The Biscayne Times

Wednesday
Oct 23rd
Miami’s Election Rejection PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros   
October 2019

The city’s District 2 is waterfront, rich, powerful, and cursed

Why would anyone want to be Miami City Commissioner for District 2? The voters who put you in office one day are out to get you the next.

MCoverStory_1_Leadiami, with 471,000 residents, is often assumed to be the most populous city in Florida. It is not. That distinction goes to Jacksonville, with its 892,000 people.

Of course, Jacksonville is the largest city, by area, in the contiguous United States. Miami may rank No. 2 in population, but its residents are packed together much more densely.

Miami is also far more diverse than Jacksonville or any other big city in Florida. According to census data from 2016, Hispanics account for 73.6 percent of city residents. Blacks come in at 13.3 percent, with Anglos (non-Hispanic whites) trailing at 11.7 percent.

Those demographics are reflected in the city’s elected officials. The mayor, Francis Suarez, is Hispanic. Of the five city commissioners, three are Hispanic, one is black, and one is white.

Those five commissioners are elected by districts whose geographic boundaries generally mirror the city’s racial demographics. One of those districts, however, stands out for its concentration of wealth and power. That is District 2, which hugs Biscayne Bay from the city’s southern border with Coral Gables northward through Coconut Grove, Brickell, downtown, the Venetian islands, and on up to NE 61st Street in the Upper Eastside.

District 2, with about 116,000 residents, is by far the richest and most influential in the city. One example: The district is estimated to contribute more tax revenue to the city than all the other districts combined.

It is also the whitest -- by far.

CoverStory_2While Anglos represent less than 12 percent of the city’s overall population, they constitute 41.2 percent of District 2’s residents, according to a recent analysis by the Miami-Dade County Elections Department.

The district’s current commissioner is Ken Russell, who is 46 years old. He was a political neophyte who wasn’t involved in city politics (he didn’t even vote in local elections) until he led a fight to clean up an arsenic-contaminated city park in his south Coconut Grove neighborhood.

At the time, Russell’s representative on the city commission was Marc Sarnoff, who had reached his two-term limit in office. Russell was feeling frustrated by the fact that Sarnoff’s wife, Teresa, was running to succeed her husband. By most accounts, she was the leading candidate, drawing on her husband’s name recognition and deep pool of wealthy donors.

So Russell jumped into the race and, to the surprise of many, emerged victorious in November 2015.

Today Russell is chairman of the Miami City Commission, and counts Mayor Suarez as an ally. “I think he cares about the people he represents,” Suarez says. “He puts the people first.”

Nearing the end of his four-year term, Russell is running for re-election on the slogan “Let’s Finish What We Started.” If he wants to stay in office, he will need all the help he can get from those people he puts first.

Russell says he has wide support throughout District 2, though it isn’t hard to find discontent among residents and stakeholders in the district.

“Ken is a smart, energetic guy, but he has not made everyone happy, and that’s part of the game,” says Marcelo Fernandes, chairman of the Coconut Grove Village Council, an elected body that advocates for issues affecting the Grove. “But I just think that you have to look at the results,” Fernandes continues. “He’s the incumbent. What has he done in four years?”


RCoverStory_3ussell argues that he’s been an effective commissioner who has represented District 2 on issues ranging from zoning to the expansion of gambling. He’s particularly proud of campaigning for the passage of the $400 million Miami Forever bond, which, among other things, will fund projects to help the city mitigate the effects of sea level rise.

In his next term, Russell says, he’ll promote legislation to encourage developers to provide more affordable rental housing; Miami is one of the most expensive cities in the nation for renters. As part of that effort, he wants an expanded Omni Community Redevelopment Agency that will provide incentives for developers to build workforce and affordable housing units within the Omni area just north of downtown

“The first four years of a potential eight-year term is really where you throw a lot of irons in the fire to get big, massive projects done,” Russell explains. “The Miami Forever bond took the first three years of my first term just to pass, to get it on the ballot.... Now it’s only just being implemented.”

