Ken Russell’s political journey from concerned resident to Congressional candidate

Ken Russell visits with Theresa Gaitor ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017 to make sure she had a plan and shelter if necessary. (Courtesy of Ken Russell)

As a freshman Miami city commissioner in 2016, Ken Russell jumped up in the middle of a meeting while a vote was being taken and left the dais. Just seconds before, a member of his staff had informed him there was a school shooting in his district.

He left city hall and drove to Frances S. Tucker Elementary School in west Coconut Grove. He found that a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting had shattered a glass window, traveled through a populated classroom and bounced off the back wall before falling to the floor right next to a child.

That moment was an epiphany.

“I was really just enjoying this honeymoon of being elected and passing fun resolutions about the environment,” he said. “And then suddenly I’m here at an elementary school looking at a bullet hole through a student’s window.”

He witnessed firsthand the pain the community suffered and realized there was a lot he could do to help his constituents.

Russell was re-elected in 2019 to a second term in Miami’s district 2. The 49-year-old is running in the Democratic primary for the district 27 U.S. House seat presently held by Republican Maria Elvira Salazar.

Florida is a Republican stronghold, but Miami-Dade County is a Democratic-leaning swing district in the state. The district 27 seat was occupied by Democrat Donna Shalala in 2018 and Russell believes he can return control back to his party in 2022.

Russell said that what’s different about this midterm election is that Republicans have overstepped the bounds and changed the state’s law in their favor through partisan legislation. Russell said many single voter issues like the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, 15-week abortion ban or gun reforms are motivating Floridians to head to the polls.

Russell is also focused on two other issues: the economy and the environment. As an avid kite-surfer and owner of a watersports company, Russell has a unique understanding of how the two issues merge.  

A native Miamian, Russell was born at Doctors Hospital just outside of the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables. He went to Key Biscayne Elementary School before his family moved to Stuart around the time Hurricane David hit Miami in 1979.

Russell remembers family trips to Planet Ocean as a kid, now MAST Academy off Virginia Key. When Russell was growing up it was an interactive museum dedicated to marine and meteorological science. That memory stuck with him through the decades and contributed to his eco-conscious outlook.

Another fond memory is how his childhood home earned the nickname the “yo-yo house.” Russell said “anyone who grew up in Miami in the ‘70s would remember our house because we were famous for giving out yo-yos for Halloween.”

“The funny thing with yo-yos was that my dad was the world’s yo-yo champion and had a patent on mass-producing yo-yos back in the 1950s,” Russell said.  “And mom was the yo-yo champion of Japan.” He added that his parents met on tour.

His father, Jack, worked on the island for about 10 years before the Castro regime seized his assets and kicked him out of the country. “He never went back after that,” Russell said. “Somewhere in Cuba there’s a warehouse of Russell yo-yo’s.”

When Russell entered high school he embraced his family’s yo-yo roots and decided to go pro. “I grew up in this yo-yo family,” Russell said. “I was ashamed of it until I wasn’t.” From age 14, Russell spent his summers building the yo-yo fad and promoting his parent’s business. He went to Australia at 14, England at 15 and Indonesia at 16.

For 8 to 10 weeks every summer, Russell put on yo-yo shows and taught kids tricks. He worked his way up to managing the campaign and continued to do so through his college years at the University of North Carolina where he graduated in 1995 with a bachelors in business administration. By the end of his 10-year stint promoting the fad, Russell had sold about 20 million yo-yos, traveled to 55 countries and learned five languages.

Russell’s Congressional campaign reflects his formative upbringing. “I saw what was different about other countries,” he said, adding that it helped to understand each country’s unique import process, factories and labor force.

His time abroad eventually landed him in Europe, where he became addicted to kite surfing. When he returned to the United States, he left his family yo-yo business and started to teach kitesurfing as a hobby. Later he and a friend started a wholesale watersports business that included over 100 surf shops.

