Elections

This Miami commissioner gave a candidate in another district a six-figure check

Miami’s District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell, who’s seeking reelection, participates in a forum hosted by Downtown Democrats.
Miami’s District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell, who’s seeking reelection, participates in a forum hosted by Downtown Democrats. Special for the Miami Herald

Having a strong political alliance could be priceless to some elected officials, but Miami Commissioner Ken Russell has put his number on it — $150,000.

In September, Russell pumped the whopping six-figure sum into the political committee for Eleazar Meléndez, the commissioner’s former chief of staff and a candidate in this year’s District 1 race. Russell moved the money from his committee, Turn the Page, to Meléndez’s committee, Vision with Action. Russell has raised $584,000 for his committee since it opened in 2018, with $100,000 of that coming from his abandoned congressional run in 2018.

The donation to Meléndez is the committee’s single largest expenditure, and it’s this municipal election’s most public case of a sitting commissioner involving himself in another district race.

For Russell, the current chairman of the commission who’s responsible for controlling the flow of legislation and running meetings, the check is an investment in a like-minded candidate who is running to represent an important section of the city that is facing significant development pressures, the sort of issue that is occurring in multiple areas of the city and that requires commissioners to collaborate on how to respond.

“I also know I can trust him,” Russell said. “I know he’s a person of his word, and whatever he does, he’s doing it for the right reasons.”

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Eleazar Meléndez ROLANDO RODRIGUEZ

The donation is also being perceived as a play to place an ally in a crucial seat on a five-person commission where Russell sometimes has trouble whipping votes. Russell’s contribution also comes tinged with partisanship even though the municipal elections are nonpartisan. Russell serves as chairman of the Florida Democratic Party’s municipal victory program, an effort to get more progressives elected in local offices, Miami-Dade Democrats are publicly endorsing Meléndez.

One of Meléndez’s top opponents, former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla, criticized Russell for what he called a “brazen” attempt to buy influence in an election outside his district. Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican, called it an unwise political gamble that could lead to sow more division on the commission if one of Meléndez’s opponents wins the race.

“Personally, as chairman, you cannot involve yourself in an election like this,” he said.

Meléndez says he doesn’t believe the support can hurt his candidacy. He said he appreciates the endorsement of his former boss, and if he’s elected, Russell’s endorsement and money will not make him beholden to the chairman.

“We’re going to disagree, but we will disagree respectfully,” Meléndez said.

Meléndez also downplayed the role of party politics in his election, calling the partisan argument a “distraction” from city-level issues in the race that are not associated with any political affiliation.

“I’m extremely humbled and proud to have the support of the working people of Miami,” he said.

Russell’s giving might also say something about how he sees his own reelection. The commissioner is running to hold onto his District 2 seat against three challengers: real estate broker Jim Fried, businesswoman Rosy Palomino and real estate agent Javier Gonzalez. The sitting commissioner let go of $150,000 with two months left in the campaign, though to date he has raised $409,000 directly into his campaign account — the most of any candidate.

“I don’t take my race for granted,” Russell said.

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.
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