Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell “Feels the Love” Print
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
December 2019

Yet only 6333 of 55,003 registered voters cast ballots

IElection_1n his next four years as Miami’s District 2 commissioner, Ken Russell says, he wants to complete a Brickell-to-Edgewater baywalk, promote initiatives for affordable housing, and curb development that would negatively impact residents and neighborhoods.

And while Russell admits he can do a better job responding to everyday complaints like potholes and code compliance issues, the commissioner is sure that most District 2 voters approve of the job he’s doing. That’s why he was re-elected for another four years, though he admits he did have doubts.

“I was starting to get down because of all the negative campaigning and blogging,” Russell says. Those blogs and campaign fliers, he says, portrayed him as an ineffective elected official at best, and as a corrupt politician at worst. What was really bad, he claims, was that the media repeated his opponents’ claims as “scripture.”

But when he campaigned and mingled with District 2 residents, he says, he “felt the love” and their appreciation for the work he’s done.

“I’m very proud of the results of this election,” says Russell, an ally of Mayor Francis Suarez and current chairman of the Miami City Commission. “It really tells me that I’m on the right track with the residents.”

Election_2Russell’s critics see it differently. They say Russell was able to defeat three challengers owing to unfair campaign practices, lack of news coverage, the advantage of incumbency, and a large campaign war chest.

“I don’t know if there were any surprises,” says Gary Ressler, a Downtown Development Authority board member who campaigned against Russell. “An incumbent city commissioner has never lost re-election. It was an uphill battle to begin with.”

But Grant Stern, an Edgewater activist, blogger, and occasional radio talk show host, isn’t done yet. Stern, who campaigned for candidate Jim Fried, accuses Russell of using city employees and vehicles in violation of state law to campaign on Election Day.

Stern also alleges that the Biscayne Neighborhoods Association (BNA), a non-profit representing the Omni and Edgewater areas, pushed for Russell’s election, also in violation of state and federal laws.

Stern tells the BT that he intends to file a complaint with the Florida Elections Commission (regarding the city employees) and the IRS (regarding BNA). Both Russell and BNA president Andres Althabe have denied the allegations.

Whatever the reason, Russell did enjoy a decisive victory on November 5. With 3777 ballots, he won 59.6 percent of the vote, enabling him to avoid a November runoff.

Coming in second was Jim Fried, a real estate broker backed by Russell’s ardent opponents. Fried, in his first run for political office, received just 971 votes, or 15.3 percent.

Coming in third place was Rosa Palomino, a perennial state representative candidate, with 862 votes, or 13.6 percent.

Javier Gonzalez, another real estate broker who once presided over the Coconut Grove Village Council, finished last in his second run for the District 2 post, with 726 votes, 11.5 percent.

With access to at least $1.1 million, Russell had an enormous financial advantage over his opponents. Fried’s campaign only assembled $75,352 in contributions; Gonzalez raised $12,835; and Palomino had just $5350 in cash and in-kind donations.

Election_3In an e-mail to the BT, Fried states he did the best he could with limited funds and time. “I wish we had more time to get our message out,” he states. “Ten weeks is an impossibly short period time to put together a campaign, but everyone on my team gave it their all, and so did I.”

Russell’s win means that District 2 will remain in the hands of a Coconut Grove resident, as it has since the City of Miami switched to a single-member-district system in 1997 (see “Miami’s Election Rejection,” October 2019).

Fried, an Edgewater resident, was promoted as a voice for District 2 residents living in downtown Miami and Edgewater. However, Russell finished in first place in precincts throughout District 2, both inside and outside Coconut Grove.

Russell obtained more than 50 percent of the vote in all but three precincts.

Two of those precincts, 577 and 578, were located in the Golden Pines area, on the north side of U.S. 1. Russell captured 47 percent of the ballots (221 votes).

Palomino, who is president of the Douglas Park Homeowners Association --located within Golden Pines -- received 27 percent (127 ballots). Gonzalez got 20.6 percent (97 ballots). And Fried received just 5.3 percent (25 ballots).

In Precinct 599, which covers part of Midtown Miami and western Edgewater, Russell captured just 44.7 percent, while Fried won 36.8 percent. Few voters in that precinct even turned out -- just 38 out of 1077 registered voters.

