Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell is dropping his bid to replace outgoing Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress.
Russell, elected to a four-year term in 2015, would have had to resign from his commission seat this month to continue his run, after the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring municipal officers to resign to run for federal posts in cases where the terms overlap. Only a week ago, Russell told the Miami Herald that he was "finalizing the effective date" of his resignation and planning to "submit paperwork prior to the deadline."
But on Wednesday morning, Russell said he was getting out of the race. He told the Herald that his decision was based on continuing to meet the goals he set when he was elected to the city commission to represent District 2, which covers Miami’s waterfront communities from Coconut Grove to Morningside.
“If I can’t keep the promises I made here, it’s not worth going forward with this,” he said.
Russell was in a crowded field of Democrats aiming to flip the 27th Congressional District as Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, retires. He opened an exploratory committee in May, and officially became a candidate after his campaign determined he had a legitimate shot to win. He'd raised $575,000 through the beginning of the year.
But a source familiar with the Russell campaign said that over the weekend, the commissioner decided that the risk of losing his city commission seat wasn't worth staying in the race. To secure the Democratic nomination in August, he'd have to beat more than a half-dozen formidable opponents, including former University of Miami president Donna Shalala, whose internal polling showed her 22 points ahead of Russell.
Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Florida's resign-to-run law, but by then Russell had already decided to make his exit.
A Republican seeking the same seat, Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, resigned his post March 31.
Russell made the official announcement Wednesday morning before a crowd of constituents at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in the West Grove.
After notifying residents of a $1 million grant program meant to fund local nonprofit programs in the neighborhood, Russell told residents he was staying. The few dozen residents in attendance applauded him.
Loretta Scippio-Whittle, chairwoman of the church’s board of directors, said she wants to see Russell usher in more affordable housing opportunities in the historically black West Grove.
“We are losing so many of our citizens who are moving to Homestead and Florida City because they can’t afford to live in Coconut Grove anymore,” she said.
Russell pointed to the establishment of a community redevelopment agency, or CRA, for the West Grove as a high-priority initiative he wants to see through now.
The CRA would direct local property tax dollars into the reinvestment projects in the community covered by the agency. CRAs have been criticized for past examples of mismanagement and abuse, including the Omni CRA — the agency Russell wishes to expand into the West Grove.
Russell envisions a reformed agency that functions to actually eliminate blight and spur redevelopment. He said the initiative, which was endorsed by the city commission in January and still needs approval from county commissioners, loomed large as he made his decision to bow out of the congressional race.
Even if the CRA passed, Russell said he also worried about who might replace him on the commission if he resigned. He speculated his predecessor and political foe Marc Sarnoff might have been appointed by his fellow commissioners if he had continued his congressional campaign.
"I risk a predecessor swooping in and undoing great progress at a crucial moment for this district," he wrote in an campaign email sent early Wednesday afternoon. "I can't in good conscience allow that to happen."
After Russell took his dig, Sarnoff returned the favor. Sarnoff told the Herald "there's no truth to the rumor" he would have returned to City Hall, calling it all speculation, then took his own jab at Russell.
"Maybe he'll start paying attention to how dirty the city is," he said.
Russell said he still believes he would've been a strong underdog in the congressional race, believing he could replicate his ascendancy to his commission seat in 2015. The commissioner, 44, was a surfboard salesman with no previous political experience who won election despite being far outspent by his then-opponent, Teresa Sarnoff, wife of the former commissioner.
Miami would have lost a commissioner even if Russell had continued his campaign and won — Russell would have had to resign before being sworn into congressional office in January 2019. Russell believes he would've been able to tee up a successor of his choosing if given the extra months to work on relationships with the rest of the commission and "cut deals."
"If there was no resign-to-run, I've got 10 months to work out the politics," he said.
Russell's decision to drop out of the District 27 race was rumored for months, and came as Democratic leadership has been working to clear the field. POLITICO Florida reported Tuesday that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer flew to South Florida last week to urge District 27 candidate Matthew Haggman to get out and instead challenge Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.