By Jim McCarthy and Mandy Miles

Candidates running for political office are usually out getting petitions signed, attending festivals and debating on various stages by now. It’s a bit different this year, however, for three Republicans and one Democrat currently running for the Florida State House District 120 seat. 

Republicans Rhonda Rebman Lopez, Jim Mooney and Alexandria Suarez were scheduled to take to the stage for a debate at Coral Shores High School in late March. That’s currently on hold.

Democrat Clint Barras, a first-time candidate and web developer from Key West who entered the race about nine months after some of his opponents, normally would be attending luncheons and knocking on doors to collect the required 1,013 signatures each candidate in the race needs to get his name on the ballot. Alternatively, candidates can pay an $1,800 filing fee.

Candidates must submit their petitions by May 11. To make it easier for them, Secretary of State Laurel Lee signed an emergency rule in early April allowing candidates to scan, fax or upload petitions. 

“But the signatures have to be images of someone’s actual signature that matches someone’s voter registrations,” Barras said. “I ended up putting on my website three different ways for people to submit signed  petitions. I still need a few hundred signatures.”

When not out working and securing petitions, candidates are mobilizing to assist the community during a time of need. Lopez has been making her rounds around the district helping feed community members in the Lower and Upper Keys, and she’s also delivered diapers to Wesley House. She said she’s also been sending hand-written cards to the elderly who don’t have much social interaction and supporting farmers in Homestead who are selling their produce.

A North Key Largo resident, Lopez filed for state representative in September. She said she’s secured the petitions she needed via mail and online.

“With my petitions, I was the only candidate in my race that actually had petitions postage paid, and they could sign it and drop it in the mail,” she said. “I didn’t have to see them in person. I had a lot of mail-in petitions. That helped.” 

She also said she’s not soliciting campaign donations at this time. 

“I prefer them to give it to a charity. Fundraising-wise, I did well in the beginning to be able to do what I need to do,” she said. “I think that any money people have, I think they should go to people who don’t have food on the table or don’t have transportation. Or give it to that business that’s opening and help their employees.”

Barras, too, has shifted the focus of his campaign call from fundraising to “health checks,” he said. “Now more than ever, we have to put people’s health and science before business and special interests. I had only started fundraising a month before the shutdown. But it is what it is, and at least all candidates are dealing with the same challenges and restrictions. This whole pandemic has really changed the way we reach voters, so we’re relying more on digital platforms and social media, whereas the door-knocking and signature-gathering was always a more organic way to meet voters and introduce yourself.”

Hometown Key West political action committee will post video introductions of each candidate on its website next week, Barras said. “They’ve asked each candidate to submit a three-minute video, and those should be online by Monday, May 4.”

Despite all the shake-up from the pandemic, Islamorada councilman Mooney said he’s sticking to his schedule and making more of a presence on social media. 

“We’re sticking to our program and how we’re going to finish, and we plan to finish at the finish line first,” he said.

Mooney announced his intention in May to run for the seat, which will become vacant with Rep. Holly Rachein terming out. He too, is securing signatures.

“We’ve submitted well over 500,” he said.  “We’ve got it on email and Facebook and individual people sending it out and about. I think we’re well covered. It’s tough to walk up now and give out petitions with the social distancing. The rules have been relaxed, but the date for petitioning hasn’t changed from May 11. It’s going to be really interesting.”

As for fundraising, Mooney said it’s not the right thing to do at this time. “I don’t care how wealthy someone is.” 

Suarez joined the State Attorney’s Office in Monroe County in February as an assistant state attorney just before the pandemic outbreak hit in February. She handles misdemeanors and fish and wildlife violations, and she’s working remotely and going into the office when necessary for hearings. 

On the campaign side, Suarez says she’s had to be a little more creative since she can’t knock on doors and meet people in person — something she enjoys doing. Suarez filed for candidacy last May. 

“I rely more on social media and email blasts to people,” she said. “The sole priority right now is qualifying my petition. It’s getting all our petitions by May 11. It was fine when you got to meet people and knock on doors. This was a complete gamechanger.”

Regardless of politics, Suarez says she’s also been one to give back. She’s a member of the business recovery task force in Key Largo. She’s also participating in farm shares and Feeding Florida in Homestead. Suarez says there’s so much excess produce even after handouts that it’s been left to rot. She is bringing that leftover produce to the Keys. 

“I took it to the Burton Memorial Methodist Church in Tavernier, so I’m able to extend the food distribution from the mainland to Monroe County. Let me tell you, I learned that produce is a hot commodity in the county,” she said. 

Now more than ever, Suarez said, people are realizing that leadership matters. 

“We need someone who is not the status quo and is willing to bring a fresh perspective and look at options we have to get back on track,” she said. “I am eager and ready to help Monroe County, and even the northern end, with doing what we need to do to recover as quickly as possible from all of this.”

 

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