Candidates make pitch to voters

By Steve Estes

Potential Lower Keys voters got their final look at the candidates for local offices in the 2012 general election Tuesday evening during a forum sponsored by the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce.

More than 100 people crowded under the patio at Boondocks on Ramrod Key Tuesday night to listen to the final pleas of the candidates for local and state-wide offices.

State House District 120

Democrat Ian Whitney, who many consider to be the underdog in the race to fill the vacated seat of Democrat Ron Saunders, told voters that he believes Tallahassee is broken, that elected officials there are working only for themselves and not for the betterment of the people in the state.

“We need to focus on clean water, we need to focus on education, and we need to reform our campaign finance laws so that corporations can’t buy elections for hand-picked politicians,” said Whitney.

The Key West Democrat said one of his goals will be to push for an expansion of the state’s infrastructure fund. “We approach infrastructure piecemeal, with no coherent plan. We need to establish one fund and prioritize that money according to the places where it will do the most good for the most people.”

Whitney is facing Republican Holly Rashein, who for 10 years has served as the executive assistant to the District 120 office holder, frist Rep. Ken Sorenson and then Saunders.

“My experience in working with state government began in college,” said Raschein. “I have watched as legislative leaders worked across party lines to get things accomplished and I learned from them.”

Raschein said her plan to tackle the ever-increasing problem of escalating windstorm insurance rates is to get the state to push for a national catastrophic fund.

“No matter where you live there is a potential for some disaster and it makes sense to spread that recovery cost over everyone instead of just relying on small counties in Florida to cover major windstorm damage,” she said.

Sho also said she would work to end the re-inspection program currently underway from Citizen’s Insurance, the state’s windstorm insurer of last resort and the only place where Monroe County residents can buy windstorm coverage. “That program isn’t working. It is taking credits away from people who worked hard to harden their homes, usually because some inspector from Texas who doesn’t know where the attic is claims you have no hurricane straps.”

Both candidates said they did not support the use of Constitutional Amendments to codify legislative attempts to change laws in the state.

“If it can be handled by statute, let’s have the courage to do that,” said Whitney.

“The state’s Constitution is a sacred document. We can do anything we need by legislation,” she said.

The 2012 legislative session resulted in 11 Constitutional Amendment questions on the Nov. 6 ballot, everything from a ban on using federal money for abortions to allowing state taxpayer dollars to go to religious institutions, the latter breaking through a long-standing separation between church and state.

State Senate District 39

Democrat Larcenia Bullard has left the seat due to term limits, and she has her son, Dwight Bullard, running for the seat to continue the family legacy.

The rap on Bullard here when she was in office was that she ignored the Keys in favor of her more populous constituencies on the mainland. Son Dwight didn’t even bother to show up for the forum Tuesday.

Republican challenger Scott Hopes said that District 39 encompasses 8,000 square miles, and “For too long we have settled for mediocre representation by mediocre politicians.”

Hopes said he wasn’t a fan of Constitutional Amendments either, preferring to handle those issues legislatively. “Things change. We must be able to change with them without the need to ask voters to make our decisions for us. That’s a coward’s way out.”

Hopes also said that he was okay with a future bill that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but that he supported domestic partnerships and they should have the same rights as married heterosexual couples.

Supervisor of Elections

Long-time incumbent Harry Sawyer Jr. will be retiring this year, leaving his seat up for grabs.

Seeking that seat on the Democratic side is Joyce Griffin, an employee of the office for the last 28 years.

“We are one of the few constitutional offices that for the last 20 years has come in under budget and returned money to the county,” said Griffin. “We have 82 percent of the possible eligible voters in the county registered to vote.”

Griffin said she has served as de facto Supervisor of Elections during those times when Sawyer himself was on the ballot, “and the elections went as smoothly then as they did when Harry was at the helm, and we still managed to come in under budget.”

Griffin said she is not in favor of the decrease in early voting days pushed by Gov. Rick Scott and agreed to by the Republican-controlled state legislature.

“Ohio is voting now. They have seven million voters. Florida has 11 million voters. We need more early voting days, not less. We need to make it as accessible as possible for voters to cast their ballots so every vote counts,” she said. “Voting is not about the politicians, it’s about the voters.”

Running on the Republican ticket is former Key West City Commissioner Barry Gibson, a 30-year resident of the Keys, a former banking executive and small business owner.

He says that his business experience, particularly in managing multiple locations, will allow him to more efficiently run the elections office.

He said he would not fully support more efforts by Gov. Scott to purge voter rolls. “We must make sure we have done complete due diligence before we even think about removing someone from the voting rolls.”

He says that he believes he can improve on that 82 percent registration number by making the elections office more visible in the community and directly educating business and civic leaders on the need to vote.

Clerk of the Courts

20-year incumbent Danny Kolhage is retiring and taking a seat on the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners in November, leaving his seat up for grabs.

