Early primary voting is underway as candidates look to secure party nods going into the November general election. Some races are intensifying — and becoming somewhat ugly — with mailers targeting several candidates as the Aug. 18 primary nears.
Among the targets in recent weeks is current Islamorada councilman and state representative candidate on the Republican side, Jim Mooney. Multiple mailers paid for by a political committee, Conservatives for Truth, claim that Mooney received “socialist tainted funds,” while another says that “Big Sugar” is “bankrolling Jim Mooney.”
The front of another postcard mailed out asks, “Who is the real Jim Mooney?” It then drops to three separate bullets with the first one reading “Communist Sympathizer?” The others say “Fiscally Irresponsible?” and “Tax And Spend Liberal?” The mailer was paid for by the political committee South Florida First, which is chaired by Rhonda Rebman Lopez, who’s vying for the Republican nod against Mooney and Alexandria Suarez. The address stamped on the mailer matches the address for the political committee, and records of South Florida First show that $5,600 was paid by the group to Groundswell Strategies for mailers on Aug. 4.
The Weekly reached out to Lopez, who denied any involvement in the mailer associated with the group she chairs. Asked if her group was behind the mailer, she said, “I started an investigation on it already. I am investigating that and will see where it ends. I want to find out what’s going on there and I want to know if it’s the exact name of the PAC and there’s no extra commas or spaces.”
More than five mailers have been sent criticizing Mooney in recent weeks, which he called “childish.” Two other postcards paid for by Voters Response, which has the same address as South Florida First, were recently mailed that include both Mooney and Mike Forster, current Islamorada mayor and candidate for Monroe County Commission’s District 5 seat. One calls the two “RINOs,” or “Republicans In Name Only.” The other says that Mooney and Forster are “2 Peas In A Pod” and “never saw a tax they didn’t raise or a debt they wouldn’t increase.” It goes on to state that the two raised taxes every year between 2015 and 2020 and that they’re leaving the village with a debt of $79.8 million.
“I laughed,” Mooney said. “They (the ones who sent the mailer) wasted a lot of money.”
As it relates to the debt acknowledged in the mailer, just over $77 million comes from the village-wide wastewater collection and transmission system, which started around 2006 and completed around 2016 for a total cost of $160 million. The project was the result of a state requirement to all Keys governments to address water quality issues.
Finance Director Maria Bassett, who’s currently serving as interim village manager, said the wastewater activities and payment of the associated debt do not impact the village’s annual millage rate or the level of general fund reserves. Overall, she said the financial condition of the village is good with general reserves healthy.
“I am dismayed that political advertisements would try to indicate otherwise,” she said. “We have no debt associated with the purchase of capital equipment, like fire trucks. “The remaining debt was for the new Village Hall and Marina improvements from a few years back.”
The village borrowed $2.5 million on a line of credit to help with Hurricane Irma response and recovery costs. That balance was paid off in November 2019, Bassett said.
While the mailers came out of the blue, Forster said he wasn’t surprised, given the time Mooney and he spent on the council and their 20-plus-year friendship. Forster is running for the Republican nod in the county commission District 5 race against Robby Majeska.
“You’re always told to stay in your campaign and not get involved with anyone else’s,” he said. “As a friend, it was easy to back and support him (Mooney). We don’t agree on everything, but we agree to disagree. I feel like I got in the crosshairs obviously of his opponent and whoever else is behind it.”
Forster was also hit with a mailer paid by Voters Response that contained a 14-page document related to a sexual harassment lawsuit against him by a former employee at Mangrove Mike’s Cafe. Forster denies the claims and the suit was settled out of court.
The postcards attacking both Mooney and Forster come from Voters Response, an electronic communications organization out of Tallahassee that holds the same address as South Florida First. In the past month alone, contributions to Voters Response totaled $110,300. Among the groups contributing to Voters Response is Citizens for Principled Leadership, which holds the same address as South Florida First. The group supplied $14,000 on July 22, $5,000 on July 28 and $6,000 on July 29. As for recent contributions to Citizens for Principled Leadership, $10,000 was donated on July 28 by Cheryl Meads, former councilwoman who just recently threw her name back into the 2020 race for seat 2, and $10,000 from the Everglades Water Trust, which is supporting Rebman Lopez, on July 29.