But Grant Stern, a city activist, mortgage broker, and occasional radio talk show host, says Russell has been a complete disappointment. “Ken is basically not an effective city commissioner,” Stern asserts. “He’s unable to do the job.”

Much of the animosity aimed at Russell stems from his pivotal vote supporting a referendum authorizing the city to negotiate a deal with soccer star David Beckham and his partners to build a sprawling soccer stadium complex on International Links Melreese County Club, a city-owned, 135-acre golf course adjacent to Grapeland Water Park.

Russell’s vote didn’t just irritate green-space advocates and critics of subsidized sports stadiums, but also two of his colleagues at city hall: Commissioner Willy Gort (whose District 1 includes the golf course) and Commissioner Manolo Reyes (who lives near Melreese). Gort and Reyes were both against a no-bid stadium deal for the golf course, and, coincidentally, both commissioners later voted against Russell on some issues that affected District 2.

Russell has been at the center of several other contentious issues, including the future of the Coconut Grove Playhouse; a court-ordered $20 million settlement related to Watson Island; and the indefinitely deferred legislation that would have controlled the size of future homes in parts of Coconut Grove.

Russell’s alliance with Suarez is both a blessing and a curse. The mayor’s endorsement brings additional allies of not just Suarez, but of Francis’s father, the two-time Miami mayor and current District 7 Miami-Dade County Commissioner, Xavier Suarez. That means Russell has to contend with critics of both Suarezes, as well -- specifically District 3 Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, also a former Miami mayor and an ex-city manager of Doral, who has been a potent and divisive force in South Florida politics since he was first elected as a Miami commissioner in 1979.

And then there was Russell’s decision, just eight months into his term, to run for the congressional seat being vacated by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Although Russell later backed out of the race, his decision to seek a congressional seat flustered even his allies. “It was a bad move,” says Linda Williams, a Russell supporter who has lived in West Grove almost all her 66 years. “He had not finished his term. When you start something, you finish it.”


ICoverStory_4n spite of his incumbency, Russell has drawn three challengers in the upcoming November 5 election.

The first to open a campaign account was Javier Gonzalez, a real estate agent and former chairman of the Coconut Grove Village Council who has lived in the Grove area since 1965. Gonzalez, age 57, previously ran for the District 2 seat in November 2015 against Russell and eight other candidates, and finished in fourth place.

Gonzalez is running because he feels he still has far more insight into city operations than Russell. “I know how the City of Miami works,” he says, “both from a business standpoint and from a general historic standpoint, and I’m not a politician. I’m not going to run for Congress in a year.”

Rosa Maria “Rosy” Palomino, a 49-year-old business owner and former educator, is an outspoken Republican activist and president of the Douglas Park Neighborhood Association. She filed to run just one day before the qualifying period closed. Palomino was previously a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives (three times), and ran for District 2 in November 2015, finishing sixth. She complains that Russell has accomplished very little in his first term, and characterizes Russell, a registered Democrat, as “hyper-partisan.”

“Does he support the socialism that many in his political party promote?” Palomino asks. “What has he done to make city government lean and reduce our tax burdens?” (According to the latest figures from the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, 41 percent of District 2’s voters are registered Democrats while 20 percent are Republicans.)

Most of Russell’s vocal critics are coalescing around the candidacy of Jim Fried, a 58-year-old real estate broker, mortgage broker, part-time AM radio personality (“Jim Fried Does Business”), and the uncle of Nikki Fried, who, as Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is the only Democrat currently holding statewide office.

In his first run for office, Fried (pronounced “freed”) says he’ll be campaigning to improve the city’s customer services for residents and businesses, and cleaning up corruption. “Here is the number one problem with the City of Miami -- it’s undue influence on City of Miami officials by connected insiders,” Fried tells the BT. “Problem number two? See number one.”

CoverStory_5

Should Fried win, he’d be the first person living outside Coconut Grove to occupy the District 2 seat since single-member districts were created in 1997. Fried lives in Edgewater, a neighborhood along Biscayne Boulevard running between the MacArthur Causeway and the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

That’s a plus for Gary Ressler, a board member of the quasi-governmental Miami Downtown Development Authority (DDA), who wants the city to pay more attention to issues confronting the Central Business District, like homelessness and the protracted Flagler Street renovation project. “I can tell you that, for me, having a downtowner perspective and voice on the City of Miami dais takes precedence,” says Ressler, co-owner of the historic DuPont Building and co-developer of Centro Miami, a downtown residential tower.

