FIU student managed Ken Russell’s successful Miami campaign

Last month, Ken Russell was reelected as commissioner for the city of Miami’s District 2 after a lengthy and expensive campaign costing around $1 million. The person in charge of its success? Twenty-two-year-old Alejandro Muñoz-McKearney.

“A lot of folks that we’d meet would think I was really young, but only a couple along the way didn’t take me seriously,” Muñoz-McKearney said. “I knew coming into the role that there’d be a lot I’d have to learn on the fly, so I’d work really hard to roll with the punches and not be afraid to ask questions.”

Muñoz-McKearney first met Russell right after graduating high school while serving as a volunteer for the commissioner’s first run in 2015. Russell had no campaign infrastructure in place — it was just the two of them walking door to door all summer. He credits Muñoz-McKearney with teaching him how to campaign this way, as he had no prior experience campaigning on foot. He even still uses the voter database they created. By the time the election went into a runoff, Russell had promoted him to field director. 

“He was just really inspiring to me,” Russell said. “When I was in high school I certainly didn’t know anything about civics in the way he did and I certainly had no level of activism like that. He was actually seeking out local municipal candidates to hear what they wanted to do for the city. Who does that in high school? I mean, who does that in adult life?” 

Once Russell was in office, he wanted to see how Muñoz-McKearney could continue to help the district. In 2016, he hired the young activist as his constituent services director. According to Russell, Muñoz-McKearney was so committed that he scheduled his freshman classes at Florida International University around the city hall schedule.

One of Muñoz-McKearney’s biggest accomplishments during that time was fundraising for 17 kids from the West Grove to travel to Washington, D.C. Muñoz-McKearney organized the trip with the Close Up program. According to its website, Close Up is “designed to inspire and empower students to become active participants in democracy.” 

“If he didn’t take it from start to finish, it would have never happened,” Russell said. “He created the whole program and budget … his leg work and effort and passion for it is what made it happen.”

Russell saw himself in Muñoz-McKearney, comparing his inexperience to when he was a rookie commissioner. The relationship they had built during his first campaign made him certain that Muñoz-McKearney was the right pick for campaign manager during his reelection run.

“I was willing to prioritize passion, youth and loyalty over experience, knowledge and connections,” Russell said. “When it came to running my campaign, I realized he knows me better than anyone. He knows my voice and how I would respond to a given issue … We spent enough time together, that I trusted him.”

That trust gave Russell more flexibility, allowing him to focus on his role as commissioner while campaigning. Muñoz-McKearney was in charge of the day-to-day operations and worked closely with campaign strategist Fernando Diez. Russell said that his team followed a pledge to avoid negative campaigning, but rather to focus on Russell’s accomplishments in his first term and the work left to be done. Voter-outreach efforts proved vital in the campaign’s success.

“We did not take anything for granted,” Muñoz-McKearney said. “We had the commissioner out campaigning every day we could without it conflicting with his schedule working for the city.”

During the early voting period at the end of October, the busiest time for the campaign, Muñoz-McKearney would wake up at 6 a.m. An hour later, with the polling tent set up outside Miami City Hall, he would check in with the commissioner. After a quick energy run for coffee, he would prepare call lists and position field organizers and volunteers around the district to reach out to potential voters. Throughout the day, he monitored emails and posted on social media, all while checking in on the day’s progress. After 12 hours of work, Muñoz-McKearney would close up and prepare to do it all over again the next day.

“It was exhausting …  Some days I felt confident, others a little nervous when we’d get voters that would openly express their dissatisfaction,” Muñoz-McKearney said. “We pushed through as a team because we were able to lean on each other and remind ourselves that our end goal was close in sight.”

Diez, the strategist, said Muñoz-McKearney’s keen insight into the concerns and opinions of the residents of District 2 helped develop a message that resonated with voters.

“His input into Ken’s campaign was invaluable,” Diez said. “We could not have won this race without him.”

Muñoz-McKearney discovered his passion for public service while attending Immaculata-LaSalle High School in Coconut Grove, where he first became involved with Close Up. Through the program, he went on the same civic engagement retreat to Washington, D.C. that he would later organize for the kids from West Grove. 

“That was the catalyst point for me, as far as knowing what I wanted to do,” Muñoz-McKearney said. “That trip is what got me involved in politics. When I came back, I wanted to bring some of the lessons I learned there to my school.”

Muñoz-McKearney, along with his friend Martin Maldonado, started the La Salle Civic Leaders. They gained experience doing volunteer work, such as voter registration drives. Muñoz-McKearney said that their biggest accomplishment was establishing Black History Month with fellow student Terrill Hanks, who is now a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. Their school had never established it due to a small African American student population.

“The legacy of the group was to foster an understanding of how to participate in a democracy at its various levels,” Maldonado said. “Alejandro impresses me by making his passion for public service people-centric … He’s a workhorse, not a show horse, and that will take him very far.”

This spring, Muñoz-McKearney will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in public administration. He is looking forward to new opportunities in public service. He said that his work as Russell’s campaign manager was a great end to that chapter of his career, and he is now hoping to “branch out a little bit more.”  He is interested in exploring foundation work and community initiatives. He is a big fan of The Miami Foundation, a non-profit organization that, according to its website, is “for people who are passionate about Miami… [the foundation] connects that passion with efforts to enhance the quality of life for everyone who calls Miami home.”

 Muñoz-McKearney is also interested in the role that technology plays in community engagement. He is thinking of starting a pilot program through Voterfied, a polling platform, in Miami-Dade that would provide constituents a way to vote on everyday projects.

 “I love the idea of technology being a force to make people engage in their community more so than before,” Muñoz-McKearney said. “[Voterfied] will help local leaders get a better idea of where people are on a specific issue … in a sense, it would create a hyper-localized direct democracy.”

Russell believes Muñoz-McKearney has a future in public service.

“Alejandro believes that his role is sort of behind the scenes, but I have a feeling we are going to see him in leadership roles very soon,” he said.

Natalia Clement is a senior journalism student at FIU. She was born in Bogota, Colombia, but was raised in Miami. Her passion for journalism began in elementary school as a school news anchor and continued all the way into college. She enjoys written journalism the most, but also finds broadcasting interesting. She is the copy editor for Caplin News and also interns at Univision. Natalia looks forward to graduating in the summer. Her ultimate goal is to move to New York to pursue her career as a journalist.