Indeed, fewer voters turned out in this District 2 election than in 2015, when Russell emerged victorious over seven other contenders. Four years ago, 6598 ballots were cast out of 41,566 registered voters in the District 2 race -- a turnout of 15.9 percent. This year the turnout was 11.5 percent, with only 6333 out of 55,003 registered voters participating.

Nevertheless, Russell received more votes this past November than the 2727 he received in 2015. “The end result was better than we hoped for,” he says.

Russell won 62.4 percent of the 2873 ballots cast in Coconut Grove, where he lives and where he has advocated for a strengthened Neighborhood Conservation District to control the size of future homes. Coconut Grove, in fact, provided 45.3 percent of all his votes throughout District 2.

Election_4He performed well in the downtown area, too, capturing 63 percent of the 1604 ballots cast in precincts located in Brickell, the Central Business District, and Park West. The largest portion of Russell’s downtown votes came from Brickell, where he received 716 ballots. He was endorsed by the Brickell Homeowners Association.

He also won 56.6 percent (128 votes) of Precinct 516, which covers the Upper Eastside neighborhoods of Morningside and Bayside, where the turnout of 15.1 percent was higher than the District 2 average.

In contrast, the precincts within the Omni, Edgewater, and Venetian Islands had a far lower turnout. Out of 11,550 registered voters in those neighborhoods, only 6.3 percent, or 727 people, cast ballots.

“Most people didn’t even know there was an election happening,” complains Fried supporter Grant Stern.

Those who did know tended to vote for Russell, who received 64.5 percent of the Omni-Edgewater-Venetian Islands ballots, compared to 22.6 percent for Fried.

Stern says Russell’s victory was secured by his huge cash advantage, as well as the minimal coverage of the race by large media outlets. “Ken had 12 times the amount Jim had,” Stern grumbles. “Screw the media. Hell, man.”

Besides having a money advantage, Stern accuses Russell of using his office’s city staff to deliver food and water to workers at two polling stations on election day. As evidence, the Fried campaign supplied the BT with somewhat blurry photos of an individual arriving in a city car while carrying a labeled bag.

Election_5Russell replies that he was in touch with his staff on city issues even while he was campaigning on election day. On that day, his district director was informing him about visiting a Grove constituent over a desired traffic-calming device, Russell says. Food and water were never brought to campaign workers by city staff using city vehicles, he insists. “There were a lot of crazy accusations,” he says.

Stern also says that Andres Althabe, president of the Biscayne Neighborhoods Association, used his nonprofit organization to campaign for Russell in Edgewater in violation of federal laws governing nonprofits. Stern claims that support was a reward for Russell having appointed Althabe to the Planning Zoning and Appeals Board. Along with the BNA’s endorsement came e-mails promoting Russell, as well as candidate forums -- hosted by Althabe -- that were biased in favor of Russell, Stern asserts.

Stern also claims that the BNA organized a “candidates’ walk” attended by Russell during Yom Kippur, when Fried (who is Jewish) couldn’t attend. “It appears the nonprofit acted like a non-registered political committee,” Stern says.

Stern adds that the BNA paid Eleazar Melendez as a consultant. A former journalist who once worked as Russell’s chief of staff, Melendez’s Vision with Action political action committee received $150,000 from Russell’s Turn the Page PAC during Melendez’s run for District 1 commissioner. (Melendez finished third out of seven contenders. The seat was won by Alex Diaz de la Portilla in a runoff.)

Melendez says he received his last payment from the BNA in July, prior to the election, and sees Stern and his accusations as ridiculous. “Grant Stern has no credibility in this community and has not achieved anything in many years, other than being a loudmouth, unlike Ken Russell who gets things done,” says Melendez, who, following the election, resumed his contract work with the BNA.

Althabe scoffs at the notion he could be bought off by an appointment to the Planning Zoning and Appeals Board, and points out that he has often voted against Russell’s zoning initiatives.

“I didn’t participate at all in the [2015] election campaign when Russell was elected commissioner, and about a year later, he nominated me to the board,” Althabe tells the BT, adding that “only in a feverish mind” can someone claim that Russell was “rewarding me in anticipation that, three years later, I would support his reelection.”

Althabe says he encouraged condominium associations to open their buildings to all District 2 candidates, and denies there was a “candidates’ walk.” Instead, Althabe explains, a single condo association organized a walk with Russell and some city department heads to point out code violations and broken roads caused by construction firms building high-rises in Edgewater.

“They wanted the commissioner [Russell] and code compliance, and they wanted the police to walk through the neighborhood and show them the conditions that needed improvement,” he says.

