They say that it's best to get any skeletons out of the closet early in a political race. In the spirit of transparency, the following is my in-depth history. On the surface, I can humbly say that I have a beautiful family. My wife Juliana Benedini is the best veterinarian around. We have two daughters that eat lots and sleep little. My son August just entered his teen years as a pole vaulter and french horn player in middle school. We also have two dogs and two cats. Life is good. If you'd like the full version of my story, read on...
My Miami history started in the 1940s when my father Jack Russell returned from World War II. He flew the P-51 Mustang as an instructor pilot and later attended the University of Miami on the G.I. Bill. He settled in Miami, helped develop Mashta Island and was one of the first Commodores of the Key Biscayne Yacht Club in the 50s. He was famous, however, for having developed the patent for the modern toy Yo-Yo and becoming the United States Yo-Yo Champion. He traveled the world and met my mother who was the best yo-yo player from Japan, a Master of Ikebana flower arranging, and the top table tennis player in Tokyo. My brother and I were born in Coral Gables and went to school in Coconut Grove and Key Biscayne.
In high school, I joined the symphonic band where I received superior ratings for playing the saxophone and conducting. I received a small scholarship for playing piano, was VP of my class, President of the Spanish Club, and District President of the Future Business Leaders of America. I won first place in the State Entrepreneurship competition. I was a horrible hurdler, but went to the National Jr. Olympics in the pole vault and still hold the school record after 24 years. During my summers, and following in my father's footsteps, I traveled the world as a professional yo-yo player and learned several languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese and a little French.
I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I continued pole vaulting until I was injured. I joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity where I served as the Chaplain and was awarded Brother of the Year. I spent one year of university in Japan where I was the first foreign student in history to obtain a Black Belt in the Kwansei Gakuin Karate Club. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from UNC with a focus on International Marketing and a minor in Japanese.
After university, my brother and I took over the family business, and our father retired. If you can believe it, we sold half a billion yo-yos in 90 countries as a promotional marketing tool for Coca-Cola. I managed a team of 150 field employees and 10 office staff. I was responsible for international sales while my brother handled logistics and manufacturing.
I married and moved to France for a year where I managed the European clients for the company. Once my son August was born, I left the family business. We came back to the States and moved to Coconut Grove, less than two miles from Doctors Hospital where I was born. My marriage did not last, but we share equal custody of our son. I had enough savings to take some time off from work and concentrate on raising August, even becoming the president of the PTA at his school.
In my spare time, I gained a passion for the waters around Miami and became an avid kiteboarder during the early years of the sport. I joined a local kiteboarding school, taught lessons, trained instructors, and helped run a small internet retail business related to the sport. I entered several long distance kite races including a 40-mile race from Jupiter to Ft. Lauderdale, and more painfully, a 50-mile kite board crossing from Florida to the Bahamas. Within site of Bimini, I encountered a vicious Portuguese Man-o-War which sent me out of the race and into the hospital.
Adding to the injury, and around that time, I lost most of my savings in the 2008 economic downturn and had to start over. I co-founded a wholesale distribution company focusing on water sports gear. We recognized the fast growing sport of Standup Paddleboarding and have since sold nearly $5 million in boards to more than 100 shops throughout the US, the Caribbean, and Brazil.
I decided to use the standup paddleboard as a way to raise money for Charities such as Camillus House and various local schools. I have organized and co-founded dozens of races, some of which have grown to international acclaim. The largest is the Orange Bowl Paddle Championship that has raised over $100,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami and is now run every year by the Orange Bowl Committee.
I am also a wood sculptor and furniture maker, specializing in local hardwood trees that fall during hurricanes or die of natural causes. Some of my pieces have won competitions and been auctioned for charity.
I met my wife, Juliana, a veterinarian who was raised in Miami and is the daughter of a Brazilian concert pianist and former Brazilian Ambassador to Costa Rica and the US. She and I have two beautiful daughters who are 5 and 4 years old.
Like any other family, my wife and I would often take our girls out to the nearest park for some fun in the sun. This park is actually right across our house and I didn’t know it then but it would be the beginning of my story taking on the city.
One day, the park was closed indefinitely due to soil contamination. As it turns out, the city had dumped toxic waste right in our park and they had no intentions of removing it. This park was not only a place for my kids but also several other families who would come and play in the grass or lie under the majestic trees. The city had taken away our park from us with zero regard for the residents who enjoyed it. As all of this unfolded, I couldn’t sit back and do nothing- I owed it to my kids that they have a safe place to play for as long as they wanted.
I gathered my neighbors and together we appealed the city to do the right thing and properly clean up the park. It took a lot of fighting but eventually the city made good and cleaned up the park and even spruced it up a bit. It was this moment that gave me the encouragement to run for City Commissioner. Politics was never really my background but doing good by the community always was. I figured if I could clean up the park in front of my house, who’s to say I couldn’t help clean up City Hall?
And just like that, thanks to the amazing people of District 2, I was elected into Commission in 2015. Since then, we’ve done a lot of good things to the benefit of our community.
I came into the Commission with the intent of making a positive change in our city. With the help of my dedicated staff and partners of the City, we’ve been able to pass meaningful legislation in a short amount of time.
We’ve banned the use of styrofoam in our city parks and marinas to help keep or City and our waters clean and pollution free.
We passed an ordinance banning conversion therapy for members of the LGBTQ community.
We passed a $15/hour minimum wage for employees of public contractors to the City.
We banned puppy mills in the City of Miami.
And much much more.
Our work hasn’t stopped, however. We’re working with the Florida Department of Transportation to readjust the operation hours of the Brickell Bridge to alleviate traffic in downtown and we’re incentivizing affordable housing in the Coconut Grove Village West through the creation of a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).
I am proud of the work we’ve done in my first term as Commissioner. More importantly, I’m proud of the City and the District I’ve been elected to represent. I know I can do more for the City and for the people of District 2. With your support, we can continue making Miami a beautiful and vibrant place to live.
I hope I can count on your vote this November. Let’s continue the work we’ve done and move onward.