Meads, who served on the Islamorada dais before stepping away earlier in the year to serve on the South Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board, denied any involvement behind the mailers against Mooney and Forster, and she calls it “unfortunate gossip.” She told the Weekly she wishes “Jim and Mike well in their endeavors.”
“I do support Rhonda Rebman Lopez because she is pragmatic and forward thinking business woman who will bring an independent and fresh perspective to solving our district’s issues in Tallahassee,” she said.
Rebman Lopez, a resident of Ocean Reef Club and president of Peco International Electric Inc., said that the mud-slinging didn’t start until she won the endorsement of Everglades Trust.
“The Everglades Trust is the umbrella of all clean water initiative groups,” she said. “When I got that is when all these mailers started. Commercial developers, realtors and big sugar don’t like clean water. They don’t like Everglades Trust.”
And Rebman Lopez, too, has been the subject of attacks via numerous mailers and commercials. Some five different mailers paid for by the Trump Committee PC accuse Lopez of defying President Donald Trump and siding with socialists having taken money linked to Nicholas Maduro. The PAC has received $194,000 in contributions that have come from real estate and freight management, agriculture and an attorney with addresses outside of the district.
“Rhonda Rebman Lopez is the only candidate in House 120, including our current representative, Holly (Raschein), that worked to get Trump elected,” Rebman Lopez said. “I was his co-chair for Women of South Florida for Trump. I don’t know where the other people were, because they didn’t help us at all.”
Rebman Lopez went as far as to point to Suarez’s camp as the possible ones behind the attacks.
“When they did the Key West Hometown forum, they asked her who is socialist in 120,” Rebman Lopez said. “She (Suarez) said there’s socialism right out your front door in 120. I think she’s got an obsession with socialism or something.”
Firing back against the claims, Suarez said Rebman Lopez has run a campaign on “half truths in general.” Suarez, who formerly lived in Homestead and now resides in Key Largo, said she’s been vocal about having nothing to do with the slanders, texts, emails or mailers.
“Even if I had the money in my campaign like Rebman Lopez has, I wouldn’t spend one penny of donations given to me to run my campaign for the slanders and mailers she’s done,” she said. “I just don’t have time with only one week left in the race for the nonsense that she throws out there. I believe the race is between me and Jim Mooney. It should be about merit, what we each have to offer, and I’m talking about why I have the strongest background and why I’m the right candidate for the seat.”
Attacks against Mooney date back to December 2019 when a letter went out to his supporters falsely stating that a criminal investigation was requested into connections between the supporters’ business activities and any official actions or favors undertaken by Mooney to benefit them. The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office investigated the matter but couldn’t find the person or persons behind it.
“That was the first attack,” Mooney said. “Eight months later and I’m still under attack. It tells me they’re worried about something.”
Mooney, who’s received endorsements from Raschein and state Sen. Anitere Flores, was also attacked via mass text message. The PAC that was stated in the text to have paid for it, Help Trump Secure the Border Political Action Committee, denied sending them out. The PAC is operated by one of Suarez’s consultants. Suarez said her camp didn’t send anything out, and that the disclaimer in the text was inaccurate and fraudulent to make it look like she was the one behind it.
Suarez said her consultants are in contact with Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office over the matter. Mooney’s consultant said they haven’t been asked for anything, but are willing to cooperate. The Weekly reached out to the attorney general’s office to confirm the investigation and is currently awaiting response.
“It’s a criminal, ethical violation,” Suarez said. “I hope it gets investigated even after elections. I do not think this is something that should be taken lightly.”
Rebman Lopez leads in the way of campaign contributions with $243,372, followed by Mooney, who’s collected $115,694. Suarez has received $52,756 in campaign contributions.