Turns out that residents of Miami's District 2 won't need to head back to the polls later this month to decide a city commission runoff match between Teresa Sarnoff and Ken Russell. Sarnoff dropped out and decided to do so with a message. Basically, she thinks Miami's runoff election system is bonkers and wants it done away with. [Update: Turns out technically there still might be an election. The situation is unclear at this point.]
In the city of Miami, politicians must earn 50 percent of the vote in the general election to win office outright. If they fail, the top two candidates with the most votes face off in a runoff election two weeks later. This isn't a big deal in races with just two candidates (or two major candidates), but there were nine separate candidates running for the seat being vacated by Sarnoff's term-limited husband Marc.
Three candidates ended up breaking out in that race. Russell received 41 percent of the vote, but Sarnoff netted just over 23 percent while community activist Grace Solares received 22 percent of the vote.
"After much deliberation, I have made the decision to finish my campaign with a very positive message," wrote Sarnoff in a letter sent to the Miami Herald editorial board. "I did not engage in negative campaigning and do not condone negative campaigning. You do not create your reputation by tearing someone else’s down. The traditional strategy to finish this campaign requires a negative campaign with a negative message. This is something I just will not do."
Those intense two-week competitions do tend to lead a lot of negative campaigning, but Sarnoff would have needed to pull off a Hail Mary to win. Third-place candidate Solares positioned herself as the anti-Sarnoff candidate and sent flyers to voters in the liberal-leaning district that the Sarnoffs, though registered Democrats, had endorsed Republican Rick Scott for governor. It's likely that Solares voters would have lined up behind Russell.
While bowing out, Sarnoff says she does have some idea of how to fix the system.
"I will support Ken Russell in his governance and strongly urge him to make a legislative change to a plurality vote for elections or to allow the electorate to make a second choice on their ballots (as Oregon does) so as to avoid the need for a runoff and the insanity and cost of a two-week sprint that tears apart the community, leaving the elected wounded," continued Sarnoff in her letter.
It's a stunning end to a campaign that donors had poured approximately $700,000 into — hundreds of thousands more than any of her competitors.
Ken Russell, back in his yo-yo champ days
Courtesy of Ken Russell
So that means Ken Russell is your new District 2 commissioner.
Russell, a resident of Coconut Grove, like the Sarnoffs, first showed up on Miami's political scene as an activist urging the city to do something about toxic soil in city parks, an issue that put him at odds with Marc Sarnoff.
Russell runs a water sports wholesaling company that specializes in stand-up paddle boarding and is also the son of a businessman who once had a huge chunk of the world's yo-yo market. In fact, Russell himself is a former yo-yo champion. If you have a yo-yo lying around somewhere and it says "Russell" on it, then, yep, that was the company his dad founded in Miami back in the '40s.
Russell never imagined himself entering public life, but the parks issue emboldened him.
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“Everything I’ve done up to now has sort of trained me for this,” Russell told New Times earlier this year. “It’s made me really excited. I didn’t know there was a place for me in local politics but I’m fitting in perfectly and I’m really enjoying it.”
Russell also shrewdly showed his sensitivity to issues that people in the district are actually talking about by making an issue out of a Saturday morning Edgewater building implosion that few neighbors in the area knew about. Russell said that the developers behind the implosion didn't do enough to warn residents of the noisy demolition and raised concerns about debris from the building that fell into Biscayne Bay.
Russell's mother was born in Japan, making him something of a rarity in a city where so many political races are shaped by identity politics: He's an Asian-American in a Miami elected office.