The Key West Mystique

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Local political control

Local political control in jeopardy in the Keys | Can it be fixed?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

04/26/2022

Is it any wonder folks up the Keys occasionally (OK, a lot) wish Key West weren’t so arrogantly dismissive of and willfully ignorant of the 21st century challenges they face? For 200 years, Key West was the legendary alpha dog for which local political control meant one thing: Key West decided.

Up the Keys went along, muttering things, I suspect, like “someday they’ll get their comeuppance.” Up the Keys had no choice. Key West voters controlled the ballots from Key West to the mainland. Key West voters could sway a Monroe County Board of County Commissioners election 98 miles away. Same with state and federal elections. What Key West wanted, it got.

We loved being in charge. We celebrated our vaunted isolation and mystique and delighted in the fact that mainlanders thought all the Keys was Key West. Our self-importance showed itself in comments like “leaving the island; send help if not back soon.” Key West treats the Keys as its personal “fly over” space, an island chain to be endured until we can make it from Key West to South Beach.

Way too many Key West voters got way too complacent believing they’d always be in charge and flat out failed to understand the demographic shifts occurring on Stock Island and islands east, shifts have turned up the Keys red — and have painted Key West a perhaps shocking purple.

Local political control

About a third of the county’s population lives in Key West and the island no longer dominates the political stage in Monroe County. The historical population numbers prove the point: In 1950, the census reported 21,792 residents of Key West and 8,165 in the rest of the county. Today about 50,000 live outside the city; about 24,000 live in Key West.

Key West maintained its blue voting patterns in 2020, though only one polling location with its 82 percent Biden vote rose well out of the 60-ish-40-ish split between Democratic and Republican voters in Key West. Over all, Monroe County favored Trump over Biden by 53.39 percent to 45.45 percent. The changing demographics of Monroe County, particularly up the Keys, mean Key West itself is rapidly losing its representation on countywide issues.

The November 2020 County Commission race was the Key West comeuppance up the Keys voters had long predicted. Key West’s casual assumption that it would always be in charge crashed when long-time Democrat and successful power broker Heather Carruthers lost what should have been a guaranteed seat on the County Commission to rarely-seen, barely known Republican Eddie Martinez.

Martinez has since resigned in the face of drug and abuse charges and left the District 3 position vacant. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who until Friday evening, appeared uninterested in appointing even a Republican, seemed to prefer that Key West had little representation on the County Commission. Craig Cates, former Key West mayor, represents District 1, which includes Stock island.

Jim Scholl
Jim Scholl. Photo by Alyson Crean/City of Key West

And, then on Friday evening, DeSantis finally appointed Jim Scholl to fill the District 3 vacancy, a move that had been expected months ago and then stalled.

It is entirely possible this November that Key West will elect Republican and former city manager Jim Scholl to fill the vacant Carruthers-Martinez seat on the County Commission. Scholl is the only declared candidate; his stints as city manager earned him good karma; his name recognition is significant; and, he is generally considered, as is Cates, apolitical on city and county issues.

Local political control | What happened?

Whatever clout Key West and the Keys had in the past is fading. Key West has had limited representation at the county level for two years. Monroe County has limited power at the state level. The Florida legislature for decades has shifted Florida from a Home Rule state to one in which most, if not all, legislative governing powers fall to the state. From tree canopy management, gun legislation and vacation rental rules to cruise ship regulations, the state has preempted what used to be local political control.

Martinez won the county commission seat, but not because Key West voted for him. It did not. Carruthers won Key West in a landslide. Instead, up the Keys voters determined who was going to represent Key West, casting enough county-wide votes for him to out number Key West’s choice (likely due to straight-ticket voting more than to any idea that Martinez was a sound candidate).

Up the Keys residents and voters have long known what it feels like to have outsiders from Key West deciding what’s good for them. Now, Key West has had its own bitter awakening.

As I wrote shortly after the November 2020 commission election, it’s time to change the way we elect county commissioners. It’s time that voters in each district elect the candidate they believe is best suited for them. That means Key West doesn’t influence Key Largo and vice versa.

Local political control | What can we do?

