Miami-Dade County

Russell to push for new campaign finance rules in Miami

Miami Commissioner Ken Russell
Miami Commissioner Ken Russell PEDRO PORTAL

Miami Democrats and labor unions are still licking their wounds after their effort last fall to push a county campaign finance referendum onto the November ballot fell short. But they may soon get another shot in the city of Miami.

City Commissioner Ken Russell acknowledged in a recent interview that he plans to craft a ballot question that — similar to the stalled and polarizing countywide petition effort last year by An Accountable Miami-Dade — ostensibly seeks to tamp down the influence of vendors and lobbyists by limiting their ability to bankroll campaigns and influence votes.

He said details aren’t available, but he intends to bring a measure to the City Commission in time to hold a 2017 referendum.

“The specifics are not vetted out yet. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go to press at this point on the issue,” Russell said when approached by the Miami Herald. “I think if a sweeping change is made, the lobbyists, developers and politicians will all play by the same rules.”

Russell, who said his motivation comes largely from his experience running for office in 2015, has two broad goals: to create a more transparent campaign reporting system for the city (something Clerk Todd Hannon is currently working on) and to determine “what contributions should be allowed and from whom, and if you have contributed, what are the rules about lobbying afterward?”

Last year, Russell helped a political committee backed by unions, Democrats and a national campaign finance reform organization push a petition drive that netted nearly 130,000 signatures and aimed to push campaign finance changes onto the November ballot. Among the proposed changes: a ban on donations from county vendors, their families and their lobbyists, and a lowering of the maximum contribution from $1,000 to $250.

Backers said they wanted to push special interests out of county politics and empower voters through a stronger public financing system. But critics said the proposal would actually drive special interest money further into the dark and strengthen labor groups.

County commissioners ultimately declined to place the item on the ballot, calling it misleading. A legal push to overturn their decision in time to hold a November referendum fizzled.

Russell has embraced progressive issues and legislation at the city. His former chief of staff just left to work as political director for the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, and his replacement attended last year’s press conference announcing the push for campaign finance reform and came from a union job.

But Russell says he’s not trying to bring a carbon copy of the county measure to Miami.

”We’re really doing our homework on what we think is clearly going to create transparency. We’re certainly fearful of driving money underground,” he said. “We have access to plenty of people on the other side as well. I want to look at this 360 [degrees] before coming out of the gate.”