Of the City of Miami's five commission districts, it's District 2 that wields the most power: The district stretches along the city's eastern edge from Coconut Grove north past Edgewater, encompassing Brickell's moneyed condos and much of downtown. And eight months before the election to decide the district's next commissioner, the race for Miami's highest profile commission seat is already rife with intrigue.
With Marc Sarnoff, who has held the seat for the past eight years, term limited from office, a heated contest has already erupted between his wife, Teresa, and an activist known for filing multiple lawsuits against the city over big-budget projects. Now a third notable candidate is jumping into the mix — a Coconut Grove activist who fought Sarnoff tooth-and-nail over toxic pollution in a city park.
“It's turning into a total circus,” says Ken Russell, who joined the race in late February.
Sarnoff, a political power player with a thick bank account and a well-chronicled history of dealmaking and truth-bending, has set his wife up as a strong candidate to succeed him. Since Teresa Sarnoff announced her candidacy in January, she's been considered the favorite — a quasi-incumbent — and the race's money leader: In her March 10 filing, Sarnoff reported $172,000 in total campaign funds raised, more than the race's other 8 candidates combined.
Grace Solares, a longtime activist and perhaps the most serious contender, reported $77,000. Solares has made a name for herself filing lawsuits over projects like Marlins Park and the Skyrise tower.
Teresa Sarnoff tells New Times she agrees with and admires her husband's values, but was adamant she'd be an independent city servant. "I'll have my own decisions and my own way of doing things," she says. "Some people think you get married and you check your brain at the clerk's office...I am an individual."
Russell, meanwhile, has now jumped into the race with a $20,000 loan to himself. He can claim some grassroots momentum: A longtime Coconut Grove resident who founded a water sports company, he backed into local politics last fall when he emerged as an activist for Merrie Christmas Park, which had been tainted by toxic waste.
He rallied neighbors — and sparred with Sarnoff — to have the toxic soil removed. Buoyed by his eventual success, and dismayed to learn how poor local turnout is, Russell decided to make a run. “Previous to this I would never have wished public life on my worst enemy,” he says.
Now Russell has the backing of Dick Pettigrew, a former Florida speaker of the house, as well as a slick campaign website. But Sarnoff, who says she's committed to crime, education, and quality of life issues, remains a strong favorite, and she knows it. Asked who she considered her biggest challenger, the candidate replied that she thought none of the current candidates posed a substantial threat.
"It's not that I don't think they're good choices," she said of the other candidates. "But I think that person is yet to come."