If history is any indicator, most people in the downtown area won’t bother to vote. As of September 2019, only 54,405 people, less than half of District 2’s population, are registered voters, according to the county elections department. Most of the ballots cast in past city elections have come from Coconut Grove precincts.

Other observers, Edgewater resident Grant Stern among them, point out that thousands of registered voters are now living downtown in high-rises that didn’t exist four years ago. Stern says that during the November 2018 midterm elections, long lines formed at downtown polling places, causing waits of up to two hours.

In fact, according to a recent Miami DDA report, the development boom has increased the population of the Greater Downtown Miami area by 38 percent since 2010, to 92,235. Around 84,000 people in that area live in neighborhoods within District 2.

And while many in that population haven’t yet registered to vote, or aren’t U.S. citizens, former District 2 commissioner Marc Sarnoff says there are enough downtown voters to shift the center of power away from the Grove. “I think it’s changing,” he notes. “If you look at it today, 44 percent of the voters are in Coconut Grove. It no longer occupies the position it once held.”


ICoverStory_6n the beginning, Coconut Grove was an independent municipality -- with its own mayor, city council, and city manager -- for six years, until it was forcibly annexed by the City of Miami in 1925. This was accomplished through a 1905 state law that allowed annexations to be determined by voters in the area being annexed as well as in the city seeking to annex. Vastly outnumbered by Miami voters eager for their city to become the largest in Florida -- thanks in large part to a propaganda campaign waged by Burdines department store founder Roddy Burdine -- Groveites didn’t have a chance. Miami put a point on its conquest in 1954, when it moved city hall to Coconut Grove, within a building Pan American Airlines had used as a terminal for its seaplane fleet.

Later Grove residents wouldn’t forget the humiliation. In September 1997, the majority of voters in precincts located in Coconut Grove cast ballots in favor of abolishing the City of Miami, disincorporating it, and merging the 52-square-mile territory with the county’s unincorporated municipal service area, at least until the various neighborhoods could form their own mini-municipalities.

The referendum was promoted by several prominent citizens, who were annoyed with the city’s poor service, rampant corruption, high crime, and declining property values. This was during a time when Miami’s hemorrhaging finances were being watched by a state-appointed oversight board and when a city manager and a city commissioner were busted by FBI agents for soliciting and taking bribes.

Groveites didn’t succeed in liberating Coconut Grove, but at the same time, voters ushered in a new form of government, with five commissioners elected by districts, instead of at-large, and an executive mayor who could veto legislation and nominate a city manager.

The single-member districts came about as a result of a voters’ rights lawsuit filed in 1996 by Miami-based People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, which sought at least two seats on the commission that represented predominately black communities. After months of negotiations, city officials agreed to a plan that would guarantee just one “black seat,” later known as District 5, which covered Overtown, Little Haiti, and Liberty City.

In the course of negotiations, J. L. Plummer, a funeral director and the lone Anglo on the commission, demanded there be an “Anglo-access” seat, too. Thus District 2 was born, which stretched from Coconut Grove (where Plummer lived) through Brickell and the entire Upper Eastside up to the city limits at 87th Street. (During redistricting after the 2010 U.S. Census, Upper Eastside neighborhoods north of 61st Street were allocated to District 5.)

District 2’s first election was held in November 1999. Three of the four candidates lived in Coconut Grove. By the runoff, Plummer, who had served on the commission since 1970, faced off against Johnny Winton, a real estate broker and commercial property owner who had supported dissolving the city.

In the end, Winton, who ran as a reformer, defeated the 29-year incumbent. Winton soon became a reliable ally of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, also elected in 1999, and his efforts to fundamentally redevelop the city. In 2003 Winton was re-elected to another four-year term.

