On June 14, 2019, I was privileged with the honor of interviewing the mayor of Key West, Florida: Teri Johnston. Johnston is the first openly lesbian woman to ever be elected to the position of mayor in any city in the state of Florida and has been serving in that position since November of 2018. I would like to sincerely thank Mayor Johnston and the press department for granting me the ability to interview her about herself and the city of Key West.
Carvalho: What is it that made you want to get involved in politics?
Johnston: Well, actually I don’t know that I really did. I didn’t have any intention. We had, in 2005, we had Hurricane Wilma which took our hurricane wind and storm insurance rates and doubled and tripled them for most people in Key West and Monroe County. So, we started an organization called FIRM: Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe. We actually lobbied Tallahassee. It was my first time being really involved with government, and we lobbied Tallahassee on insurance rates that were unfair to Monroe County because we had the highest building codes in the state. We actually received the least amount of damage that they had to insure. So, we lobbied them and the upshot of our efforts, about thirty-two residents here in Key West, was the fact that we got a role-reversal on a twenty-eight percent increase that was on the table. We actually got it role-backed for thirty-four more percent and we had it frozen for four years. So, to date, what we’ve done is we’ve saved the Monroe County rate payers over three quarters of a billion dollars in rates. So, that’s actually what got me into politics, Matt. With that experience, and it was really positive and we had a really small group of dedicated people who had facts and walked the halls of Tallahassee and we got results, so, I thought “that is great, this is what grassroots politics is”, so, I decided to run for city commissioner in my district, and I ran against the incumbent and one other local gentleman and I won a three-person race by seventy percent and I stayed in that position for eight years as the city commissioner here for district five. Then, I left the city for a couple years and I got involved with the county’s planning board and the county’s land authority board building out conversation lands and I did that for two years until the current mayor of Key West at the time was termed out. Then, I was still sitting on the sidelines somewhat and I was watching the number of candidates that were coming and putting their name forwards and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with any of the candidates, so I finally decided to hop back into politics. Actually, when I entered the primary, we had thirteen candidates running for mayor of Key West, which was a record. We got it down to myself and a current city commissioner in a two person race. I won that race by about sixty-eight percent.
Carvalho: What are some of the daily duties of being the mayor of Key West?
Johnston: Well, the mayor is actually the visionary head and the strategic planning head of Key West. So, beyond the day to day issues of our constituents, we have a lot of ceremonial duties. We are the official head of the city of Key West, so we have all the christenings and all the ribbon cuttings and things of that nature. But I’m also heavily involved in strategic planning for our community. I’m involved in climate change, making Key West a resilient community, and I’m also involved in the day to day questions that come in from our constituents and I normally read fifty to sixty emails a day and attend two or three events everyday beyond our city commission meetings.
Carvalho: What are some of the major projects that you and your administration are currently working on for the city?
Johnston: Well, we’re working on revamping our strategic plan right now and that is probably the most important thing that we will be doing. We are going to not only embark on a strategic plan, but then do a tactical departmental plan and then tie that to our budget. We’re also embarking a new pay-for-performance program throughout the city. We are embarking on a major project to redo our major thoroughfare which is Duval Street, probably one of the most famous streets in Key West and that has not gotten any tender love and care since about the bicentennial. So, it’s time for us to revitalize our economic corridor. We’re also working on our cruise ship entrance to revitalize that. Those are pretty much our major projects that we’re working on right now along with just normal infrastructure updates. Key West receives over three million visitors a year, so I think you could imagine the impact that those three million visitors have on our infrastructure. So, we are embarking on a program right now to make sure that we have all of our roads and sidewalks updated and improve the quality of life for our residents.
Carvalho: You did mention tourism. That answers a part of my next question which is: with Key West being the southern-most city in the continental US, what kind of impact does tourism but also the climate have on the city and just the day-to-day duties of being the mayor and the city’s citizens?
Johnston: Well, it has a great deal to do with it, Matt, because one of my primary duties as well as the other six city commissioners, is that we have to balance a robust economy along with quality of life of our residents. I think most people realize that when you come to Key West, that Key West is really run on tourism. So, they’re very accepting of the number of tourists that come into our environment. We would like to impress upon people, however, that we are a very environmentally fragile island. We are surrounded by nearshore waters; we have the only living coral reef in the United States. As tourism increases and our numbers increase, we would like to make sure that we impart on the people that do visit us, that we are environmentally sensitive and that we need to respect our island for generations to come. So, we have the normal issues that every other tourism destination does. We have low paying jobs because it is a tourist destination, we have a high amount of traffic congestion, we have busy streets and highways, and then we have a robust vacation and rental business which sometimes is difficult to manage because these vacation rentals are in the middle of our residential areas. You got somebody down here on vacation and you got somebody right next to him that has to get up at five o’clock in the morning, and sometimes those two don’t mix.
Carvalho: What are your thoughts on the retirement of Manager Scholl and what path do you think the city should take next?
Johnston: I think Jim has given us a good ten years and if you’ve ever been around city managers, ten years in a city manager’s life is like seventy years, you know dog years, because it’s difficult. Every single resident and every single visitor is your customer. So, it’s a very challenging position. I look at Jim’s retirement as a brand-new opportunity for the city in almost every facet. We got a blank slate right now, we have a new city manager in Greg Veliz, and I see it as an opportunity to keep the good things that Jim has brought to the city of Key West and improve on the things that we need to improve on because we got new management, and new management style, and it’s opening up some opportunities for the city of Key West.
Carvalho: Now it would be safe to say that the city of Key West is a very accepting community, correct?
Carvalho: That leads me to my last question. How was the recent Key West Pride Parade and what kind of impact did that have on you, and the city, and its people?
Johnston: Well, it’s fascinating because Key West has always been a very diverse community. Our motto is “One Human Family”, and that’s how we live. That’s what most people will know when they come down is that, yes, we have nice weather, and yes, we have nice beaches, and we have great restaurants, but it really is the people. We’re a very hearty, diverse community that live and let live. We have a laid-back attitude, we’re hardworking, we like to have fun, and we love to protect our community. So, the pride parade is something that has been done in Key West for years. In fact, somebody came in during the pride and said, “Well, where are all the gay resorts”? I said “Well, this is Key West. Every resort that we have is all welcoming”. So, in that aspect, many of the gay-only businesses and resorts have just morphed into just “Welcome to Key West”. It’s a very unique environment, Matt. You said accepting, we prefer not to say accepting because nobody has to accept you. We’re diverse and we appreciate our differences and we live as one community, really reveling in those differences.