Craig Cates talks about transition from city to county government - A man smiling for the camera - Cow Key Channel

Having served five terms as mayor of Key West, Craig Cates has a new job — County Commissioner for District 1, where the early retirement of Commissioner Danny Kolhage had left a vacancy.

Ron DeSantis appointed Cates to complete Kolhage’s term.

Cates had already announced his candidacy for that seat when he was appointed.

He and Monroe County Tax Collector Danise “Dee Dee” Henriquez will face each other in the 2020 race for the District 1 seat.

Cates will participate in his first County Commission meeting on Jan. 22 in Marathon. And check back soon for a similar “chat” with Danise Henriquez.

How did you, as a longtime business owner, decide to enter local politics for your very first Key West mayor’s race? Was there an individual or group that encouraged you to run? My family has a long history of service in Monroe County dating back to the 19th century. … After Cheryl and I sold our business, giving back to the community through public service was a logical next step for me.

What surprised you most when you became an elected official? I find it amazing how engaged and proactive our citizens are. We have an incredible community with a lot of smart people. Working together, there’s no challenge we can’t tackle using common sense, proper planning and smart use of our resources.

Have you always been a registered Republican? And what principles of the party do you value most? Civic duty, personal freedom and mutual respect are cornerstones of strong communities and are values that form my political philosophy.

Although Key West city elections are nonpartisan, you were five times elected mayor by a predominantly Democratic Key West populace. To what do you attribute this support? I have always maintained an open- door policy and listened to all sides of the issues. I am honored and humbled by the support I’ve received. I will continue to work every day to earn the support and trust of our Keys community. I ask residents to please reach out to me anytime with their questions or concerns.

Countywide, Republicans represent the majority of registered voters. How might this shift affect your approach to issues and decisions? In the Florida Keys we vote for the person, not the party. I will continue to approach the issues with an open mind and bring people from all sides together. I will always vote for the best interests of the people of Monroe County. We are all in it together here in the Keys. Hurricanes don’t care what party you’re in. Neither does flooding nor many of the other challenges we will have to confront over the next several years.

Keys Democrats have accused the governor of unfairly creating an artificial incumbency by appointing you to finish out Commissioner Kolhage’s term. How might the appointment help and/or hurt you in the 2020 election? I’m proud to have earned the governor’s endorsement. I’m ready to hit the ground running on day one and will work hard every day to earn the support of voters in Monroe County in the November election.

Who are your most trusted local political advisers? My wife Cheryl and my grandkids.

What two issues should be the County Commission’s greatest priorities in the coming year? Quality of life for residents and protecting our environment. Without those two things we can’t live here.

The Key West City Commission and the Board of County Commissioners are two vastly different bodies. What do you expect will be the biggest difference? The biggest difference will be representing people from a larger geographic area. I look forward to the challenge and to using my skills and experience to improve the lives of the residents of the Florida Keys.

What benefits does your experience as a business owner in Key West bring to the County Commission dais? I understand the challenges that people face here every day. I know how to make a payroll and I’ve dealt firsthand with the loss of friends and employees forced to leave by the high cost of housing. I will apply the same principles of service, problem solving and efficiency that made me successful in business to help solve the important issues in the county.

What do you foresee as the two toughest decisions facing the County Commission in the coming year? I don’t see just two decisions, but multiple decisions on two major issues: Affordable housing and flooding from sea level rise. 

What have you been doing in recent weeks to prepare for your first County Commission meeting on Jan. 22 in Marathon? I have been working hard to gather input from as many stakeholders as possible. I invite everyone to share their ideas at my first community meeting on Jan. 16 at 5:30 p.m. at Bernstein Park on Stock Island.

On the national level, Republicans seem to have made climate change and sea level rise less of a priority than other political parties. What’s your position on how the Keys should address the issues? As the former mayor of Key West, I’ve been on the frontlines of this issue for a long time. We need to adopt and implement a strategic plan to confront and mitigate this existential threat to our very ability to survive and thrive here. Steps we can take right away include incentives for green building, encouraging eco-friendly transportation, and sensible building regulations. As a county commissioner, I will leverage my skills, relationships and experience to work with our representatives in Tallahassee to change the laws that are disincentivizing large-scale adoption of green energy at the local level.

What steps could be taken to better unify the island chain and make each district more aware of the others’ concerns and priorities? The Florida Keys diversity is one of its greatest strengths. That said, the overarching challenges of the next several years will require the whole community working all together. I have faith that the residents of Monroe County will embrace their diversity and put our collective talents together to find solutions to even the toughest problems.

What’s the biggest challenge in simultaneously being a commissioner and a candidate? How does one run a county AND a campaign? Both public service and campaigning require a big personal commitment. I applaud anyone who is willing to put forth their talents and ideas to improve the lives of others.

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