But the good feelings toward Winton deteriorated rapidly in 2005, after he supported the construction of a large Home Depot in the Grove. Leading the charge against the store was Marc Sarnoff, an attorney who soon became head of an activist group called Grove First.

Winton, meanwhile, was arrested and suspended from office after engaging in a drunken brawl with two Miami-Dade police officers at Miami International Airport in May 2006. Sarnoff emerged victorious in a crowded race to finish Winton’s term.

Sarnoff went on to be re-elected two more times, and generated his own share of controversies, from promoting a controversial hotel development project on Watson Island to supporting a non-bid contract for the Miami Marlins stadium to using Omni CRA funds -- meant for alleviating poverty and removing slum and blight -- to build a film production studio, renovate a firehouse, and create a dog park at Margaret Pace Park, which is surrounded by luxury high-rises.

In addition, constituents and colleagues at city hall accused Sarnoff of being arrogant.

In short, he came to be seen by many as part of the problem, instead of the solution. Sarnoff, though, says anyone representing District 2, including Ken Russell, can expect some backlash for their decisions. “It’s a tough seat,” he says. “You have an educated district. Sometimes they don’t have all the facts, and they jump to conclusions.”

Grant Stern says he was very critical of Sarnoff’s tenure as a commissioner, but “even with Sarnoff, he may have made some really bad mistakes, but he wasn’t devoid of all content and character. I hate to admit it, but Sarnoff was a better commissioner than Ken Russell.”


KCoverStory_7en Russell owes his existence to the yo-yo.

His father, Jack Russell, helped develop the exclusive residential enclave of Mashta Island in Key Biscayne. But prior to working on that tony island, Jack was a yo-yo expert, sold yo-yos for a living, and patented his own yo-yo design. That specialized invention led the elder Russell to start his own company, the Jack Russell Company (later renamed Russell Promotions), and travel the world selling Genuine Russell Yo-Yos while cross-promoting Coca-Cola.

During one of his overseas trips, Jack met a woman who was a top table tennis player and the yo-yo champion of Japan. They married, and Jack and Kazuyo Russell had a couple of sons, who were born at Doctor’s Hospital in Coral Gables. Ken is the younger of the two.

After years living on Key Biscayne, the family moved to Stuart, Florida, in 1979, where Ken went to high school. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in business (with a minor in Japanese) at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and traveled to 50 countries selling and demonstrating his father’s yo-yo design. “My brother and I both grew up in the family business and took it over,” Russell says.

In 2003, Ken Russell moved to Coconut Grove with his son after separating from his first wife. “I started a new life,” he says. “I decided to get out of the yo-yo business and start my own business, and I got into watersports.” As part of the endeavor, Russell taught kite surfing and paddle boarding.

In the decade that followed, he remarried and had two daughters. But aside from charity functions, he wasn’t civically involved. Russell says he voted, though only in national races, not in local races or for ballot measures.

“I was really a disenchanted voter, a really jaded voter,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t have even known how to make a difference in City of Miami politics.”

That attitude changed when Merrie Christmas Park in the South Grove was shut down in September 2013, after county inspectors found high levels of copper, arsenic, lead, and other toxins -- materials that were likely dumped at the 5.5-acre site before it became a city park in 1958. Russell and other neighbors weren’t satisfied with the city’s initial plans for decontaminating the park.

“They weren’t going to remove one cup of contaminated soil,” Russell says. “They were going to dig it up, spread it around the park, even in areas that weren’t contaminated at the time, cover it over with more dirt -- no liner or impermeable cap or anything like that -- and call it day.”

So Russell started talking to county and city officials while mobilizing some 150 South Grove residents. “We created fliers, created a webpage, Friends of Merrie Christmas Park, and started educating the neighbors,” he says. The park reopened in April 2015, after the city spent $1.2 million remediating the public space to the neighbors’ approval.

CoverStory_8By the time the park was cleaned up, Russell was already in the race for commissioner. He says he was inspired to run after reading a blog post by civic watchdog Al Crespo on his CrespoGram Report site. Crespo’s piece concerned Sarnoff’s wife, Teresa Sarnoff, running for the District 2 commission seat.

