Democrat Dennis Ward had his calls for change in the Monroe County State Attorney's Office answered Tuesday with a narrow 51.5-48.5 percent defeat of two-term incumbent Mark Kohl.
"People have shown they want open government and government that's fair," said Ward, 56.
"I think of a lot of people have become exasperated with the antics of the County Commission," Ward said. "We won't be turning a blind eye."While returns were arriving at Ward's campaign gathering at Ziggie and Mad Dog's in Islamorada, supporters cheered.
Ward waited. "We're up by 900 with 3,000 votes to go," he cautioned. "There's a lot of Republican votes" in the outstanding precincts.
"So many people came out to work for me, that's where the tension comes from," Ward said. "A lot of people have been with me from the beginning. The only downside of running is possibly letting down the people who are in it with you."
Coral Shores High School teacher Rich Russell said he joined the Ward campaign after Ward got involved in some cases of local teenagers who made mistakes.
"He stepped up to assist completely unsolicited," Russell said. "That showed me he's a man of character who I can support."
County Democratic Committeewoman Pam Martin said this election marks the first time in recent memory that being a Democrat in a local campaign was an advantage.
"This is terrific," she said. "I think it's part of a countywide and national shift back toward common-sense government on all levels. We just want people who will get in there and do the job."
The Sunshine Law cases struck a chord with many voters, Martin said. "People have heard or seen what's going on. It was obvious but nothing happened," she said. "The voters decided it was time for a change."
Ward, a retired Miami Beach police officer, has worked as an assistant state attorney to prosecute misdemeanor cases. He currently is an assistant public defender in Rosemary Enright's office.
He made a campaign issue of what he called Kohl's unwillingness to prosecute elected officials accused of discussing public matters in secret.
Kohl, a Republican, said Sunshine Law cases are difficult to prove, and often arise more out of ignorance of the law than malfeasance.
Ward also campaigned against Kohl's reliance on chief assistants J. Jefferson Overby and Catherine Vogel.
"People are tired of these top-heavy salaries," Ward said.
Ward said he decided to run for office because of what he describes as discontent in the Keys legal community over operations at the State Attorney's Office.
"I could not allow this inefficient operation to go on," he said.
Ward, an Upper Keys resident, cited high turnover among assistant state attorneys as a key problem caused by low salaries.
Kohl charged that Ward has not personally handled a felony case in court.Ward pointed to his years as a police officer and as president of a large police benevolent organization.
"People talk a lot about courtroom experience but the office also requires investigation, administration and fiscal responsibility," he said.
The Monroe County State Attorney's Office has 18 assistant state attorney positions: 11 in Key West, three in Marathon and four in the Upper Keys.
In total the office has a staff, including investigators and administrative staff, of 58. The annual budget is around $4.5 million.