Florida Keys candidates in nine political races fielded questions on July 18 from four local panelists at Hometown’s first election forum. The lively audience included Democrats, Republicans, non-party affiliates — and a cash bar in the lobby of Tennessee Williams Theater.
As the event entered its third hour, moderator Todd German repeatedly reprimanded the politically divided audience for booing, cheering aggressively and shouting responses to questions and answers. Those questions came from U.S. 1 Radio news director Joe Moore, Citizen newspaper editor Chris Seymour, Key West business owner Paul Menta and Key West Weekly editor Mandy Miles. Questions were either drafted by the individual panelists or submitted in advance by members of Hometown, a nonpartisan voter education and advocacy group.
State Representative, District 120, Republicans
Incumbent Jim Mooney, Rhonda Rebman Lopez and Robert Scott Allen
What would you do to try to fix the wind insurance rate problem we’re facing?
Mooney: “The special session on insurance was, at best, interesting. One thing I did debate was trying to get Citizens back in a posture they were put in place for, which was as a last resort. The hardest part in Tallahassee is making people understand that Monroe County is different. We are the leaders in the state with regard to FEMA and wind load, yet many counties are sub, subpar. And those subpar counties are what lead to overall insurance rate escalation, thus impacting all of us.”
Rebman Lopez: “Let me tell you what the problem is in Tallahassee. We’re top heavy on trial attorneys that put an R beside their name. We need tort reform. In other states that implemented tort reform, their (insurance) rates went down. … We are a sue-happy state and a judicial hellhole for suing, and whenever we get sued, the costs are passed on to us with our insurance premiums.”
Allen: “Everything I can.”
State Representative, District 120, Democrats
Adam Gentle, Daniel Horton-Diaz
What would you do to try to fix the wind insurance problem we’re facing?
Gentle: I’m sure everyone saw the recent article about $100 million in litigation fees that Citizens Property Insurance pays due to fraud. I would appoint a commission to investigate so our insurance dollars are actually being used to pay for repairs and not to settle fraudulent claims. We have to remove the corruption from the marketplace and bring in new actors by trying something Charlie Crist is proposing by making it so if you want to sell car insurance in Florida, you also have to offer homeowners’ insurance.”
Horton-Diaz: “Monroe is a donor county when it comes to insurance. The folks in Tallahassee don’t understand the uniqueness of this community, that our building standards are way higher. I want to build relationships with people on both sides so you can have conversations and communicate the uniqueness of this county. We shouldn’t be paying so much into the system when we don’t claim much back.”
What would you do in Tallahassee to help with our housing problem?
Horton-Diaz: You have to fight for your place in the budget. When it comes to housing we’re not gonna build our way out of this problem. We have to take a hard look at vacation rentals, AirBnbs. We need to prioritize the people homesteaded in your community and put limits on the amount of homes that can be used for those purposes. We shouldn’t be allowing properties owned by hedge funds or other corporations to be running the same racket when so many families are struggling.
”Gentle: “We need to focus on getting more money from the appropriations for the housing issue and I think that’s been a great failure of our current representatives, is leaving money on the table. It’s shocking to me that on July 7 our governor announced a $22 billion surplus in the state of Florida and yet we still have a housing crisis. We need representation that’s going to fight for the dollars we need and deserve.”
School board, District 1 (Key West)
Darren Horan fielded all the questions for the District 1 school board race, as his opponent, Gabrielle Brown, “called yesterday and had an emergency, and it absolutely is an excused absence,” German told the audience.
How do you respond to the claim that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ endorsement of local school board candidates politicizes those nonpartisan races?
Horan: “I’m a governor-endorsed candidate and I’d say that if it was Andrew Gillum, Nikki Fried or any other governor in office. I’m sure many of you would like the governor to stay out of races, but I’m going to be transparent. I’m endorsed by him. I’m not running as a Republican. I’m not running as a Democrat. I’m running as a nonpartisan. Because I believe, in this age, you need to have someone who represents all people. … I’m a product of Monroe County schools and of this environment, and I’ll continue to be a product of this environment once I sit on that dais.”
School board, District 5
In the Upper Keys school board race, incumbent Sue Woltanski is a retired pediatrician who has kids in the school system. She faces challenger Alexandria Suarez, a former teacher and current prosecutor with the State Attorney’s Office.
How will the Parental Rights in Education Bill affect local schools?
Woltanski: “I think it’ll depend on how the board responds to it. We do have a diverse number of families, including single parents, families with two moms, grandparents. When a child comes to school they need to feel safe. I fully feel that our teachers will continue to make them feel that way. I think we as a board need to support teachers to let them know we want them to continue to embrace the diversity in our schools.”
Suarez: “I stand with Gov. DeSantis on the Parental Rights in Education bill. It calls for transparency in curriculum. It also stands for making sure this gender identity and sexual orientation discussions are not taking place in kindergarten through third grade. We need to focus on academics with our students. … And it helps teachers — good teachers, unbiased teachers — get back to teaching.”
County Commission, District 5
Incumbent county commissioner Holly Raschein is facing a challenge from repeat candidate Jose Peixoto for the Upper Keys, District 5 seat.
On vacation rentals:
Raschein: “Much of our vacation rentals are regulated by the state. But when you have a piece of property, and are following all the guidelines, how do you tell someone what they can and can’t do? I don’t know where we land on that, exactly, but I do believe there’s room for much improvement.”
Peixoto: “I think communities, not the state, should address their own issues with vacation rentals and other issues. What’s good for Key Largo won’t be good for Key West, or Miami.”
