Gun control. Immigration. Economics. Politics. And oh yes, abortion. All the off-limits topics at the dinner table were on the table at a candidate debate Oct. 3 in Key West .

Hosted by Hometown, a nonpartisan voter education group, the event took place in one of Tropic Cinema’s smaller theaters. The intimate venue accommodated about 60 people.

Candidates for the Key West city commission District 4 seat, state representative and U.S. House answered questions posed by panelists Joe Moore of US 1 Radio, business owner and attorney Jennifer Hulse and Key West Weekly editor Mandy Miles.

State Representative

The state representative race pits Republican incumbent Jim Mooney against Democrat Adam Gentle.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a question for state House candidates about Florida’s new 15-week abortion restriction drew the most ire from the largely left-of-center audience. 

Answering first, Gentle received applause when he called the 15-week abortion restriction “unconstitutional” due to Florida’s privacy protections in its state constitution.

“The situation we have now is so repugnant  that a victim of rape or incest would be forced to carry that fetus to term because representatives like Mr. Mooney here think they know better than the mother. And that’s not how I feel,” Gentle said before passing the microphone to Mooney

“I did vote for the abortion bill, you’re correct,” Mooney said. “And I do not think that I know what a mother, or wife, or daughter knows. I struggled with that bill greatly — 18 weeks, 15 weeks. I started doing a God-awful amount of research and I can tell you that a woman’s right to privacy is absolutely the most important thing, as is anyone’s right to privacy. 

“The reality is, if in fact … there are underlying issues, a woman can get an abortion. It’ll take two doctors. It’ll take a number of different scenarios, but that doesn’t make it right or wrong; it just makes it what it is today. This has been going on since I was in high school and it’s sort of repugnant that we’re even discussing it at this level in 2022.”

At that point, much of the audience erupted with incredulity that Mooney had voted in favor of the restriction. 

“The fact that this is still an issue, the Supreme Court has obviously turned this thing upside down,” Mooney said after the outburst. “I voted the way I voted.”

Gentle and Mooney did agree, however, that Florida’s property insurance industry is “an absolute disaster,” to use Mooney’s words.

Gentle blamed corruption, lawsuits and the lack of a free market for insurance companies in Florida. “We have no market for insurance any more,” Gentle said. “Citizens (the state-run insurer) … is undercutting the market by 50%. We need to create competition. … Another problem is corruption in claims, rackets between builders and insurance companies,” Gentle said.

Mooney blamed lawyers, saying, “Every insurance bill we’ve passed has been brought into litigation. We stepped on the wrong toes. We stepped on the attorneys’ toes. Until we can figure out how to get past the lawsuits, there’s not gonna be a quick fix in Tallahassee. There’s not gonna be a quick fix in Washington.”

U.S. House

Candidates for the U.S. House — incumbent Republican Carlos Gimenez and Democrat Robert Asencio — disagreed when asked about federal student loan forgiveness, especially when compared to the cost of corporate and banking bailouts by the federal government.  Neither candidate addressed the corporate bailouts in their responses. 

Asencio called the college loan companies “predators,” adding, “Why would we not want our students and workforce an opportunity to contribute to the economy by buying homes instead of paying a loan for life?”

Gimenez said he had voted against the student debt relief bill “because it’ll add to the national debt. … The Biden administration has already spent over $4 trillion, which puts our children and grandchildren in a mountain of debt. …What do you say to those who already paid off their student loan debt? What about the fact that 70% of loans forgiven are for people who make over $100K per year? We need to focus instead on the high cost of higher education,” Gimenez said.

Both men agreed that the country’s immigration policies need serious reform. 

Gimenez said, “We have 2 million people crossing illegally. Another million cross and we don’t know who they are, where they’re going, or what they’re doing because the Biden administration changed the Trump administration’s policies, which had decreased those illegal crossings by 90%. … We want immigration, but legal immigration. The entire system is broken.”

Asencio concurred, and said he wants to find a way for immigrants to begin working in the U.S. as soon as possible rather than have to wait up to 10 months for a hearing.

Key West city commission District 4

The debate between Key West city commission District 4 candidates featured only Lissette Cuervo Carey. German told the audience that Kim Highsmith had called earlier that day to say she had COVID. Highsmith and her stepson were recently arrested for misdemeanor battery, but all charges were dismissed days later.

Carey, who works for the Key West Housing Authority, told the audience she’s been helping Bahama Village residents, especially those who live in housing authority apartments, recover from Hurricane Ian’s flooding. She declined to name her top two campaign advisers, saying instead that she has a “team of 10 or so people helping me.”

She said she’s been listening to the people of her district, where she has lived her whole life, and is intent on representing their interests in city hall. She said she wants to see better water quality at beaches and incentives for affordable housing, rather than penalties.