Miami-Dade County

Underdog Russell cruises into Miami Commission runoff vs. Sarnoff

Miami City Commission Candidate Ken Russell (center) is greeted by Campaign Coordinator Daniela Martins (left) and campaign worker Marcos Pineda at The Grove Spot in Coconut Grove on Tuesday.
Miami City Commission Candidate Ken Russell (center) is greeted by Campaign Coordinator Daniela Martins (left) and campaign worker Marcos Pineda at The Grove Spot in Coconut Grove on Tuesday. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

More than 6,500 voters hit the polls and submitted ballots Tuesday in Miami to choose a new District 2 city commissioner. In two weeks, they'll do it all over again — and this time the underdog will be the frontrunner.

Ken Russell, a charismatic water sports wholesaler with little political experience but plenty of momentum, raked in more than 40 percent of the vote among a field of nine. The dark-horse candidate didn’t get the 50-percent-plus-one needed to avoid a runoff election, but he won enough votes to feel good about his chances of beating Teresa Sarnoff, the wife of the term-limited incumbent, when voters return to the polls Nov. 17.

“I heard about polls that were counting us out and I just wanted to put my head down,” Russell, 42, said from the Grove Spot, a bar on the back end of CocoWalk where he threw a small campaign party. “I had a feeling we might be where we are right now. But we don't want to be overconfident. There's two weeks ahead. But we're in a great place right now.”

Russell arrived late to his party to cheers well after returns showed he was solidly in the lead. He hugged supporters, asked for his mom, and then walked into a small bar room with a Ken Russell sign held over his head.

By late October, Russell was nearly out of campaign funds and had been outspent by Sarnoff by more than $500,000, but he came away with 2,725 votes to her 1,552. He often treated the race as if it were him against Sarnoff — and her husband, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff — but she mostly ignored his barbs, sticking to her platform and message.

With far more money and name recognition, and a series of polls showing significant leads heading into the home-stretch, her position seemed strong. But, as she showed up to her own campaign party at Green Street Cafe in Coconut Grove, early returns showed Russell with a large advantage that he held throughout the night.

Sarnoff, though, was unflappable, even as others around her scrambled to check their smart phones for results.

“You give it your all,” she said, after kissing supporters on the cheek and accepting a bouquet of roses. “And then you leave it up to the voters.”

Sarnoff, 60, edged third-place finisher Grace Solares by less than 100 votes. Solares, 69, enjoyed the support of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and ran a hard-hitting campaign, often attacking Sarnoff and Russell in campaign ads. She spent election night at her home in The Roads and did not return a call to her cell phone.

Her campaign consultant, Christian Ulvert, said he would meet with her Wednesday morning to decide her next step and how she might play a role in the runoff election.

Voters in Miami’s District 1 also hit the polls Tuesday, reelecting Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort to another four years in office. He held earned 55 percent of the vote, compared to 45 percent for his lone challenger, Miguel Gabela. Gort did not return a call to his cell phone.


Commissioner District 1

Miguel Angel Gabela




Wifredo “Willy” Gort




Commissioner District 2

Williams A. Armbrister Sr.




Javier “Jav” Gonzalez




Rosa Maria “Rosy” Palomino




Ken Russell




Teresa Sarnoff




Mike Simpson




Seth Sklarey




Graciela “Grace” Solares




Lorry Woods