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In The Keys, Politics Is Entertainment — And Always Has Been

Nancy Klingener
Mona Clark, left, who is running for reelection to the Utility Board, signs a card to help first-time Monroe County Commission candidate Tommy Ryan, right, get on the ballot.

There’s been a lot of interest and attention on national politics since the 2016 presidential election. But in the Florida Keys, politics has always served as a form of entertainment.

Months before August elections, a couple hundred people showed up recently for a candidate forum in Key West. It might have helped that the event was held at a beachfront bar and restaurant.

One of the candidates for mayor of Key West was testing a new slogan: “You’ve tried everything else. Why don’t you try crazy?”

Sloan Bashinsky is what journalists refer to as a “perennial candidate.” He runs for office in just about every election.

He takes advice from what he calls “the imaginary beings.”

Credit Michael Blades
Sloan Bashinsky runs for office in almost every election in the Keys. 'You've tried everything else,' he told the crowd this year. 'Why don't you try crazy?'

“Everybody knows Key West is an open-air insane asylum,” Bashinsky told the appreciative crowd. “Why don’t you make it official?”

So far, Bashinsky hasn’t come close to winning anything. But in this year’s race for mayor of Key West, anything could happen.

More than a dozen people have declared their candidacy for mayor. It’s the first time the seat will be without an incumbent in almost 10 years. Current Mayor Craig Cates is barred from running again by term limits.

One of the candidates to replace Cates is a former city commissioner who owns a strip club on Duval Street.

Another introduced himself to the crowd by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen - hopefully not children, I’m prone to a bit of profanity."

For his 90 seconds at the microphone, he held off on the cursing. He then invited anyone who wanted to hear more to come find him at a local watering hole.

The fact that there are more than 12 candidates running for Key West mayor means a lot of work for one person, Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin.

“Oh yes, it’s going to be a very hot year,” she said, surveying all the candidates at the forum. “I like that. That means the voter turnout will be higher.”

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Hundreds of people turned out for a political forum in Key West recently, months before they can cast votes. It probably helped that it was held at a beachfront bar and restaurant.

There are a lot of other offices to vote for too. In the Keys, voters don’t just elect people to city and county commissions, the school board and the state Legislature.

There’s also the Utility Board, the people in charge of the power company that serves the island chain below the Seven Mile Bridge, and the Mosquito Control Board, that runs the agency in charge of killing the bugs that can make life miserable.

Some issues, like affordable housing and protecting the environment, come up every year. But there are some new issues this year.

“I’m running because of the aftermath of the hurricane,” said Tommy Ryan, a retired New York City firefighter who is running for the Monroe County Commission. He lives on Big Pine Key, which saw some of the worst impacts from Hurricane Irma last September. And he’s not happy with the county’s clean-up after the storm.

“We languished in our own filth until almost the end of January,” he said.

Ryan was still gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot at the candidate forum. He got one signature from a political veteran — Mona Clark, who has been on the Utility Board for 14 years and is running for another term.

She said Key West politics are personal, since it’s a relatively small town. And she gets stopped all the time, like when she’s at the grocery store, so people can share their questions or opinions.

“Oh yeah, you get people that stop you going down the aisle. You have to stop your cart and that’s normal,” she said.

Jimmy Weekley said that happens to him at the store, too - all day long. He’s a Key West city commissioner, and his family owns the local grocery Fausto’s Food Palace.

“Standing there behind the meat counter, where I generally work, people come up pretty regularly and talk to me about city issues and give me their opinions,” Weekley said.

Credit Nancy Klingener / Miami Herald file
Miami Herald file
Capt. Tony Tarracino was a perennial candidate for mayor of Key West when he surprised everyone and won in 1989. He was a fisherman, barkeep and local character.

Weekley was on the City Commission in 1989 when Capt. Tony Tarracino got elected mayor. He was one of those perennial candidates too — till he finally won.

Tarracino was a barkeep and ship captain. Young female reporters who walked into his office would get asked if they wanted to go to Vegas with him.

Weekley was at a League of Cities conference once with Tarracino and went looking for the mayor, who was late for a dinner appointment.

“And I’m walking down the hallway and I hear all this laughter going on,” Weekley said. “So I stick my head in there and Captain Tony’s up there on stage telling off-color jokes.”

Maybe part of why politics-as-entertainment is a thing in the Keys is that elections happen in the offseason, so people who live here have time to pay attention. There aren’t as many concerts, plays and other events geared toward snowbirds and tourists.

The races could get even bigger. Candidates for local office have until June 22 to qualify. The primary election is Aug. 28.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.