Key West mayor
Key West mayoral candidates, incumbent Teri Johnston and Margaret Romero, both scored cheers and applause from the audience, both with their answers to cruise ship questions.
Is there any way you see to come to a balance and move on from the cruise ship issue?
Johnston: “By canceling ships at Pier B and (Mallory), we have reduced the potential number of cruise ships per week from 21 down to 7. Is it where everyone wants to be? I doubt it. But it is a compromise and it has reduced the overall number of cruise ships into the city of Key West.” (Editor’s Note: Johnston said, “Pier B and Outer Mole,” but we believe she was referring to the city canceling ships at the city-owned Mallory Pier rather than the privately owned Pier B, where cruise ship traffic is not restricted.)
Were there missed opportunities for a cruise ship compromise, particularly with regard to Pier B, before the referendum vote?
Romero: “I would have made sure everybody understood what current contracts we had in place that we could not change and what the implications would be, especially to our small businesses, with the reduction in the number of ships. I very much think we needed more clear and accurate data, and a better understanding of what the things being asked were predicated on. I’d have pushed for more data and facts before the referendum came to be.”
Key West City Commission, District IV
The city commission District IV race is the most crowded race on the Key West ballot, but will only be decided by District IV voters. Incumbent commissioner Greg Davila isn’t seeking reelection, and four political newcomers want the seat: Ryan Barwick, Lissette Cuervo-Carey, Kim Highsmith and Steven Nekhaila.
What would you do to help businesses, including those not in your district?
Kim Highsmith: I think we all have the same goals in promoting successful businesses that don’t rely on tourism. We’ve got two shopping centers in our district that are missing their anchors. How do we address that as a whole city? These are private entities, so I think we are limited in what we can do.”
As a housing authority employee on the commission, would you have to recuse yourself from votes about Poinciana Gardens, Garden View apartments and renovation of public housing projects?
Lissette Cuervo-Carey: “I actually haven’t made a decision whether or not to stay at the housing authority. I’m here to represent residents of District IV. I think the knowledge that I have, historically, working for the city, to take that knowledge, and turn it into positive things to make some great decisions to better our community. If it’s a recusal I have to make to give a fair vote to the commission, I have no problem with that. But to be honest, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. … My opinion doesn’t matter as much as the opinion of the people in my district.”
What would you do to address the housing crisis?
Steven Nekhaila: “Workforce housing and the worker shortage is the biggest crisis we’re facing. The only way to help this crisis is to increase the supply of housing. For far too long we’ve hung onto low density. We need to look at what we can do to encourage multi-family homes, accessory dwelling units and increasing height. Pretty soon we won’t have a workforce. It’s coming.”
Do you think Key West has the balance right between tourism and residents’ quality of life?
Ryan Barwick: “I want to promote positive tourism to increase our quality of life, whether that’s infrastructure, beautification, sea level rise.”
The Florida Bar strictly limits what judicial candidates can say publicly during their campaign.
Candidates Al Kelley and Jason Smith were not allowed to answer questions about the current shortage of prosecuting attorneys in the State Attorney’s Office and how it will affect trials and sentencing.
In a polite and respectful exchange, in answer to a question about maintaining peace in a courtroom, both emphasized the importance of treating people with respect, particularly in cases involving mental illness.
Question: How many jury cases have you tried to verdict?
Kelley: “I’m not a statistical lawyer. I’ve done hundreds of trials in general, but I don’t keep track of how many trials I’ve done. I’ve done a lot of landlord-tenant cases and small claims trials.”
Smith: “I’ve tried over 100 jury trials and over 50 felony cases and over 50 drug cases in my first stint at public defender. We need more jury trials, not less. It’s becoming a dying art, but the system loses accountability when we keep pleading out cases. And the key to jury trials is getting jurors from this community.”
U.S. House of Representatives, 28th District
Democrat Robert Asencio was the only U.S. House candidate in attendance at Monday’s forum. Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez is in Washington, D.C. and conservative candidate KW Miller told German he was “on his way to the Vatican,” German said.
Ascencio, who served in the Florida House from 2016 to 2018, told the audience, “I seek elected office to break through the B.S. that’s dividing our country.”
In answer to a gun control question from Moore, Ascencio, a retired police officer who served six years in the military, said, “As a retired police officer who’s been shot at multiple times, I don’t believe open carry laws are the solution. I don’t believe in introducing more firearms to the equation.” But he dismissed the possibility of banning guns as implausible.
School tax shift referendum
The Monroe County School District is asking all Keys voters to approve a tax shift that they have passed every four years for more than a decade. The school district levies an additional half-mill of property tax that can be spent on operational costs, including employee salaries. In exchange, the district reduces by the same amount the tax that can only be used for capital, or construction, projects. There is no net increase in taxes for property owners, but the formula provides more flexible, operational funding for employee salaries. School board chair John Dick reminded the audience that the school district, like all employers, struggles to recruit and retain employees due to the high and increasing cost of living in the Keys.
Key West Botanical Garden referendum
The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden is asking Key West voters to approve a 99-year lease of its lush garden facility on Stock Island, which is owned by the city of Key West. The long-term lease would ensure that the property is never developed and remains a publicly accessible botanical garden for 99 years. The lease also would allow the garden to apply for and receive more grant funding, which typically requires an entity to have long-term site control. Misha McRae, executive director of the garden, spoke briefly about the garden’s history, lush flora, rare trees, bird and butterfly populations and public programs.