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How the underdog won the race

Ken Russell with his family.
Ken Russell with his family. (Courtesy of Ken Russell)

Ken Russell attends his first city commission meeting Thursday, and while the meeting should be quite routine, his path to the commissioner’s seat was far from ordinary. Prior to Russell’s swearing in two weeks ago, Marc Sarnoff had served as commissioner of District 2 for almost a decade. While he was not allowed to run again due to term limits, that didn’t keep the Sarnoff name off District 2 ballots. Teresa Sarnoff, the former commissioner’s wife, was one of the nine candidates who sought the coveted seat. District 2 encompasses a huge swath of Miami’s urban core, including Downtown, Edgewater, Coconut Grove, Brickell, and parts of Wynwood and Overtown.

Many expected Teresa Sarnoff to win the election — her campaign outspent Russell by more than $500,000 and she had the name recognition of her husband’s legacy. But in this election, something kind of remarkable happened — an entirely new voter bloc emerged. At Precinct 586, on 3575 S. Le Jeune Rd. in west Coconut Grove, 33% of registered voters submitted a ballot — among the highest rate of voter turnout in the district. Over at Precinct 582 in northern Coconut Grove, 1,083 ballots were cast, beating out any other precinct by at least 131 ballots. Russell won both of those precincts. He even won Precinct 583, the neighborhood where the Sarnoffs live.

Since voter turnout was still quite low in this election, with just 6,598 of the district’s more than 41,566 registered voters showing up at the polls, every vote made a huge difference. While these numbers might not seem very high, take into consideration the fact that Ken Russell won the District 2 race with 2,727 votes, beating Sarnoff by just 1,174 votes — nearly the same amount coming from precinct 582. This means that the equivalent of one precinct alone made up almost 16% of the total number of voters. “When you have so few people participating, your vote matters so much more,” explained Justin Wales, founder of Engage Miami, a nonprofit organization working to empower young people to become civically engaged.  

A new voting bloc

Russell’s campaign, which was far outspent by both Sarnoff and the other front-runner Grace Solares, employed an “on-the-ground” grassroots campaign strategy. Rather than inundating mailboxes with fliers, he went door to door and met as many people as he could.

“I was knocking on doors. If I saw someone in the streets, I’d take the time to talk to them,”  Russell said. “People who weren’t active … we were activating them. … I recognized it most in West Grove — people that have been discriminated and disenfranchised. I was told that I would not find great numbers in communities like that, but I didn’t believe it, because when I knocked on doors, they weren’t complaining about a pothole — they were complaining about having somewhere to live.”

For the citizens living in the western part of Coconut Grove, their vote was their chance to get their neighborhood back. “The decision of this election could make a huge difference in the way West Grove looks in 5 years. Residents realized, that so they started to mobilize,” Russell added.

Frustrated by years of neglect from the city, and offended by being labeled “West Grove,” something other, separated and disconnected from the larger Coconut Grove community, activists decided to rally around this identity and challenge it, launching a West Grove Votes campaign. “We realized that we were losing our community …  through gentrification, lack of respect, and loss of mom-and-pop businesses,” said West Grove Votes campaign organizer Valentina Winkfield “What we grew up on isn’t here, and we knew we had to change that. We knew we had to choose the commissioner because they play a significant part in the city being well-kept, in which we’ve been neglected for years.”

Winkfield and her partner Carl Springer decided enough was enough. They began conducting research, canvassing, and knocking on doors. “We’d been asleep for too long,” Springer said. “It was time to wake people up.” After weeks of rallying community members, registering them to vote, and hosting a community forum featuring all of the candidates, West Grove became a voting force to reckon with. After attending community forums and hearing the candidates speak, Springer and Winkfield decided to publically endorse Ken Russell, encouraging community members in West Grove to support his campaign at the local polls.

“Your vote is the value of gold. When politicians go out and campaign for your vote by giving you $25 gift cards, they’re giving you crumbs for gold,” Winkfield said. “Elected politicians respect a community that votes because they know the power of those votes.”

Though it was quite a powerful boon, West Grove Votes wasn’t the only organization rallying behind Russell. Several others, including SAVE, South Florida’s leading LGBT rights organization, contributed. The SAVE Action PAC employed six staff members and 45 volunteers to canvass and phone bank in the week leading up to the election, according to Justin Klecha, director of campaigns at SAVE. “Fortunately, we are making a lot of progress in Miami-Dade County and in the city of Miami as far as LGBT rights go. We were looking for [someone] to be a champion around non-discrimination laws,” he added.

Now that Russell is in office, the groups that worked so hard to help get him elected intend to hold him to his word. “As far as having a voice, we didn’t have one before — politicians and community leaders didn’t value our opinion. Now we’ve shown you that we can and we will make a choice with our voice,” Springer said. “We want to see the smart development of Coconut Grove, we want to stop the gentrification, and with Ken’s help, we plan on doing that. We don’t plan on stopping. This is only day one and step one. He just took office, and we plan on holding him accountable.”

The role of the city commissioner

Russell won the election by 41%, forcing him into a run-off with Sarnoff, who won 23% of the vote. While Sarnoff conceded well before the run-off election took place, due to Florida law, an election was still mandatory. Even if voters did not show up, Russell would have won the race. Despite this, 2,649 voters went to the polls, casting their final ballot for Russell. “People came out to vote looking for change… Even when they didn’t have to, they came, showed up, not out of anger, but out of excitement,” he said.

Before Russell was even sworn into office, he attended meetings and made suggestions from the audience. At Marc Sarnoff’s last meeting as commissioner, Russell made a request to defer items until he could take the seat, which the commission agreed to do. Now in his new role as city commissioner, Russell will work alongside the Mayor and the rest of the commission to set city tax rates, policies, and rules, while establishing goals and targeting issues for the city.

There are limits to exactly how much he can do as a city commissioner, however. While Russell would like to reduce congestion on Miami’s busiest streets, “The city commissioner doesn’t have direct control of county operated lights, state operated roads, or federally operated bridges,” he clarified. “What a city commissioner can do is rebuild relationships to make sure we can get projects put forward.”

For Russell, some of his key target issues are improving transit, addressing homelessness and increasing green space. But ultimately, according to Russell, “this all stems from the overarching umbrella of ethics, good governance, and quality of life.”

Russell’s story, whose previous political experience was limited to serving as president of his son’s Parent Teacher Association, proves just how pivotal each individual vote is in shaping local elections. Rather than reaching into deep pockets, Russell mobilized an entirely new bloc of voters on a grassroots level — a group of 1,174 people with the power to change the lives of more than 430,000 people living in Miami.