I can now reveal what I was only able to hint at last week: I am moving to the dark side of politics. I am collaborating on a book with a politician, Miami District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell.
I became a writer because I wanted to tell stories — because I needed to tell stories. It was less that I chose writing than writing chose me. Words just tumbled out of me. Putting it down on paper was my only outlet. In the beginning, it was fiction and furtive. Short stories that no one ever saw, thankfully.
I look back on my earliest stuff and shudder. However, I’ve worked these past 4 decades honing my craft. From a giveaway music fanzine in the ’70s, to hired wordsmithing for a Canadian trade publication read around the world. By the time I was 25 I could truly call myself a professional writer. Over the years I written everything from Investigative Journalism, Record Reviews, Artist Profiles, Copy Writing, Hollywood Reporter, finally landing at Citytv, Toronto, for a decade as a Tee Vee News Writer. I called myself a ventriloquist because I put the words in the mouths of the meat puppets (a joke that has not endeared me to my former colleagues).
I parlayed my knowledge of tee vee news into writing Fox “News” criticism, first at NewsHounds and, later, PoliticusUSA. I’ve also become an internationally known pundit — if you call what I do on Twitter and the facebookery punditry.
Now there are stories that I will no longer be able to write — some of which are already in the pipeline — because I have to recuse myself from stories about Miami. I’ve joined the other side.
Q: What does Headly Westerfield and Jeffery Beauregard Sessions have in common?
A: They have both recused themselves.
If I’ve written anything at all about politicians in the past 10 years, it’s to call them names and make fun of them. Especially now that we’ve arrived in the Trump Era. However, I’ve long been fascinated by Russell from the day we first met.
He was still a private citizen back then.
I was still trying to land my White Whale: [allegedly] corrupt Miami District 2 Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff. Russell was fighting Sarnoff’s inadequate plan — developed in secret (as many of Sarnoff’s plans were) — to remediate the toxic soil in Merrie Christmas Park, which was across the street from his house.
This was one of 8 parks in the city closed after toxic soil was found in each of them.
Aside from the inadequate remediation, Sarnoff had also ILLEGALLY declared the park and its surrounds a Brownfield site, without any of the proper public hearings and neighbourhood notifications. As one of the first journalists to report on Soilgate, I cold-called Russell to interview him on the toxic soil issue.
We met in a coffee shop and had a pleasant enough interview. However, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Okay. I get it. He’s worried about the toxic soil, because his kids play in the park, and his own property values.”
However, near the end of the interview, he surprised me. He said something to the effect of, “Now that we’ve hired a lawyer, it appears Merrie Christmas Park will be remediated properly. However, I’m worried about the parks in the neighbourhoods where people don’t have the resources to take on the City of Miami.”
Well, whaddaya know? This guy has a social conscious.
But that’s where it ended. I had no reason to contact Russel again until he decided to run for Miami District 2 Commissioner to replace Sarnoff, who had been termed out. Russell was considered a dark horse in a race that had 8 people vying for the seat, most of whom had better name recognition that he did.
Renewing contact, Russell allowed me to go with him on Door Knocks. Rain or shine, he visited nearly every house and condo in the district, talking to voters in both English and Spanish; 2 of the 6 languages he’s conversant in. In between houses we talked and I got to know him better. More importantly, I got to like him.
I had never liked a politician before.
While Russell didn’t win on the first ballot, he won the run-off against Teresa Sarnoff, the wife of the term limited Commissioner.
On the day he took his Oath of Office to the City of Miami, Russell graciously allowed me to embed myself with him for the entire day. I met his family, who turned out to be one of the most photogenic families I’ve ever seen. Also, one of the more multicultural families.
Here’s the Cliff Notes version of the Ken Russell story.
His father Jack was a a professional Yo Yo Champion. In the ’40s he invented and patented an improvement to yo yos that became the industry standard. If you’ve ever played with a yo yo, it’s likely it was a Genuine Russell Yo Yo.
This took Ken’s father around the world, promoting the Russell Yo Yo. While in Japan he met that country’s Yo Yo Champion, fell in love, and married her. How’s that for a Meet Cute story?
Eventually along came Ken, who also became a professional Yo Yo Champion, traveling the world — and promoting the product — like his father and mother had done before him. Daft Punk has even licensed the Russell Yo Yo for branded merchandise.
While he can still be cajoled into performing yo yo tricks, Ken eventually moved into woodworking and started a paddle/surf board company, which is what he was doing before he found politics. Or. did politics find him?
Coconut Grove, the community I adopted, is a small part of Russell’s District 2, which also includes downtown.
As a result I often found myself contacting Russel’s office for comments and quotes. I watched Ken as he stumbled and made some missteps while trying to wrap his arms around the intricacies of the office. The learning curve in becoming a politician — and understanding the city machinery — has been tremendous. Russell has made some rookie mistakes, which he acknowledges. However, he’s also identified some creative solutions that, if adopted, could address the poverty and systemic racism that has kept West Grove down during the last century.
Recently Russell was approached by some Movers and Shakers to run for Congress in Florida’s 27th District, to replace Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has decided she’s had enough politics for the time being.
He’s still pondering his decision, deciding whether it makes sense to declare as a candidate for the 2018 midterms.
Let this sink in for a second: Russell has been a City of Miami Commissioner — his first elected post ever — less than 2 years. Yet there are already people who think he could go further. The entire concept is a surreal.
However, this got me thinking: If anybody is going to write what I’ve taken to calling The Ken Russell Story (for the lack of a better name), I wanted it to be me.
About a month ago I approached Russell with the idea to collaborate on a book. Miraculously, he didn’t tell me to GTFO. In fact, he listened carefully as I outlined several different approaches such a book could take. After pondering it for a while, Russell agreed to collaborate.
That’s why I have now recused myself from writing about Miami politics.
I have officially crossed over to the other side. I am excited about being able to watch the sausage being made. Whether Russell decides to run for Congress, and win or lose, we’ve agreed that this book will go forward.
I’ll still publish various kinds of stories in the Not Now Silly Newsroom (several of which are already in the pipeline). However, now that I am shadowing the Commissioner, I have signed a non-disclosure agreement. I can’t use anything I learn while being a fly-on-the-wall in meetings until the book is published, or I am released from this agreement, whichever comes first.
This is a brand new adventure for me. Wish me luck.
My Freedom of Information requests from the City of Miami are beginning to add up, not to mention all the other costs of researching systemic racism and corruption in Coconut Grove