Miami-Dade County

From written-off to victorious: How Ken Russell shocked Miami

Ken Russell with his daughter Eva Russell, 1, at Merrie Christmas Park.
Ken Russell with his daughter Eva Russell, 1, at Merrie Christmas Park. Miami Herald Staff

The first clear signs that the campaigns with all the money and power had erred by not giving more credence to the chances of the scion of a Miami yo-yo empire arrived in the days before the election.

One by one, in numbers that grew slowly until they couldn’t be ignored, voters from Coconut Grove, downtown and Edgewater straggled to the polls during early voting — not to support the city commissioner’s wife or the mayor’s top pick but for Ken Russell, the charismatic water sports wholesaler trailing in the polls.

It was a curious phenomenon, given that Russell had been outspent almost double by Grace Solares, and about five times over by Teresa Sarnoff, wife of the incumbent commissioner. He was the lesser known of the three. And while he had some political heavyweights backing his campaign, multiple polls showed him a distant third in the race to claim Miami’s District 2 commission seat as absentee ballots began to come in.

But on election night, when the tallied votes dropped, so did jaws. Russell wasn’t third, but first. And his numbers were so strong that his lone remaining opponent — so confident on election day that she had already mailed out advertisements for a runoff election — bowed out two days later rather than keep fighting.

“He surprised a lot of people,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Monday.

Russell credits his win to a grind-it-out campaign that gave jaded voters an alternate option and vision for City Hall. He says he also targeted non-traditional voters overlooked by the other campaigns, leaving the other two candidates to mostly fight over the same pool of steady voters.

All that might be true. But Russell was also a significant beneficiary of polling conducted by the other two campaigns that showed the race was a battle between Sarnoff and Solares, blinding them to his true chances until it was too late to act. Rather than target Russell, the two presumed frontrunners went after each other, allowing him to cruise unscathed into one of the most influential positions in Miami-Dade County.

He surprised a lot of people.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

“The polls were saying it would be a race between Grace and I,” Sarnoff said during a weekend appearance on the NBC 6 Sunday morning program with Jackie Nespral. “They didn’t factor in Ken at all.”

Heading into the final six weeks of the campaign, the race appeared to be Sarnoff’s to lose. Mason-Dixon Polling & Research privately published the results of a poll paid for by Miami’s firefighter union, showing that close to 90 percent of voters knew who Sarnoff was and more than two-thirds of those thought of her favorably. Only half of voters even knew Russell, a South Grove resident whose family founded the Russell yo-yo line.

On the same day that the poll was finalized, Solares’ campaign launched a commercial on Comcast attacking Sarnoff, beginning a litany of attacks over the Sarnoffs’ support of Gov. Rick Scott, among other gripes in the left-leaning district. When Sarnoff’s numbers dropped, two committees out of Tampa began to launch their own attacks at Solares, pointing out her own Republican ties and problematic sources of funds.

Together, the two campaigns spent more than $1 million, although Sarnoff denied any association with the mailers out of Tampa.

Meanwhile Russell, a newcomer to City Hall politics, spent just $160,000. At first, he went strong after the Sarnoffs, including through political advertisements, but as Solares began to hammer Sarnoff he toned down the rhetoric and talked about the importance of running a positive campaign. A gifted conversationalist, he continued walking door to door, sometimes with his teenage son, August, tagging along on his bicycle. On election day, his campaign sent a van with speakers blaring junkanoo through the Caribbean enclave of the West Grove.

“We knew the polls were wrong and we just smiled all along,” said Russell, who polled just once, in May. “This will be the autopsy of this race: that they fought the wrong battle and they underestimated their opponents. They didn’t have their finger on the pulse of the voters.”

As early voting started, Sarnoff’s pollster, FIU political science professor Dario Moreno, continued to have data showing Russell a distant third with Sarnoff and Solares in a battle, albeit with a high number of undecided voters. Solares’ camp says its data was similar, though they began to interpret it differently when it became clearer just before the election that voters were heavily skewing white and Democratic, a demographic they believed favored Russell.

At that point, though they felt their attacks against Sarnoff had successfully brought her numbers down, they knew their one mailer attacking Russell’s shaky voting record in local elections might not have been enough.

“I wasn’t prepared for Ken to come in at 42 percent, but I was prepared for it to be a closer margin,” said Solares’ consultant, Christian Ulvert.

Moreno defended his polling in an interview, and consultants who have run races in the district acknowledge that it’s a difficult place to poll. Moreno said the likely explanation for how Russell shocked Miami is that as Sarnoff and Solares battled, they drove voters away from each other and toward Russell. At the same time, he said a majority of voters had to have swung to Russell, who also presented the one logical “anti-establishment” choice on the ballot.

It was a total intelligence failure.

Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff

“It doesn’t make me feel good that the other polls also had it wrong. But it kind of validates that it wasn’t that we necessarily did anything wrong,” he said. “One other possibility is things changed during the last week of the election as people decided.”

That might explain Russell’s early vote tally, which was greater than Solares and Sarnoff combined. But it doesn’t explain Russell’s substantial lead in absentee ballots, which came in while polling was still being conducted. Marc Sarnoff, the incumbent commissioner, believes his wife’s campaign placed too much emphasis on polling and not enough on anecdotal evidence and word of mouth.

“It was a total intelligence failure,” he said.

Russell didn’t win enough votes to take the election outright. A runoff election is scheduled for Nov. 17, though Sarnoff withdrew, leading the city to prepare for an election in which they say votes for her won’t be counted — an unprecedented move in Miami.

Russell knows his opponents’ strategies helped him win. But he says his victory isn’t about their mistakes, but rather his campaign’s successes, and his ability to lead Miami in the right direction.

“Really it was just finding the right message for Miami,” he said. “What were the people looking for? I realized it wasn’t a negative message of just ending the Sarnoff era. People wanted to know what was going to happen. They wanted a new generation of leadership and neither Grace nor Teresa represented that.”