After a rough primary fight, Republican Amy Heavilin emerged as the party’s victor for November.

Heavilin is an auditor with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, a job which she says gives her unique qualifications in understanding the government checkbook.

“The clerk’s office does a great job now, but I think I can introduce some techniques that raise red flags if anything is wrong (so that issues like the recent iPhone/iPad scandal) can’t erupt anymore,” said Heavilin.

She said she would promote more cross-training of employees in all phases of the job, and work on computer upgrades for the office that will make the clerk’s records more accessible to the public.

Her opponent is Key West’s Joe “Trinidad” Allen. Allen has run for several offices in the past and was a surprise show at the Lower Keys forum.

Allen is a retired school teacher who says the clerk’s job is so much more than bookkeeping. It is also a conduit for education of those who must interact with the court system.

He said he hopes to be able to institute programs that will allow mobile device users to interact with the clerk’s office, and even the courts.

“I would push the courts to allow video conferencing on minor cases. It costs a lot of money for people to take a day off work, sit in the courthouse all day, and interact with the judge. If they can sit at their desk and be productive while they wait, it’s a money saver for everybody,” said Allen.

State Attorney

The battle for the prosecutor’s office comes down to a former State Attorney who is looking for his job back, and his former chief deputy who wants the top chair all for herself.

Democrat Catherine Vogel upset incumbent Dennis Ward in the primary, much as Ward upset incumbent Mark Kohl in the general election four years ago. Kohl is back in the race looking to regain his old job against Vogel.

Kohl says he has the experience to be state’s attorney, having held the job for eight years previously and serving as a prosecutor before that in West Palm Beach.

Kohl bristles at the hint that people thought he was soft on public corruption, claiming that he prosecuted several public corruption cases during his previous tenure and will continue to aggressively prosecute those cases in the future.

Kohl also claims to be a big proponent of pre-trial diversion programs instead of ramming everything into the court room.

“If the prosecutor and defendant can agree on a contract that the defendant will agree to do certain things in a specified time frame, we keep the case out of the court, the defendant doesn’t wind up with a criminal record, and the state gets its pound of flesh. It’s a win-win for everyone,” said Kohl. “But that doesn’t mean we will dodge going to trial when we need to.”

Vogel touts her experience as a major crimes prosecutor on the mainland before Kohl lured her down here for a job in 2001 during his first term.

“There is nobody who works harder than I do,” said Vogel. She claims that even though she likes to prosecute cases, her time in the court room won’t stop her from effectively and efficiently running the office.

Vogel also says that she will crack down on bullying in the schools. “Bullying in schools is a precursor to criminal behavior later in life. If we stop it early, we get a productive member of society and a safer environment for our children.”

Monroe County Sheriff

Single-term Sheriff Democrat Bob Peryam has decided to retire, leaving his seat up for grabs.

On the Democratic side of the aisle long-time deputy Tom Peteck emerged from the primary with nearly 70 percent of his party’s vote.

Peteck retired from the sheriff’s office shortly after announcing his candidacy, partly because he says he was the subject of intimidation by upper echelon for “having the audacity to run for Sheriff.”

“But the old way of doing things isn’t going to cut it anymore,” he said. “It’s time to move the old guard out and move forward with fresh ideas, a fresh approach and less intensity in intra-department politics.”

Peteck said his plans are to streamline the agency, put qualified officers now riding desks back in the field where their experience can lead the younger guys and increase the agency’s community policing efforts.

“Our budget is at 2006 levels. That’s true,” he said. “But we have fewer officers on the road. I believe that should mean we have a smaller budget.”

Peteck said that if elected there are some issues in the department that have arisen during the election cycle that will have to be dealt with through internal policy, “But it’s time to move forward and do the best job for Monroe County.”

The Republican candidate is current Undersheriff Colonel Rick Ramsay. He was handpicked by Peryam as his successor and has been endorsed by the outgoing top cop.

Ramsay began working for the Sheriff’s Office at the age of 21 and has moved steadily up the ranks in several capacities, serving the last eight years under Peryam and former Sheriff Rick Roth as the second-in-command for the agency.

“This is a big agency with a $42 million dollar budget. It is important to have some knowledge of every aspect of that job and you don’t get that running road patrol,” said Ramsay.

Should he lose the election, even though he is considered an unelected incumbent, Ramsay says he will have no problems in implementing new policies outlined by the new top cop.

“It’s a steep learning curve and I will offer all the assistance I can based on my experiences,” he said.

Ramsay says that allegations of intimidation, coercion and threats used by him and department supporters during this election cycle are simply not true.

“The top-level officers support me for Sheriff. I have the endorsement of the police union, the firefighters union and the corrections officers. They know that experience is what it will take to lead this office,” he said.

Ramsay touts the downward trend in crime and the upward trend in officer retention over the last few years as proof that his management of the department has been successful.

Editor’s Note: The remainder of the races will be highlighted next week before early voting begins October 26. The general election is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 6.

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