As for his endorsement of Russell, Althabe says, that didn’t come until he had several conversations with all the candidates. “I spoke to Fried three times,” he explains. And after those conversations, Althabe says he felt that the neighborhood would be better served by someone experienced like Russell, as opposed to someone “learning from scratch.”

Russell argues that voters rejected Fried’s backers, which the incumbent described as “the casino interests, the lobbyist interests, and the developer interests.” Most of those interests, he adds, were resentful of his previous votes and actions. “They had one goal -- to unseat the District 2 commissioner,” he says.

Fried’s campaign did receive thousands of dollars from lobbyists and companies affiliated with the Havenick family, which owns the Magic City Casino in Little Havana. The Havenick family has plans to bring a poker room and jai alai fronton to Edgewater, plans that were complicated by Russell pushing through legislation requiring the support of four out of five city commissioners to open any new gambling facilities in Miami.

Fried’s campaign and Common Sense, an Electioneering Communications Organization tied to Fried, received at least $5500 from companies associated with the Havenick family. Manny Prieguez, a businessman and lobbyist who represents Magic City Casino, gave $5000 to Fried’s campaign and spent another $10,000 on anti-Russell fliers. High-profile lobbyist Ron Book, who has also worked on Magic City’s behalf, contributed $5000 to Common Sense.

Magic City Casino wasn’t the only big contributor to the Fried campaign. Gary Ressler, who is displeased with Russell’s leadership of the Downtown Development Authority, gave Fried $3000. Dezer Development gave $3000. Hallandale-based sales consultant Alex Kleyner gave $3000. And attorneys from the land-use firm of Bercow Radell, which hosted two Fried fundraisers, gave at least $3250.

Russell collected $463,090 for his campaign and $662,650 for his political action committee, Turn the Page. Major contributions included $22,000 from the OKO Group, headed by Russian developer Vladislav Doronin; $20,000 from the Treo Group, which is developing Regatta Harbour in Coconut Grove; $20,000 from Optimum Development; $20,000 from Baldwin 7 LLC in Delaware; $11,000 from multifamily building developer ZOM; $11,000 from real estate investor and attorney Jay Solowsky; as well as $9000 from Solowsky’s frequent business partner and restaurateur Steven Perricone.

Russell also received $10,000 from developer Tibor Hollo; $10,000 from Miami Design District developer Craig Robins; $10,000 from Midtown Opportunities; $10,000 from Rishi Kapoor of Location Ventures; $10,000 from businessman Jonathan Leyva; $10,000 from Harlequin Property Management; $10,000 from PMG Florida LLC headed by Kevin Maloney and Ryan Shear; $10,000 from Itay Avital’s Tano Group; and $10,000 from the Sapir Organization.

Also contributing $10,000 was development firm Crescent Heights, headed by Russell Galbut, which would be Magic City Casino’s landlord should it gain approval for a poker room and jai alai fronton at 3050 Biscayne Blvd.

Although Russell refused big donations during his first run for office, the incumbent explains he has no problem accepting contributions from at least some developers. “I’m very proud of being a strong fundraiser,” he explains. “They measure the horse race viability of a candidate. And this is the only way to get the message out.”

Indeed, $100,000 of Turn the Page’s funds were left over from Russell’s campaign for Congress in 2017. Ultimately he abandoned his run after the state legislature passed a law requiring elected officials to resign their current office prior to running for another. Former University of Miami president Donna Shalala was elected.

But will Russell tire of his job as commissioner again and take another shot at Florida’s 27th Congressional District? No, he says.

“Donna Shalala is going to live forever and serve for as long as she wants to serve,” says Russell. “She’s an Energizer Bunny. I’m very glad to have her there. Her interest in local issues has really helped me move the ball on things that have federal overlap, and I need her. I need her help.”

Besides, Russell asserts, he prefers being a commissioner: “As the mayor always says, ‘The worst day as a city commissioner is better than the best day in Congress.’ I have more ability to do things for my constituents.”

When told that Russell has no desire to run for Congress again, downtown property owner Gary Ressler laughs. “I call bullshit,” he says. “Let’s see what happens.”

At the very least, Ressler says, he hopes the election has shown Russell, and the rest of Miami’s leadership, what needs to be done to make Miami a more sustainable place in which to live and do business.

“It is what it is,” Ressler sighs. “There’s no option but to make the best of the situation at hand.”


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