“To sum it up, the gist of the article was someone needs to challenge the Sarnoffs,” Russell says. “That was his take on it.”

So Russell, who met Crespo during the fight to decontaminate Merrie Christmas Park, called the blogger to discuss the election: “This was the first time I ever said it out loud. I said, ‘What about me?’”

Crespo remembers it differently. At the time, Crespo was cooperating with a group of Miami residents who were looking for a strong candidate to run against both Teresa Sarnoff and Grace Solares of Miami Neighborhoods United, whom they considered to be too-close an ally of then mayor Tomás Regalado. Crespo says he called Russell and suggested that he run for commissioner. “Here was a guy, with a couple of little kids, clean-cut, seemed like a rational person, kind of like a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kind of deal,” Crespo recounts. “I called him up asked him if he was interested, he said he’d think about it, I told him, ‘If you do, let me know.’”

Russell called him back and Crespo connected him with some local activists. “They had lunch,” Crespo continues. “I didn’t go. I wasn’t interested. And the rest is history.”

That history includes Russell unexpectedly capturing the largest share of votes in the November 2015 election, although with 41 percent, it was still shy of an outright win. Teresa Sarnoff came in second with 23.4 percent, which led to a Russell vs. Sarnoff runoff. Also unexpectedly, Teresa Sarnoff then declared that a runoff would needlessly divide District 2, so she opted to concede the race to Russell.

Crespo says his opinion of Russell soon soured, especially after the commissioner attended the 2016 Democratic National Convention as a delegate. “He gets sucked into that bullshit and posted all his selfie pictures,” Crespo grumbles. “That was when I started calling him Commissioner Selfie Boy.”

Then came Russell’s decision to enter the race for Congress after the surprise retirement of Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Russell says he was strongly influenced by the election of Donald Trump: “When Trump got into office, it was kind of -- I likened it to Pearl Harbor. Everyone just said, ‘What can I do, what can I do more of, to make some sort of difference, to keep something like this from happening again?’”

The move confirmed Crespo’s worst suspicions. And for Grant Stern, Russell’s congressional run marked the beginning of the commissioner’s turn toward “the dark side.” Thereafter, according to Stern, Russell had no qualms about accepting large campaign donations. “He turned into a hardened, cynical, self-serving politician almost overnight -- seriously,” Stern says.

Russell acknowledges that many people were put off by his decision to run for Congress, an effort he aborted soon after passage of the state’s “resign-to-run” law, which would have required him to relinquish his Miami commission seat before the congressional election.


FCoverStory_9or his part, Jim Fried says his run for office is about bringing real change for all of District 2. “I am giving up a lot to do this,” Fried tells the BT. “My business is successful.”

Raised in northeast Miami-Dade, Fried has lived at the Hamilton condominium in Edgewater since 2003, although he has worked in offices in the downtown area and Coconut Grove since 1991. “I practically lived there,” Fried says, referring to his time in the Grove.

According to his biography, Fried has closed on $3 billion in real estate transactions across the nation over the course of 30 years. His insights into commercial real estate have been cited in the Miami Herald and The Real Deal.

“I worked in urban redevelopment, and I know about tax-increment financing,” he says. “I have a real empirical and educational background to help the City of Miami move forward.” (Fried has an MBA from the University of Florida.)

Moreover, Fried vows, he’ll stop doing real estate deals of any sort within the City of Miami if elected. “And believe me,” he says, “I’ve done some significant transactions in the City of Miami.”

So why is he doing this at all? Fried believes that Ken Russell isn’t responsive to the needs of residents living outside Coconut Grove, especially in Edgewater, which is undergoing dramatic change as towering new condo buildings are squeezed into a low-rise neighborhood of narrow streets leading from Biscayne Boulevard to the bay.

Fried says he routinely complains to Russell and other city officials about ripped-up streets and illogical traffic patterns. According to Fried, in spite of assurances from Russell, nothing changes.

Plus, Fried adds, the District 2 seat should be held by someone who lives closer to downtown. “The neighborhood is changing. The needs have changed,” he declares. “The entire district from Coconut Grove to Morningside -- this district has always had only somebody from the Grove.”

