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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Interview With District 2's Ken Russell

Ken Russell, potential Commissioner-elect for District 2
while the Veterans' Day commemoration gathers to march
I originally met potential Commissioner-elect Ken Russell way back when -- during Soilgate -- when I called out of the blue to interview him.

We met at a local coffee shop just as it appeared his battle with [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff was finished. It was an epic battle over the toxic soil in Merrie Christmas Park and, in the end, the residents got the kind of toxic soil remediation they felt their children deserved.

While it appeared as if Merrie Christmas Park would be re-mediated properly, I was surprised when he moved on to his next concern, which was all the other toxic parks in the city. Russell was genuinely concerned that those residents might not have enough clout, or enough money, to hire a lawyer like he and his neighbours had. That's when I knew Ken was about far more than his own property values. He had a Social Justice bone.

He wasn't doing it for effect. At the time Russell had no intention to run for office, but the fight over toxic soil made him feel that he could do better than the current Commissioner. And, the secrecy in
which [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff went behind the backs of the residents, breaking several laws about proper notification for a Brownfield Site -- not to mention when he lied to this reporter that it had never been so designated -- told Russell there must be a better way to conduct city business on behalf of constituents.

It's a sign!!!
The Veterans' Day Parade marched right past this.
When he later declared he was running for District 2 Commissioner, Russell made transparency one of the cornerstones of his platform.

In one of the craziest election finishes in Miami history, Ken is engaged in a runoff election with wife of term-limited Teresa Sarnoff. However, with Sarnoff withdrawing from the race, the city lawyer says the runoff will still be held, but that votes for Teresa Sarnoff won't count. Yet, Democracy dictates that the votes count and Ken maintains that he's still in it to win it. He wants a clear mandate, so he's still campaigning for every vote on November 17th.

Russell agreed to a sit down interview and suggested we meet in West Grove after the Veterans' Day commemoration. As I drove down I couldn't help but wonder if he had chosen the perfect photo op for a politician, or whether it was simply to accommodate me. I requested an interview, but told him it had to be on Wednesday because that was the only day I had free. I left it up to him to choose the time.

That we met in Coconut Grove for this interview seems appropriate because that's where he received his highest support, with a nearly 20% turnout. It's also the area I've been researching extensively since 2006. Watching Russell work the crowd was nothing like watching a politician work a crowd. There were enough hugs, kisses, handshakes, and genuine warmth in both directions, that it was obvious that Russell is already well-liked by this part of his potential constituency.

Russell surprised me by sitting in the grass his suit for this interview.
NNS: You're making up for a politician that was reviled in this district. How are you planning to overcome that?

KEN RUSSELL: It's true that part of the reason I got involved was seeing how my Commissioner operated and seeing how I felt things could be done better. The day he's out of office, the day I get into office, that's the first step and it's really not that hard. A new tone, a new communication, a new conversation with the neighbours.

I'm already being told, and I'm not even in there, that this already feels different than it has for the last 9 years. So, the first step is to be open and even that, at the very least, wasn't done to my understanding. And, that comes easy for me.

NNS: Especially in this neighbourhood of West Grove, the people here kinda felt burned by promises made years ago that were never fulfilled. Yet, you were able to overcome that to get a 20% turnout at the polls that went overwhelmingly to you. How are you going to keep that bridge open to the community?

KR: The community's going to keep that bridge open. At this point, I owe so much to this area that I don't even have a choice of closing the door. It's too important. It's been vocalized and it's been publicized well enough where my heart is, that I couldn't turn back if I wanted to, and I wouldn't. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the support of the West Grove and, despite advice I received early on, I could see that there was a community here with a lot to lose, that would turn up at the polls if they felt they had an advocate.

NNS: And, you're going to be that advocate?

KR: Absolutely. I'll be the best that I can.

NNS: One of the things I did during the elections is I did door knocks with you in various neighbourhoods. Where do you think your biggest support was coming from overall?

KR: I knocked [on] over 2,000 doors during the 10 month period, all the from the South Grove to the West Grove to Morningside. It was very difficult to knock doors in Brickell and downtown, but we found other ways to reach the community there. The largest support was from the Grove as a whole, all parts of the Grove together. There was nearly a two-to-one margin in my favor at almost every major precinct in the area.

NNS: Do you have any job you want to do on Day One?

KR: Day One is learning for me because I don't pretend to have all the answers, especially within process. I have the intention of what I'd like to accomplish and, as you can see here today, just the conversation, the conversation that we're having even today with folks, is part of the first step; is part of that first step of giving them a trust [and] a feeling of comfort that their Commissioner is going to be open with them.

NNS: Is there any big project you've got in mind? Something you want to try to do while in office.

KR: Yeah, I would like to see something good come of the Trolley garage. I'd like to see that building serve the community. And, I've heard a lot of good ideas, but not in a formal setting to where I could say what should be done with it, but it's a symbol of how this part of town's been treated and, I think, in the same symbolic gesture should be converted into something that builds up the community.
With that Ken Russell was off to a meeting at Miami City Hall, where the learning curve for a new potential Commissioner-elect is steep.

For further reading please see: Soilgate, Trolleygate, [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff, and the Anybody But Teresa facebookery, where so many of these issues intertwine.