“It all ground to a halt when there was a contaminated park in front of my house,” Russell said. “That’s kind of my origin story into politics from business.”

In September 2013, Merrie Christmas Park in Coconut Grove was closed after officials found the soil was contaminated with heavy metals and hazardous waste from an incinerator dubbed Old Smokey in the West Grove. Russell worried about his family’s health and the wellbeing of his community.

In 2014, the city planned to cover the toxic soil with a layer of clean soil, but Russell and his fellow residents wanted it removed. Russell said this was when he started to understand government. “I didn’t know how to move these levers and who to complain to at this city, state and federal level,” Russell said. “So I started learning.”  

Russell organized his neighborhood and forced the city to properly deal with the contamination. But his work wasn’t done there. He learned of five other contaminated Miami parks. He joined a not-for-profit group, the Old Smokey Steering Committee, and knocked on doors in search of cancer clusters.

Russell realized the West Grove had been stepped on for decades because of its lack of a strong political voice. “The powers of gentrification and displacement victimized this neighborhood with tremendous speed,” Russell said.

In 2015 Russell ran for city commissioner and won after pledging to help West Grove residents. “I had a job to fulfill, to find their version of reparation and how we restore what is owed to a community that has been stepped upon for so many decades,” Russell said.

Former South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, who served from 2010 to 2020, said that when Russell became city commissioner, he sought him out. “He seemed like a bright young fellow who cared a whole lot about the community he lived in,” Stoddard said. “He initially contacted me to find kindred spirits to get advice and support, and I was happy to do it.”

In his role as a commissioner, Russell worked to protect the city’s green spaces and raise the minimum wage for hospitality workers. He successfully negotiated a $15-per-hour minimum pay for workers contracted throughout the city.

Russell cast a controversial vote earlier this year to approve the proposed InterMiami CF soccer stadium. The facility would take up a proposed 131 acres of green space on a former golf course. He demanded a complete cleanup of the golf course grounds, which includes a landfill. “It has the facade of a green space, but it never received a proper remediation for park use,” Russell said.

He won. Developers agreed to $30 million for decontamination, pay market rates and provide green space. “They’re going to give us almost 60 acres,” he said. “And they have to locate and identify new park spaces around the city that they invest in with an additional $20 million.”

Russell is also a member of the Everglades Trust – and has made improving water flow in the river of grass a top priority.  “We have manatees dying in the Indian River, you’ve got red tide exacerbation on the west coast, green algae on the east coast,” said Russell. “The common denominator is an overabundance of nutrients in the water from runoff and algae.”

Russell blames the state government for not enforcing the Clean Water Act, which is meant to protect the quality of our waters. The federal government ceded control of the act to the state, which Russell said has compromised the powerful agriculture industry.

“No one is watching the shop, and water quality is one of our greatest assets in Florida,” Russell said. “It’s a big part of our economy.”

Six years after he broke into the world of politics as an elected official, Russell is currently organizing his fellow South Florida residents again, this time to support his Congressional campaign. He’s won several endorsements, including one from Heat veteran Udonis Haslem.

He has already started campaigning across the district, from downtown Miami to Cutler Bay. His most important opponent in the August 23 primary is Democratic State Senator Annette Taddeo. If he vanquishes her, he’ll likely have to beat incumbent Republican Maria Elvira Salazar on November 8.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the distance from City Hall to Tucker Elementary and Russell’s age. We apologize for the errors.

Andres Frenero is a junior at the Honors College in FIU majoring in Broadcast Journalism. He likes to stay up to date with the latest sports news and enjoys watching the NBA, NFL, and AEW whenever possible. He hopes to get into sports journalism after graduation, particularly as part of a sports team in the NFL or NBA.

Genevieve Bowen is a FIU student majoring in digital journalism and political science. She aspires to be a political reporter, combining her love for writing and penchant for politics. Her articles aim to keep citizens well informed and up to date on local, state, and federal politics that affect everyday life.