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Can a million bucks buy control of Key West’s voters and the cruise ship business?

by | 04/28/2021

Darn it. I wish I had friends like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The kind with a million bucks in spare change handed over for whatever cool things I wanted to do (like run for president). The kind who with an apparently straight face would say “hey, no strings attached.”

Then again, I’m not exactly a novice at how these things work, so I’d cast about for a way to thank that friend. No strings attached, of course. And, crikey, there is the perfect thank-you gift: Control of the cruise ship port on that little island paradise way down the Keys. While I’m at it, I’ll shove it to those uppity Key West residents who think they decide what happens in their hometown.

Which is exactly what DeSantis’ buddies in the legislature did this week. Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, and Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican, played a couple of rounds of most-slimy-way to undercut Key West and by Thursday night, Key West was losing.

This week, in a series of disingenuous political bait-and-switch legislation that boggles the imagination, Florida GOP legislators agreed to hand over my home to Mark Walsh, a developer from the mainland whose family owns the Opal Hotel complex (formerly Margaritavile and the Westin). The legislature disrespected our overwhelming votes on three amendments. They disrespected home rule. They disrespected the environment. And without a shred of embarrassment, they offered up Key West to the highest bidder.

On Thursday, Boyd abandoned his preemption bill in favor of an amendment to an unrelated transportation bill. His hastily worded amendment states that “any local ballot initiative or referendum may not restrict maritime commerce” at any one of Florida’s 15 deep-water ports. And that, my friends, applies only to Key West. Are you surprised?

That innocuous transportation bill goes to DeSantis’ desk for signature. With that expected to happen, Key West loses the voters’ mandate to manage the crush of cruise ships on our environment and our community. I suspect the next stop will be the courts.

This is a cluster of political expediency and cronyism so blatant that it simply assumes no one cares what happens to Key West so long as DeSantis, Roach, Boyd and Walsh get their cuts.

As the Miami Herald reported this week, “At the onset of the legislative session, companies owned by Mark Walsh, a Delray Beach-based businessman who owns Pier B Development, gave $995,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis, the political committee operated by the governor … Walsh leases the state-owned terminal on Key West Harbor in front of the Opal Key Resort and Marina, which his family owns along with dozens of other hotels.

“His company helped finance the opposition to the three referendums approved by Key West voters by wide margins in November. The effort involved a disinformation campaign, funded in party by a “dark money” scheme that included contributions from the cruise industry, which publicly stayed out of the campaign. …

“After the measures passed, legislation emerged by Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican and Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican, to cancel out their vote to limit cruise ship traffic in the Florida Keys.”

As legislation rapidly made its way through various committees during session, along comes DeSantis super-friend, Mark Walsh, whose family owns other hotel properties located smack where Boyd and Roach can get quick looks at them practically in their backyards. So, let’s see what we’ve got here: A lot of money, a boatload of political clout and a determination to put upstart Key West in its place.

The original legislation applied to all Florida cruise ship and deep water ports. By the time the power brokers tweaked the language, it applied only to Key West. The bills sponsors momentarily hit the pause button this past Monday when the Miami Herald investigative story broke on the walk-talks-acts-like-a-duck, pay-to-play contributions.

Oh, and perhaps folks with a better grasp of Constitutional things finally got through to the bill’s sponsors. Targeting Key West and only Key West wasn’t going to fly in the courts. Early Tuesday morning, Roach, the Fort Myers Republican, tacked on an amendment to address what he called “legal problems.” Guess what the amendment did: Re-included all Florida deep water ports and put them all under state — not local — control. And, that, my friends, was never gonna fly.

At that point, the bills were essentially dead. Until, Thursday when Boyd did his end run and tacked his amendment onto the transportation bill.

I guess this cabal thinks they’ve got enough cash and clout to give the Walsh family and Pier B Development what it wants in Key West and Walsh gets to champion DeSantis’ presidential pipe dream.

Linda Grist Cunningham

Proprietor & Editor

Linda Grist Cunningham is proprietor and editor of KeyWestWatch Media LLC and Key West Island News. She is a nationally recognized legacy newspaper editor and publishing executive with more than 40 years of professional experience.

Cunningham is a veteran journalist who relocated to Key West in 2012, when legacy media proved itself too cumbersome to change with and adapt to today’s information world. She built her new media company business plan, packed up four cats (now the Cat 5s) and a husband and launched her digital solutions company for small businesses and not-for-profits. Key West Island News went live in 2018.

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