Candidate Forum: Click here to link to the Zoom call video.

If it were not for term limits, Holly Raschein and Anitere Flores may very well have been reelected for life as state representative and state senator, respectively, from the Florida Keys. But the popular duo must surrender their seats following November’s general election and the burden of following in their shoes falls to a talented group of party nominees who appeared at the Chamber’s August General Membership Meeting via Zoom.

Democrat Javier Fernandez and Republican Ana Maria Rodriguez, a pair of sitting state representatives, will square off in the race for Senate District 39, while Islamorada Councilman Jim Mooney, a Republican, takes on political newcomer Clint Barras, a Democratic businessman from Key West.

The nominees fielded a range of questions that focused on everything from the state’s unemployment woes to the budget impacts of COVID-19. One of the most poignant exchanges came in the Senate race where the candidates drew a line in the sand over the possibility of federal aid for states and local municipalities. Rodriguez did not back away from her conservative credentials, explaining why she signed a Republican group letter opposing bailouts.

“I don’t support accepting federal funds because there are many states around our country that run their states irresponsibly and do not balance their budget like Florida does. Because we do balance our budget and we have money in reserves, I don’t think it would be responsible to accept that as Floridians because we do manage our money well.”

Fernandez framed the federal support in the larger context of a state budget that had to be carved up after the latest legislative session ended. “Florida is a recipient state not a donor state so every dollar we get from the federal government allows us to keep taxes lower in Florida. We need to get back into session to vote on a balanced budget. We have allowed the Governor to veto his way out of a deficit. We’re looking at significant shortfalls and need to reprioritize where we are putting dollars and that means putting everything on the table.”

Barras said it was less about tightening belts and more about tax fairness. “At the end of the last legislative session our Republicanled government gave a tax refund of $543 million to Florida’s largest and biggest corporations. A couple weeks later Governor DeSantis line item vetoed over a billion dollars out of the budget—$10 million out of the Florida Keys Stewardship Act, literally taking money from food pantries in our district. If you show me your budget and I’ll show you your priorities.”

Rodriguez countered with a pro-business philosophy founded on less government. “How do we close the budget gap? Businesses need to re-open and things need to get back to normal. People need to get back to work and people want to get back to work in a safe manner in a way that in responsible, with social distance, wearing masks to protect themselves and the people around them. But staying closed is irresponsible. It is going to continue killing our economy. The faster we reopen in a safe manner that is protecting ourselves as well as those around us will help us get our economy back not just where it was but even better.”

One of Mooney’s major selling points is his lifelong history in the Keys, where he was born, raised and served as a teacher and coach before entering a successful career as a real estate broker. That experience gave him a front-row perspective on the recent plan by Monroe County to explore a toll road on U.S. 1.

“I’ve been hearing about tolls since I was ten years old. I’m all for tolls but the biggest challenge is changing how FDOT allocates money. They’re going to want to put it into asphalt and that’s not a good place. We welcome more than five million visitors a year. We love our tourists and we love our day trippers but we’re spending a lot of money on the back side making sure our tourists have a good time and return safely. But it comes at a price.” Mooney believes funding the impact of tourism or stormwater runoff would be a better use of the toll monies, if only it could get reallocated.

Rodriguez is willing to support a toll study but acknowledged she is generally opposed to taxes and tolls, while Fernandez saw the toll question in the larger light of how money moves from Tallahassee to the Keys. “Monroe County contributes a disproportionate share revenue to the state in terms of sales tax. The state distributes that money back to counties per capita and that’s inherently unfair to a county the size of Monroe County.”

A question about diversifying the local tourist-based economy led Barras down an unexpected path. He acknowledged the need to maintain tourism but also pointed out the risks of having the state’s highest percentage of jobs tied to a vulnerable sector. “In Monroe County 42 percent of all households are at ALICE (asset limited) or poverty level and 70% of school children are at free or reduced lunch,” said Barras, whose opening statement included a story about growing up poor in a central Florida family dependent on food stamps. “So here we are in this area of great wealth and just under the surface there is suffering around us. We can do better as a state.”

The Chamber will continue candidate forums in September (county nominees) and October (city and U.S. House). The general Election is slated for November 3.