Monroe County voters have a significant opportunity — right now — to make that happen. Florida Keys Regional Election Protection, a grassroots, non-partisan organization, known as KeysREP, is collecting 6,000 signatures on a petition that would ask the County Commission to let voters decide if they want single member districts, which would ensure not only that your commissioner would have to live in your district, but they’d be elected only by voters in that district.

A poll released this week by KeysREP showed strong bipartisan support for the initiative. “71% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans support changing commissioner elections. 62% of respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote yes if a single-member district voting initiative was on the ballot, while 23% of respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote no, with 15% unsure. The poll has a margin of error of +/-5.5%.”

This is the actual petition language: As a registered elector of Monroe County, Florida, I am petitioning for a referendum election to determine whether the five county commissioners of said county shall be elected from single-member districts by electors residing in each of those districts only.

I’ve signed the petition and I have donated to the campaign. It’s that important to every Monroe County resident. You can help by downloading the petition, signing it and returning it to the organizers. The petition does not establish single member districts; it asks for a referendum that would do so. If the County Commission agrees and a referendum makes it to the ballot, then you’ll make your choice.

Local political control is in jeopardy in Key West and the Keys. Together we can fix that. Please sign the petition. KeysREP will even come pick it up.

News release from KeysREP

Key West, FL – April 25, 2022 – Keys Regional Election Protection (KeysREP), a grassroots organization petitioning for a ballot initiative to let voters decide how county commissioners are elected, announced today the results of a poll conducted across Monroe County on March 29 – April 1, 2022, that confirms overwhelming bipartisan support for adopting a single-member district voting system.

The poll found 62% of respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote yes if a single-member district voting initiative was on the ballot, while 23% of respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote no, with 15% unsure. The poll has a margin of error of +/-5.5%.

“Switching to single-member districts is supported by voters of all political parties from Key Largo to Key West,” said Christopher Massicotte, treasurer and spokesperson for KeysREP. “The issues Monroe County voters care most about are local, regardless of party affiliation.” A single-member district voting system is supported by 71% of respondents that identify as Democrats and 64% of respondents that identify as Republicans. No Party Affiliation voters support the measure with 51% with 18% responding “not sure”.
Monroe County currently has five county commissioners, who are elected “at-large,” meaning Monroe County voters can vote for any candidate for commissioner, even if a candidate is outside the voter’s own district. With a single-member district system, voters in each of the five Monroe County districts would only vote for those county commissioner candidates seeking to represent their local district, instead of voting for any candidate for commissioner across the whole county.

KeysREP advocates that single-member districts bring local control back to constituents of each district, and not developers or outsider interests that tend to bankroll candidate campaigns. With single-member districts, Commissioners are elected by the voters in their district and represent their district as they serve with others for the good of the county.
When asked about statements in support of single-member district voting in Monroe County, 64% agreed the fact that in 2020, one candidate received more votes than any other candidate in their district but was ultimately not elected because their opponent received more votes outside the district was a convincing reason to allow voters to determine if they would like to change the way commissioners are elected county wide in future elections. 71% of respondents agreed that a single-member district system better represents the will of the people in each individual district, because the people in each district elect their own representative.

“What we have to do now is get petitions signed,” Massicotte said. “We need at least 6,000 signatures to get this on the ballot so that voters can decide how they elect their commissioners. This amount is about 10 times more than what a candidate needs to collect to be on the ballot for election, and while a candidate could choose to pay a fee to get on the ballot in lieu of collecting signatures, we cannot. This initiative really depends on county voters recognizing that we are losing control with how our representatives are elected and taking action to stop it.”
Community events will be scheduled to distribute and collect signed petitions to get this initiative on the ballot. For more information, to sign a petition or volunteer to circulate petitions visit www.keysrep.com or follow @FLKeysREP on Facebook.

The poll was conducted by Change Research, an online based political research firm that works with forward-thinking campaigns and causes all around the United States.

About KeysREP
Keys Regional Election Protection is a non-partisan political action committee working to safeguard local control and constituent accountability in Monroe County, Florida. It is currently petitioning for a ballot initiative to let Monroe County voters change the way they elect their county commissioners with a single-member district voting system.

2 Comments

  1. Debbiejmarks

    I will sign

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Debbie, I shared your contact info with the KeysREP folks. They’ll make sure you get a petition to sign.

      Reply

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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