Miami commissioner who backed campaign finance reform now takes lobbyists’ cash

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Ken Russell the would-be congressional candidate seems to have a different stance on campaign fundraising than Ken Russell the Miami commissioner.

Since his election to Miami City Hall 18 months ago, Russell has talked about bringing campaign finance reform to city races and has volunteered on a petition drive to limit campaign contributions by major county hall vendors and their lobbyists to candidates running for county office. En route to his underdog election to the City Commission in 2015, he returned nearly $80,000 in last-minute contributions to his political committee in the final days of the race amid worries that accepting so much money would “send the wrong message.”

But the first quarterly report submitted this month by a committee formed to help Russell gauge whether to run next year for the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen paints a picture of a candidate with an evolving view.

The Ken Russell for Congress Exploratory Committee brought in $133,000 over the last few weeks, including several thousand dollars donated by contributors who might have been barred from giving to county candidates under the failed effort by political committee An Accountable Miami-Dade to limit county campaign contributions. Among its many donors, the committee received $2,250 from attorneys of Weiss Serota, a law firm recently hired by the City Commission to help negotiate a complicated real estate deal, and another $2,000 from lobbyists representing clients seeking city contracts.

One of the contributing lobbyists, Eric Zichella, sued to block the county from placing campaign finance reform on the past November ballot.

So has Russell changed his position?

I’m still the candidate who sent $77,000 back to contributors when I didn’t need it. I’m still absolutely dedicated to creating more transparency in the finance system

Ken Russell

“Absolutely not,” he says.

In an interview Tuesday, Russell said his support of campaign finance reform at the county level shouldn’t be construed as a full-throated endorsement of every aspect of the law pursued by An Accountable Miami-Dade.

In March, Russell told the Miami Herald that he wanted to look at “what contributions should be allowed and from whom, and if you have contributed, what are the rules about lobbying afterward?” But he also concedes the legitimacy of criticisms that some of the limitations in the law aimed at county hall would likely have pushed political money further into the shadows toward political committees or “dark money” nonprofits.

Russell said he still plans to push “realistic” campaign finance legislation at City Hall in order to improve transparency around political campaigns, although he has yet to settle on the specific details of what he wants to accomplish. He plans to push first for new legislation and then for a more permanent change in the city charter, although that won’t happen this year, as he’d initially hoped.

Russell has said that he will not push a carbon copy of the county petition drive at City Hall.

“I’m still the candidate who sent $77,000 back to contributors when I didn’t need it. I’m still absolutely dedicated to creating more transparency in the finance system,” he said. “No, I haven’t changed my mind on anything.”

Russell, a Democrat, has not officially declared a campaign for Ros-Lehtinen’s 27th district seat. Other Democrats in the running include state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, state Rep. David Richardson, academic adviser Michael A. Hepburn and Mark Anthony Person.


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