Jim Mooney narrowly defeats Republican Primary challenger, faces Adam Gentle in General Election

Election-Day---Jim-Mooney-vs-Rhonda-Rebman-Lopez.
He faces Democratic lawyer Adam Gentle in the General Election.

Islamorada Rep. Jim Mooney appears to have narrowly avoided losing his seat Tuesday, when he secured just 88 more votes than his closest Republican Primary challenger.

With early and mail-in voting totals tabulated and all 99 precincts reporting, Tuesday’s unofficial results showed Mooney with 45.3% of the vote compared to 44.5% for Key Largo businesswoman Rhonda Rebman Lopez and 10.2% for house painter Robert Allen of Big Pine Key.

Only 88 votes separated Mooney and Lopez on Wednesday morning. That count grew to 90 in the days that followed as more than 40 votes were added after the preliminary tally on Tuesday night. Florida law requires a machine recount in cases where the margin of a result is less than 0.5% of the total votes.

A total of 11,124 votes were cast in the Republican Primary. Mooney received 5,034 votes, while Lopez got 4,946. With 11,124 ballots cast altogether, Mooney’s margin of victory was about 0.8%.

Mooney will now face lawyer Adam Gentle in the Nov. 8 General Election. The winner will represent the Keys in Monroe County and lower Miami-Dade County, including part of Homestead, through late 2024.

Gentle defeated former congressional Chief of Staff Dan Horton Diaz in the Democratic Primary with 55.6% of the vote.

All in all, just under 21,000 Monroe and South Miami-Dade voters cast ballots in the Primary race for House District 120.

Republican Primary

A lifelong Floridian and real estate adviser by trade, Mooney brought years of experience in government, including stints as a Mayor and Councilman of Islamorada, and the backing of the Florida GOP to his first HD 120 defense Tuesday.

He also carried the largest war chest of any candidate running this cycle and received endorsements from House Speaker-designate Paul Renner, future Speaker Daniel Perez and Rep. Sam Garrison. The Florida Chamber of Commerce also named him as one of many endorsees.

In May, he and Republican Monroe County Commissioner Holly Raschein, who represented HD 120 right before Mooney, held a joint fundraiser.

He raised more than $325,000 through early August. As of Aug. 5, he had $60,500 remaining after heavy spending on advertising, signage, various consulting and accounting costs, and campaign apparel.

Mooney’s support from state Republican leadership in the chamber came despite his opposition to a few GOP-backed bills last Session, including the Parental Rights in Education law that critics refer to as “Don’t Say Gay,” which restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Mooney said he wasn’t opposed to the measure’s premise but instead took exception with its vagueness, which he argued could attract lawsuits.

Both his Primary challengers this year expressed full support of the new law. They also joined Mooney in support of Florida’s new ban on abortion after 15 weeks and said the state’s gun regulations are strict enough as-is, suggesting more priority should be placed on mental health services.

Mooney successfully shepherded through several measures last Session, including one addressing derelict boats in the Florida Keys and another bestowing more grant-distribution power to public-private agencies for state and federally funded residential flooding and sea-level-rise mitigation projects.

While HD 120 leans Republican, the district remains more moderate than many of its North Florida counterparts, and its residents are big on environmental protections. Key West residents have strongly opposed port calls by massive cruise vessels, which they complain dredge up sea beds and disturb marine life vital to the local ecosystem and livelihoods of fishers in the area.

Mooney was the lone Republican state lawmaker to oppose overturning a Key West vote limiting the size of cruise ships. He also was among six Republican members of the House to vote “no” on a bill that would provide a route for businesses to seek damages from local governments if they can prove a new law caused a 15% income loss in one year.

While the Legislature passed the bill, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it.

In another vote, Mooney supported a measure critics decried as favoring agricultural interests, particularly sugar companies, over Everglades restoration. DeSantis vetoed that bill too.

Trailing a distant third in terms of fundraising and endorsements was Allen, whose political aspirations date back 20 years to a brief run at the Monroe County Commission.

He said he was running to reverse legislation lawmakers passed last year preempting local governments from issuing licenses, end the use of machines in vote counting and strengthen protection against water impacts from Lake Okeechobee.

Through Aug. 5, he raised $6,350 — all but $100 came from his own bank account — and spent about 65% of that sum on ads, photos, website costs and legal fees.

