Ken Russell is standing in a torch-lit backyard in Coconut Grove, surrounded by maybe two dozen voters nibbling on cheese and sipping wine. He is beaming because it’s been a good night.
Former Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton is a few feet away chatting up a small crowd. Ex-Mayor Maurice Ferré just left after endorsing Russell for city commission. And off to the side, there’s a local artist’s framed woodblock print of Russell in Obama-esque profile, etched with Japanese lettering that says “Vote for Ken.”
Not bad for a 42-year-old yo-yo maven and paddle board wholesaler who not long ago was so disillusioned with local politics, he hadn’t voted in a city election in at least a decade. Now, many see him as one of three candidates with a legitimate shot to claim Miami’s powerful District 2 commission seat.
“Nobody saw me coming,” he said to a reporter a few days earlier. “Nobody expected this.”
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Russell has emerged from out of nowhere as a dark horse in the race to represent the neighborhoods bordering Biscayne Bay, from Coconut Grove north to Morningside. He doesn’t have the name recognition or the money of Teresa Sarnoff (the candidate wife of the incumbent), or the résumé and political team of activist Grace Solares. But he made a living captivating audiences and creating crazes, and has support and guidance from some local heavyweights and kingmakers.
“Sometimes the calculus is, will they win? Can they win? To me the calculus is should he win?” said veteran Miami publicist Seth Gordon, who says Russell is the best candidate in the race.
So does Russell have a shot? “I think he does,” Gordon said.
Nobody saw me coming.
Ken Russell, Miami Commission candidate
In a campaign that has at times felt like a free-for-all, Russell has stood out. Though he admits he floundered some at first, he has tailored a campaign that, thanks in part to $35,000 of his own money, highlights a quirky personal history and tosses bombs at incumbent Commissioner Marc Sarnoff and his wife. Meanwhile, he has garnered the support of politicians like Ferré and Winton, along with the LGBT advocacy organization SAVE Dade.
Russell’s swift rise among a field of nine, with Williams Armbrister, Javier Gonzalez, Rosa Palomino, Mike Simpson, Seth Sklarey and Lorry Woods also in the race, has won him admirers. But it has also earned him disdain from opponents who see him as an opportunist with more endorsements than credentials.
He has been mockingly called “Boy Wonder” by critics who dismiss his campaign pledges by juxtaposing them with his lack of government involvement. Last week, a political committee tied to Solares’ campaign sent out mailers declaring him “100 % guilty” of not voting in local elections. And last month, someone thought so ill of Russell that they dropped anonymous packets on doorsteps in Coconut Grove calling him a failed businessman and a liar.
“Listen to Ken,” the crude packet stated, “Yo-yo players can’t be trusted.”
Russell felicitously uttered that quote several months ago during a speech at the Miracle Theater about growing up the child of professional yo-yo players. His father, Jack Russell, held an early patent on a mass-produced yo-yo, and the family used to give out yo-yos instead of Halloween candy from their Key Biscayne home.
As a teenager, Russell toured internationally as a professional yo-yo player and employee of the family company. He later attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business and met his first wife. He said he began to manage the family business after he graduated and his father retired.
Not yet 30, Russell said he worked his way to the top of Russell Promotions and coordinated a team of about 150 employees marketing toys like yo-yos around the country in conjunction with major sponsors like Mars candy. John Winters, a regional Coca-Cola manager in Saudi Arabia hired away by Russell to run marketing and promotions in Europe and the Middle East, remembers his new boss showing up to their first meeting in Spain dressed in a T-shirt and shorts but nevertheless being impressive.
For three years they worked together, Winters said, closing on major deals and creating fads and competitions abroad that helped sell millions of yo-yos. The business remained a family operation, but, “in my opinion, he was Russell Promotions,” Winters said of the candidate.
How can we trust Ken Russell to be a responsible commissioner when he hasn’t been a responsible voter?
Quote from a political advertisement by the Taxpayers Engaged committee
Today, Russell said he retains a 30 percent stake in the company, but co-owns a water sports equipment wholesaler called Fuacata Sports and sells original woodcarvings. He has been associated with five defunct Florida corporations over the past 15 years and said on his website that he lost his life savings in the recent recession. But he talks up his business background on the campaign trail, saying it helped him learn to broker relationships and forge successful collaborations.
“I worked my way up from the bottom all the way up to running the entire company,” he says about Russell Promotions. “I was only 24, 25 and I was traveling, negotiating multimillion-dollar contracts with multinational companies in foreign companies and sometimes in foreign languages.”
Russell admits he was apathetic toward local government but got involved in Miami two years ago when the park in front of his house was closed down after the discovery of toxic heavy metals in the soil. When the city dug up tons of contaminated dirt with the intention of using it to regrade the sloping park, Russell and his neighbors hired an attorney and argued for the city to simply remove the mound.
They ultimately got what they wanted, but not before a public tug-of-war between Sarnoff and Russell over what to do and how to pay for it. Russell said he began to consider running for the seat when he said it seemed like Sarnoff’s spouse was going to run away with the Nov. 3 election.
“That sat really bad with me. It made me go, ‘Wait a second. Who’s going to stop this?’” he said.
On the campaign trail, Russell talks about changing the culture at City Hall, even though he has sought advice and support from the old guard and players like Gordon. He says he wants to give the public more of a voice and stake in what happens with their city.
So, after years stoking fads across the country to sell yo-yos and hacky sacks, is Russell simply launching a new craze at home, or is he selling an honest vision for a more transparent government? His opponents see a salesman, but supporters say they believe electing him in November is what’s best for Miami.
“This sounds an awful lot like propaganda,” said Ferré, the former mayor. “But I think he's a young man who has a different vantage point. And we have to make room at the table.”
Education: Bachelor of science in business administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Born: Coral Gables
Residence: Coconut Grove