Fried also admits that Grant Stern had been urging him to run. A former supporter of Russell, Stern says that for months he’d been looking for someone to run against the commissioner, and knew Fried as a neighbor and through their separate radio programs. Over breakfast, Stern was talking to Fried about city politics and realized they had shared frustrations. “I thought, ‘Man, this guy has the bug,’” Stern recalls.

Soon after persuading Fried to run, Stern contacted other stakeholders who were displeased with Russell’s performance on the commission. That included Manny Prieguez, a lobbyist and South Grove resident whose family for years controlled substantial property and fishing fleets along the Miami River. Prieguez says he was so angered by Russell’s performance that he invested $10,000 in mailers attacking the commissioner for sponsoring a resolution that declared the developer of a resort project on Watson Island to be in default of his lease with the city. The developer sued and won a judgment against the city of $20 million, plus $5 million in legal fees.

“He’s not a good representative of District 2,” says Prieguez, who is now supporting Fried. “He is an abysmal failure.”


Russell counters that most of the anger over his performance is limited to a handful of people, some of whom, like Grant Stern, he characterizes as passionate one-issue voters. Others, he claims, are acting on behalf of special interests.

“If you go down Jim Fried’s donor list, it’s everyone who has had a beef with me about policy or zoning,” says Russell. “These are development and lobbyist interests who haven’t gotten their way over the last four years with me and they’re hoping to back another horse.”

Russell says that includes Prieguez, a lobbyist for the Havenick family, owners of the Magic City Casino (the former Flagler Dog Track). The Havenicks had legally obtained a gaming license for a future poker room and jai alai facility near 3000 Biscayne Blvd. in Edgewater. Those plans were brought to a halt after Russell sponsored an ordinance requiring public hearings and a four-fifths commission vote to approve new gambling venues. Unlike other Russell legislative efforts, that proposal passed 4-0 in July, though District 5 Commissioner Keon Hardemon, an attorney, expressed concerns that applying the new rules to a jai alai and card room enterprise that already had a state-issued gaming permit was legally questionable. (Hardemon left the dais before the vote was taken.) The Havenicks are suing to overturn the ordinance.

Prieguez admits Russell’s vote against the Havenicks was the final straw, but insists that it’s part of a long list of grievances. “Never, ever, ever have I done what I am doing today vis-à-vis Ken Russell,” he says. “This is about him, and the fact that he has been a very bad commissioner for four years.”

Another Fried supporter is the land-use law firm of Bercow Radell Fernandez & Larkin, which represents clients seeking zoning changes. So far the firm has hosted two fundraisers on Fried’s behalf.

The impact of those fundraisers is still unclear. Fried, who opened a campaign account in August, has so far reported raising $11,940 and another $2500 via the “electioneering committee” organization Common Sense. Candidate Javier Gonzalez, who has been campaigning since December, has raised $10,550. Rosy Palomino has not reported any contributions.

As for the incumbent, Russell has lots of money: $372,595 in his campaign account and another $498,500 raised by his political action committee, Turn the Page. A substantial number of those contributions come from real estate developers, real estate investors, and land-use attorneys.

The next round of campaign finance reports will be due October 11.

Russell does have support from people who aren’t developers. The Brickell Homeowners Association has already endorsed him. Ernesto Cuesta, the association’s president, says Russell has always been responsive to Brickell-area needs.

Andres Althabe, president of the Biscayne Neighborhoods Association, which represents condos in Omni and Edgewater, is also backing Russell’s re-election. That’s in part the result of Russell’s promise to support construction of a new school in Edgewater, as well as a traffic circle at the congested intersection of Biscayne Boulevard and 18th Street.

Many of Althabe’s Edgewater constituents are also appreciative of Russell’s ordinance on new gambling venues. “There are a lot of people who are adamant that they don’t want a casino here,” he says.

Russell can count on support from another involved citizen, as well, a one-time nemesis: Marc Sarnoff. “I support Ken Russell,” Sarnoff says. “I think of the choices you have, he’s the best choice.”

 

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