The new season of “Keys Politics” premiered Friday in real life. Its first episode drew an enthusiastic — and bipartisan — audience to Hometown’s Meet the Candidates event. Nearly 200 people — Republicans and Democrats — filled the lobby of Tennessee Williams Theater, where several candidates in contested races each spoke for three minutes about their priorities and platforms.
The event started five hours after the noon filing deadline on Friday, June 17, when ballots were finalized and incumbents without a qualified opponent were reelected. “I think more people were elected without opposition today than have to run for office,” said Todd German, chairman of the nonpartisan voter education group, Hometown.
The primary election takes place Aug. 23, when each party will choose its candidate for the general election on Nov. 8. The city of Key West and school board races, however, are nonpartisan, and will be decided in the August primary if one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. If no such majority is achieved, the top two candidates in the nonpartisan races will continue to a runoff in the November general election.
Key West City Commission District 4
That’s not the case in Key West’s District 4. Incumbent District 4 Commissioner Greg Davila had been running unopposed until the final days of the filing period, when Steven Nekhaila, lifelong Keys resident and owner of nine Keys Wendy’s franchises, filed to run. The next morning Davila withdrew from the race to spend more time with his family.
But Nekhaila soon drew three opponents in the race to represent a largely residential district in New Town that includes both sides of Flagler Avenue and the neighborhoods of 8th through 12th streets. In addition to Nekhailia, the District 4 race includes Kim Highsmith, whose husband, Bobby Highsmith, is not seeking reelection to the Monroe County school board on which he now serves. Key West native, former city employee and current housing authority employee Lissette Cuervo Carey is running, along with wine sales representative Ryan Barwick.
In his allotted three minutes, Nekhaila described his experience working on political executive committees at the local, state and national level. “People are being priced out of our market,” Nekhaila said. “We need to increase zoning densities to allow for more housing for workers. We need to legalize accessory dwellings and encourage multi-use development. I want to see Key West as a vibrant business community.”
Cuervo Carey said she watched the city’s leaders during her time working at City Hall, “and I learned you have to do the will of the people, not just your own personal goals. I made this decision to run very quickly. But I’ve lived in District 4 for more than 30 years. It’s most important to me to try to make this place livable.”
Barwick thanked the city of Key West for embracing him 12 years ago, “and making me one of its own.”
“I want to help,” Barwick said. “I want to keep the old Key West and merge it with the new Key West, and keep the magic that brought us all here and has kept us here.”
Highsmith got a laugh while touting her ability to compromise. “I’m a Democrat married to a Conch Republican, so I’m well-versed in reaching across the aisle and the art of compromise. I want to bring much-needed attention and resources to our residential neighborhoods. It’s time for safer, cleaner sidewalks in Key West.”
Key West Mayor
Mayoral challenger Margaret Romero, a Conch, former city commissioner and frequent speaker at commission meetings, used her three minutes to encourage the return of community trust and respect for every resident, no matter how long or for what reason people are here. She recognized Conchs, newcomers, longtime workers, investors, military and seasonal snowbirds in her address.
“No matter your reason for being here, you are, so let’s make it better together,” Romero said. “Competence, accountability, transparency and good communication will rebuild assurance that things are being done in the interest of our community— not for special interest groups, social cliques or to appease some faction. This is not about finding fault, but exploring and finding remedies. I am committed to our community and have spoken over the years with fact-based knowledge, not emotional sound bytes.”
Mayor Teri Johnston was unable to attend the Hometown event, German said, because she is “on Day 9 of COVID. I asked if she wanted to call in, but she said she wasn’t up to it.” Johnston’s supporters were at the event, and manned her campaign table.
School Board District 1
Two seats on the county school board are up for grabs, District 1 and District 5, at opposite ends of the island chain. While the elected official must live in the district they represent, all voters in Monroe County elect all five school board members in nonpartisan races.
Two candidates, attorney Darren Horan and single-parent foster mother Gabrielle Brown, are seeking the District 1 School Board seat being vacated by Bobby Highsmith, who won’t seek reelection.
Horan said he’s running “because I have kids, and I think you have to have skin in the game as a school board member. I have three beautiful girls. The oldest went through COVID in her senior year. It was very tough.” Horan emotionally recognized his father and law partner, David Paul Horan, then thanked the current school board members with a smile. “They didn’t make national news in the past year, and that’s a credit to them,” he said.
Brown described herself as a widow, a mother, grandmother and now a single-parent foster mother. “So I don’t just have concern for my own children and grandchildren. As a foster parent, I’ve also received extensive training and annual recertifications in child development.” She said she’s also the daughter of a three-term county commissioner. “As a working-class mother, I understand well the struggles of living in paradise.”
School Board District 5
In the Upper Keys, incumbent board member and retired pediatrician Sue Woltanski faces challenger Alexandria Suarez, who previously ran for state representative against Jim Mooney.
Woltanski emphasized that she’s not a politician, but rather a mother and a public education advocate and expert. “For more than a decade, I’ve advocated against excessive standardized testing and all the time spent preparing for those tests,” as it akes time away from more enriching and valuable lessons. “Our schools are good, but they can be better,” she said, asking that people “vote to keep a mom and a public education expert on the school board.”
