Only in Miami can a haircut joke involving a foreign dictator spark a racism debate.
Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo made the joke about fellow Commissioner Ken Russell's recent haircut, comparing it to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's, at the end of an 11-hour commission meeting late Thursday night.
"I've been meaning to say this, but I wanted to wait till the end. Through the day, the more I look at you, I'm becoming fond of the 'Kim Jong-un,'" Carollo said, referring to Russell's haircut. "I was just wondering if that's in favor of the nuclear negotiations with Trump or showing your protest against Trump and his negotiations with Kim."
Russell, who is Japanese American, decried the joke as racist on Twitter. Carollo denied any racist intent Friday morning in an interview with the Miami Herald.
"If it was racist, I don't think anybody there would have been laughing," he said.
The comment did draw laughs from some people in the chambers at that hour. Russell and others were upset, including Mayor Francis Suarez, who said the comment was "completely inappropriate."
Russell, whose mother is Japanese, immediately left the dais as the meeting formally adjourned. He returned minutes later to tell Carollo the joke was inappropriate and racist.
Carollo disagreed and said he didn't know why Russell would say that. Carollo later said he was sorry if Russell felt offended, but he didn't think the teasing merited the reaction.
"It's not my fault he got a bad haircut," he said.
Russell later told the Miami Herald that he was offended and felt the comment was racist and out of line, saying Carollo exhibited a "sense of humor from a bygone era."
Russell first publicly referenced the comments in a vague tweet shortly after the meeting, around 10:15 p.m.
"Racist jokes are not jokes. They’re just racist. That is all."
That wasn't all. Shortly after midnight, he tweeted:
"Tonight at City Commission, commissioner Carollo made a joke likening my appearance to Korean dictator Kim Jong Un," Russell wrote. "I let him know that racist humor is unacceptable. People have made Asian jokes around me since I was a kid. Wasn’t funny then. Not funny now."
The comment sent ripples through the commission chamber at the conclusion of a long day. Carollo's words incited loud laughter from multiple people in the room. Others were not amused. Some staffers were overheard denouncing Carollo's comment. Others said they simply thought it was a comment about a "bad haircut."
Early Friday, Carollo told the Herald that the accusations of racism were "absurd," saying he did not intend to make any kind of derogatory statement about Russell's race or ethnicity. He said he was only referencing Jong-un while teasing Russell about the haircut because Russell had previously asked the commission to approve symbolic resolutions related to national issues, requests that Carollo said were political moves while Russell was running for Congress.
"The joke was about how when he was running for Congress, every month he wanted us to approve resolutions about sending something to D.C.," he said. "It was a joke about whether he got the haircut to support or oppose nuclear talks with Trump and Jong-un. It did not have anything to do with ethnicity, racism or comparing him to any dictatorship."
The incident signals a widening rift between Russell and Carollo. The teasing, Russell said late Thursday, was unbecoming behavior for a commissioner.
"We just don't have time for these games," he said. "It's taking things in the wrong direction."
Carollo suspected that Russell was making a political move by creating a controversy out of the comments to gain political leverage in the future.
"He's using this as a smokescreen to see if he can handicap me in future debates on the commission," he said.
The incident echoes a bitter moment between Carollo and former Mayor Maurice Ferré more than 30 years ago, during Carollo's early years on the Miami commission.
In spring 1985, the two were on opposite sides of a debate about whether to demolish the Bayfront Park library. Ferré favored tearing down the library for a park redesign envisioned by Isamu Noguchi, a famous Japanese sculptor and landscape architect. Carollo, along with the County Commission, felt the building should be saved and Noguchi should have found a way to include it.
During the debate, Ferré was incensed with a statement Carollo made that Ferré felt was insulting to Noguchi.
"If the argument against my proposal is that the presence of the library doesn't fit with Mr. Noguchi's plan ... then I say let's give him permission to hang Japanese lanterns on the building and make it part of his plan," Carollo said at that time.