Lopez, a former flight attendant who now runs a Miami-based electric company with her husband called PECO International Electric, has long been involved in politics. She held past memberships to the Monroe Republican Executive Committee and Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Miami-Dade and remains active in community groups like the Ocean Reef Community Association and the Bonefish Bonnies, an all-women anglers organization.

She ran against Mooney in a three-way Republican Primary for HD 120 two years ago, losing by less than 1 percentage point. Upon announcing she was again running for the seat this year, she said Mooney “has not shown the enthusiasm and attention to detail” the district’s constituents need.

Prior to running in HD 120, she campaigned in 2018 for House District 115, the seat which went to Miami Rep. Vance Aloupis. Last September, she was one of several Monroe residents who applied to replace late County Commissioner Mike Forster. That job ultimately went to Raschein.

Lopez vowed, if elected, to protect parental rights, ensure HD 120 receives a fair share of state tax dollars, help small businesses thrive, add jobs and cut “burdensome” regulations and “unnecessary” taxes.

Regarding the new Parental Rights in Education law, which among other things bans all classroom instruction on sex and gender through third grade, Lopez said she’d like to see those portions expanded to additional grade levels.

Lopez raised nearly $174,000 through early August. More than $44,000 of that was either self-loaned or given by family members and her business.

As of Aug. 5, she had almost $70,000 remaining after spending on advertising, supplies, consulting, campaign materials, canvassing and phone banking.

She received endorsements from Florida Right to Life and the South Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Lopez’s run for HD 120 this year wasn’t without problems. In July, her campaign funded TV spots conspicuously similar to attack ads paid for by political committees linked to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s treasurer, Yolanda Brown, that were pulled from the airwaves for false statements.

The Florida House Republican Campaign Committee, in turn, funded ads labeling Lopez as a “RINO” (Republican in name only) who has been “paid for by Democrats.”

Lopez also broke state campaign fundraising rules by miswording a disclaimer at the bottom of an event invitation.

Democratic Primary

Of the two Democratic candidates for HD 120, Gentle led the race in terms of funding with more than $102,000 collected through the end of July. That included $8,000 of his own money and another $4,000 transferred from a canceled bid to supplant Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart.

A Los Angeles-to-Monroe County transplant, Gentle spent all but $30,600 of those funds on advertising, text messaging, consulting, supplies, database management, web design and other costs.

A self-described “anti-corruption” lawyer, Gentle led fundraising in the Democratic Primary. Image via Facebook.

Gentle is a self-described “anti-corruption” lawyer. His campaign platform lists priorities including defending local governance and home rule, eliminating corruption in government, protecting voting rights, restoring the environment and safeguarding women’s health, including reproductive rights.

He received endorsements from LGBTQ Victory Fund — Gentle is a member of the LGBTQ community — and Key West Mayor Teri Johnston.

Horton-Diaz, while trailing in funds, boasted far more governmental experience and local endorsements heading into Tuesday’s election.

Born in Georgia, Horton-Diaz worked for years as a Democratic staffer, including stints as a district Chief of Staff to former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and a legislative aide to state Sen. Annette Taddeo.

A lawyer by training, he also served as director of the voting rights group All Voting is Local.

Since filing in January, he raised about $80,000, including a $16,000 self-loan. He had $35,000 remaining by early August after spending on digital, radio and print advertising, web maintenance, voter outreach and various campaign volunteer costs.

Dan Horton-Diaz boasted a lot of endorsements heading into the Democratic Primary on Tuesday. Image via Dan Horton-Diaz.

His platform this cycle includes fighting for environmental protection and clean water, combating the climate crisis, restoring the flow of Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades and into the Florida Bay, protecting local governance, reducing tolls and traffic, supporting the southward expansion of the Miami-Dade Metrorail, protecting property rights, fully funding the Sadowski Trust and other affordable housing initiatives, supporting teachers, protecting the rights of LGBTQ students, expanding health care and supporting women’s health and patient autonomy.

Horton-Diaz first ran for HD 120 in 2016, winning the Primary handily but losing to the Republican incumbent, Raschein. Four years later, he vied for the seat representing Senate District 39. He lost the Primary to former Democratic Rep. Javier Fernandez, who is now running to be the Mayor of South Miami.

This election cycle, he received endorsements from Key West Vice Mayor Sam Kaufman, Key West Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, South Bay Community Council members Marjorie MurilloChristina Farias and Enid Demps, former Monroe Mayor Shirley Freeman, two chapters of the Young Democrats, two local chapters of the Communication Workers of America and a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, among others.

___

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the most recent vote tally.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.



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