Elections

He criticized big-money politics in 2015. Now he’s the million-dollar candidate

Candidates for Miami’s District 2 election, incumbent commissioner Ken Russell, left, and challenger Jim Fried, participate in a forum hosted by Downtown Democrats at restaurant Zest Miami on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.
Candidates for Miami’s District 2 election, incumbent commissioner Ken Russell, left, and challenger Jim Fried, participate in a forum hosted by Downtown Democrats at restaurant Zest Miami on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Special for the Miami Herald

Ken Russell the fresh-faced political newbie might not be bros with Ken Russell the incumbent Miami commissioner.

In September 2015, a few months before he shocked the political establishment by winning one of Miami’s most powerful elected positions, he lobbed bombs at the perceived front-runner, whose war chest was filled with nearly $1 million in contributions. Teresa Sarnoff was running for the District 2 seat being vacated by her husband, Marc Sarnoff, to represent Miami’s waterfront communities from Coconut Grove up through Morningside.

“Her husband is funneling tremendous, obscene amounts of money into her campaign from developers, using the power and leverage of his position,” Russell said, holding the microphone at a debate in Brickell. “Does that make sense? It shouldn’t, because it’s wrong. It’s a conflict of interest, and I believe Miami can do better.”

That year, Russell seemingly came out of nowhere and rocketed into City Hall despite being outspent by more than $500,000.

Guess who’s the million-dollar candidate backed by developers and lobbyists now?

Russell has broken seven figures in fundraising for his reelection campaign, including a $100,000 infusion of leftover contributions from his aborted 2018 congressional campaign. He’s easily leading the money race in a field of four. His three challengers are real estate broker Jim Fried, businesswoman Rosy Palomino and real estate agent Javier Gonzalez.

Despite raking in the kind of money he once called “obscene,” he insists he’s the same Ken Russell as before.

“I haven’t changed,” Russell told the Miami Herald this week. “What has changed is my learning of the system and my knowledge of how to better serve the residents by navigating the system. Part of that is the Miami politic, and this very difficult ocean that we swim here to get good legislation done and to fight bad legislation.”

More than $450,000 of Russell’s campaign funds come from donors who list their occupations in real estate, architecture, construction and development. Law firms and individual attorneys gave him about $90,000. Many of the firms and lawyers are well-known names who lobby city commissioners and handle Miami real estate projects. More than 15 attorneys from the prominent firm Bilzin Sumberg combined to give him $4,100, on top of a $5,000 contribution from the firm itself to his political committee, Turn the Page.

Other law firms that lobby on city matters combined to give Russell’s committee another $7,750:

Shutts & Bowen, home to former District 2 commissioner Marc Sarnoff

Llorente Heckler, run by Alex Heckler, Democratic Party activist, and Mike Llorente, who was chief of staff to Mayor Francis Suarez when he was a commissioner

Greenspoon Marder, the law firm where Suarez, a real estate attorney, is “of counsel”

Turn the Page received $35,000 from developers, including Florida East Coast Industries, parent company of Brightline; Kasim Badak, developer of the planned Okan Tower; and Midtown Opportunities LLC, which plans to develop a property formerly owned by Walmart. Another $46,500 came from other political committees. Russell received about another $300,000 from businesses, unions and individual donors.

Russell evidently feels secure enough to pour $150,000 into the campaign of a political ally running for an open seat in District 1, Eleazar Meléndez. Formerly Russell’s chief of staff, Meléndez is running in a seven-person field. The incumbent commissioner said he’s funding someone he believes in while pledging that he is not beholden to the same kinds of donors that fuel big-money campaigns in Miami politics. He says City Hall hasn’t changed him — he just knows he needs money to be a player.

“It’s unfortunate that money is needed in politics to get the word out about the mission and to run a competitive race,” Russell said.

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By contrast, the candidate with the second largest fundraising total, Fried, the real estate broker, has about $48,700, according to the most recent campaign reports. Fried made a late entry into the race, filing in late August. He said he’s proud of the support he’s received from a network of backers, adding that he doesn’t care about the large money gap between him and Russell. He echoed Russell’s 2015 campaign rhetoric while emphasizing that his effort is rooted in knocking on doors and face-to-face campaigning.

“Money doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “Ideas do.”

Fried is getting help from some of Russell’s biggest critics, such as Isadore “Izzy” Havenick, vice president of the company that owns Magic City Casino. Russell sponsored legislation that threw a roadblock in front of plans for a new gaming facility on the 3000 block of Biscayne Boulevard. Havenick is suing the city over the matter.

Havenick, a resident in District 2, said his stake in the race is more about his disappointment in the city’s lack of upkeep in his neighborhood than Russell’s legislation.

“We’ve been ignored by waste management. We’ve lost streetlights,” he said.

Another District 2 resident, Manny Prieguez Jr., has spent more than $10,000 on funding Fried and political ads attacking Russell, using a longstanding political committee that re-emerges each election season. A former state representative who now works as a lobbyist, Prieguez Jr. is registered to represent one of Havenick’s companies in City Hall.

Prieguez Jr., who’s lived in Coconut Grove for 19 years, said his dissatisfaction with Russell stems from the commissioner’s push to declare that the developer of a long-planned but unrealized resort on city-owned Watson Island had breached a contract with the city. Commissioners voted to evict the developer of Flagstone Island Gardens, sparking a lawsuit. The city later lost that suit and settled for $20 million earlier this year.

He also criticized Russell for running for Congress before completing one term as commissioner. Russell dropped his bid to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in April 2018.

“Ken Russell has not changed the system in his last four years,” he said. “The system and politics have changed him.”

Russell said voters are telling him they realize being a commissioner isn’t just a four-year job, and he believes he needs more time to achieve reforms he’s supporting — notably, a rewrite of Coconut Grove building codes meant to keep the neighborhood’s size, scale and trees intact. He couldn’t get support from fellow commissioners on the item earlier this year.

Russell also doesn’t want to underestimate the potential of a little-known candidate breaking through.

“I respect the democratic process tremendously,” he said. “I was the little guy with no name recognition four years ago.”

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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