Suarez told the audience that she’s the only candidate with teaching experience. She said she taught for 10 years, “but had to leave because I couldn’t afford it.” She then became a pharmaceutical sales representative. “Then at 43, I got my law degree and have served in the prosecutor’s office for the past few years,” she said. “Kids must learn how to think, not what to think. The reason our kids are doing well is because parents now have a choice. We need board members who will do what’s best for our kids. There’s no place for partisan politics in the classroom.”
County Commission District 5
County Commissioner and former State Rep. Holly Raschein is seeking election to the county commission after she was appointed by the governor to fill the seat of the late Mike Forster following his death from COVID-19. Raschein was unable to attend Hometown’s event, German said.
Her opponent, Jose Peixoto, has run in multiple county races. He has not raised money for the current campaign, according to the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections website.
Peixoto was born in Brazil and has lived in Key Largo for more than 30 years. He told the audience the commission race is between “a real man like me and a career politician.” He advocated for term limits, but also admonished voters, “Don’t keep voting them in over and over again.”
Florida House of Representatives, District 120
Unlike the county school board, the race to represent the Florida Keys in the Florida House of Representatives is undoubtedly partisan. In the Aug. 23 primary, Republicans will select from incumbent Jim Mooney, Rhonda Rebman Lopez and Robert Scott Allen, who has not raised any campaign money. Democrats will choose either Daniel Horton-Diaz or Adam Gentle to face the Republican candidate.
All five candidates were at the Hometown event, where Allen, who lives on Big Pine Key, told the audience he’ll let his platform speak for itself, but it is unknown what his platform includes, or where it can be found online. His state election documents declare his 2021 net worth as -$385,000.
Incumbent Jim Mooney’s state election documents declare his net worth in 2021 as $2.46 million with income from ownership of a clothing line, a storage business and as a realtor. Mooney touted his experience in and familiarity with both the Florida Keys and Tallahassee. “If you don’t understand the issues of Monroe County, you won’t do well. I twice served as mayor of Islamorada. And Tallahassee is a different beast; it doesn’t work like local government. I’ve had five bills signed by the governor in my two terms. I’ll represent the Florida Keys with pride, quality and dignity.”
Rebman Lopez declared a 2021 net worth of $4.6 million and $550,000 in income last year from PECO International Electric, a company she owns with her husband. She told the audience, “I want Tallahassee to stop overlooking the Florida Keys. We are a donor county and I want to bring back as much as we contribute to the state.” She criticized “current House members” who voted for a bill that would have hurt the Everglades and thus the Keys. “But our wonderful governor vetoed that bill.” She also advocated for tort reform as a means to address skyrocketing increases in property insurance.
The Democrats’ ballot features Adam Gentle and Daniel Horton-Diaz.
Horton-Diaz, whose 2021 net worth was -$146,000 due to student loans, previously worked as district chief of staff for former Keys U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell. He also was the Democratic nominee for Florida Keys state representative in 2016, but lost to Republican Holly Raschein 57% to 43%. His state campaign documents list his occupation as “consultant.”
“I believe in helping people,” he said. “In Tallahassee, I’ll support a woman’s right to choose. I’ll protect our neighbors in the LGBT community and support smart gun laws. I’ll vote to give local governments control over local issues.”
Adam Gentle, who also has become a familiar face at Key West events, was the final speaker of the evening. He declared a 2021 net worth of $781,000 with income from Citrix Systems, Inc. and rental income. “I got into this race after watching the events of Jan. 6, and realizing the fragility of our democracy,” Gentle said, adding that he previously worked as an attorney investigating corruption. “I think we can agree we have a corruption problem in Florida. We have a governor who could lower gas prices by 25 cents a gallon today, but he’s not going to do it until October. Our government failed to fund AHEC — health care for kids. Instead they attack our most vulnerable communities, including the LGBT community, and the autonomy of a woman’s body.” He said it’s “disgusting” for a politician to think he has any right to be involved in the most important decision of a woman’s life.
Al Kelley and Jason Smith want to be county judge.
Kelley said his experience is unmatched, as he has served as both prosecutor and defense attorney and has been recognized by The Florida Bar for his pro bono work. He’s also a Supreme Court-certified mediator.
Jason Smith said he has more trial experience than his opponent, and as such understands the immense responsibility of deciding whether to take away someone’s rights, property or liberty. He also worked two stints in the public defender’s office and in private practice.
U.S. House of Representatives
Carlos Gimenez, incumbent U.S. Congressman for Florida’s 26th District, which includes the Florida Keys, was unable to attend the Friday event due to a mistake by Hometown. German apologized to Gimenez, because Hometown’s invitations and announcements of the event listed its date as July 17, not June 17.
Republican KW Miller, who grew up in Marathon, is running against Gimenez and was in attendance at Friday’s event, where he spoke about his campaign to represent the U.S House’s 28th District. “We can’t carry on with congressional representatives who are essentially voting against the U.S. Constitution,” said Miller, who is the national chairman of the America First Committee, “which is committed to getting conservatives elected to all offices,” he said at Friday’s event, adding that “issues such as housing won’t be resolved by local efforts, but need public private partnerships.”
(Note: Due to redistricting in Florida, the former U.S. House 26th District is now the 28th District, but the boundaries remain the same and the district includes all of the Florida Keys and the area of West Kendall, Miller said.)