people who can afford to. They’re usually white, and occasionally come with foundation money. An aggressive count campaign would need to be just as credible in high-poverty neighborhoods as it was in a nonprofit board rooms.
Enter Estrada. He was approached to join the Complete Count team by Matt Jerzyk, a well-known attorney, lobbyist, and political operative. Estrada was interested in the challenge, but his wife died about a month before he was offered the job, and he was suddenly raising a young son by himself.
The team agreed to hire a second person to run the day-to-day operations, and Hevenor applied. Estrada was skeptical at first. He thought they needed a person of color who knew the cities well, but they quickly hit it off. She was digitally savvy. He didn’t have a Facebook profile. She knew the suburbs. He avoids them.
They may have come from different backgrounds, but their political experience proved they were prepared for the job.
Estrada was released from prison in 2005 and became a paralegal for what is now the Sullivan Law Offices in Providence. But his passion is politics, and he’s spent the last decade helping everyone from former Providence mayor Angel Taveras to current Governor Dan McKee. How much influence does he have? No one played bigger behind-the-scenes role in convincing McKee to select Sabina Matos as lieutenant governor earlier this month.
Hevenor graduated from the University of Washington, worked for a member of congress, and has become a strong political organizer in Rhode Island. She helped co-found The Womxn Project four years ago, and the organization played a vital role in convincing state lawmakers to pass a bill protecting abortion rights in 2019.
In the end, Rhode Island added 44,812 new residents since the 2010 Census, narrowly helping Rhode Island retain the two congressional seats. By comparison, New York lost a seat in the US House after coming up 89 people short in its count.
Estrada and Hevenor are painfully gracious winners. They spent much of Tuesday telling me about all of the volunteers and organizations that helped Rhode Island keep its congressional seat, even sharing the credit with politicians who weren’t always helpful in the moment. Between private and public funds, about $1.6 million was spent on the campaign over the last year.
But if Congressmen James Lanvevin and David Cicilline want to send thank you letters to the people who helped save their jobs, they better start with these two.