For Ken Russell, it was a whirlwind 72 hours.
First, the underdog candidate emerged from a Nov. 3 general election as the heavy favorite to win Miami’s powerful District 2 commission seat in a runoff. Then, his phone began to ring off the hook with requests for interviews and meetings, to the point that he simply bought a new phone.
And finally, after his lone remaining opponent announced her intention to drop out of the race, the money poured in, much of it solicited by Commissioner Francis Suarez, Commissioner Frank Carollo and Mayor Tomás Regalado. In just a matter of days, Russell, suddenly Miami’s most popular politician, had nearly doubled what he’d raised in eight months.
But when Russell woke up that Saturday morning, his team looked at the money and realized they had a problem. After running on a platform centered on ethical government and hammering the incumbent for months over perceptions of pay-to-play, Russell had just received more than $100,000 in checks, much of it from developers and businesses with matters before the city.
“The amounts that were raised were surprising. That part was surprising,” Russell said Friday, “to the point that we made a very conscious decision to begin returning checks.”
Russell’s more-money-more-problems conundrum offers a window into the perks and pitfalls of holding power in the Magic City, and how he is handling them. Becauase it’s one thing to make campaign promises. It’s another thing to keep them when in office.
“Navigating all of that is part of where I am,” Russell said Friday. “We’re doing our best to do the right thing.”
That started in earnest Monday, when Russell’s campaign began mailing back money to some of Miami’s biggest names. Big-shot attorney Eugene Stearns got his $300 back. A $1,000 check was returned to lobbying firm Floridian Partners. To Oleg Baybakov, a developer Russell had just ripped over the implosion of a building Baybakov owns in Edgewater, $3,000 was returned.
The amounts that were raised were surprising.
Russell also sent back $5,000 in contributions from developer MAST Capital, $5,000 from Don Peebles, $5,000 from corporations related to developer Terra Group, and $5,000 from Stephen Kneapler, the biggest donor to one of Russell’s main opponents. Russell also returned $7,000 to developer NR Investments, and $10,000 to Related Group.
All told, Russell returned $77,200, and kept $52,000. When the Miami Herald contacted his campaign Monday about his suddenly prolific fundraising, a spokesman for Russell — who was too busy meeting in Wynwood with developer Moishe Mana to take a phone call — sent this statement:
“As our team finally had a chance over the weekend to tally some of the checks we’ve received, we are concerned that accepting some donations could send the wrong message as to what kind of commissioner I want to be. As a result, we have decided to return a significant amount of donations today.”
When donors received their money back, however, they received a slightly softer message. In a letter, Russell wrote that “because we have now raised sufficient funds to finish the campaign, I am returning your recent contribution,” according to one donor whose check was returned.
Russell said Friday that he’s not worried about offending anybody. “Absolutely not. The returned checks are not a judgment to anybody and it came with a phone call that said thanks for supporting the campaign.”
If anything, the softer tone later in the week might reflect the same dance Russell conducted on the campaign trail — being tough, but not intolerant, on development and business. “We understand this is an unprecedented move in Miami politics, but we believe it’s worth it if it helps set the tone moving forward,” his campaign said.
Suarez, who says he raised $115,000 for Russell, much of it at a Nov. 6 fundraiser Russell attended at his home, doesn’t have a problem with the candidate returning checks. He noted that the fundraiser was held when it was still unclear how the election would proceed after Teresa Sarnoff, the wife of incumbent Marc Sarnoff, announced her intent to withdraw from the Nov. 17 runoff election.
“I think he wants to make sure that he starts his tenure on a good note,” Suarez said. “I’m sure he feels that this is part of doing that.”