When he ran for Miami City Commission last year, Ken Russell's opponents mockingly called him the "Boy Wonder." As a newcomer to politics, the 42-year-old was seen by critics as little more than a hipster activist with a penchant for Hacky Sack.
"That nickname came about during the campaign I think to poke fun at me. I've been a professional yo-yo player and a kitesurfing instructor," says Russell, who was sworn in a year ago, "but to some extent, I embrace that. It's important to have some amount of levity. I still wear sneakers to board meetings often."
Russell was born in Coral Gables and raised in Coconut Grove and Key Biscayne before leaving for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduation, he joined the company started by his father, who developed the patent for the yo-yo. Russell credits his time with the business to helping him become a better salesman and politician.
"People would not necessarily need or want to be in the business of yo-yos, but I'd be selling contracts for $4 million to clients in another country and often in another language," he says. "You really have to understand your clients in a way that they don't even realize and have the ability to learn their needs and get them on your side."
In his new role as District 2 commissioner, where he represents Coconut Grove, Brickell, downtown, and Edgewater, Russell says he has used that same approach to gain allies.
"It's not about compromise; it's about consensus," he says. "It's looking at the problem and trying to solve it together, trying to bring people around to your point of view."
That approach has worked often, but not every time. At a special meeting in September, Russell unsuccessfully called for the termination of City Attorney Victoria Mendez, whom he accused of withholding emails pertaining to a lot-splitting developer in the Grove. No one seconded his motion.
The freshman commissioner says he has no regrets about publicizing his concerns, only that he underestimated "the political challenges that were before me."
"I think the outcome is still a complete success, because nobody in the City Attorney's Office, in Planning and Zoning, or anywhere in administration will believe they can withhold information from commissioners or not tell the full story. They know I'm willing to take something to the mat."
Many voters who backed Russell were supportive of his activism surrounding public parks contaminated with arsenic and other toxins. Though he says he is proud of those efforts, he knew he needed buy-in from fellow commissioners to make changes. Over the next year, he hopes to tackle issues of gentrification, homelessness, and affordable housing.
"You can't just come in as an activist reformer slinging sledgehammers and pointing fingers," Russell says. "You have to get along with the people around you... or you'll be marginalized really quickly."