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An openly lesbian mayor in Florida was just elected. And Key West kind of shrugs

Teri Johnston, right, spent more than $116,000 on her mayoral campaign.
Teri Johnston, right, spent more than $116,000 on her mayoral campaign.

Teri Johnston didn’t know she was about to make Florida history as the first openly gay woman elected mayor in a major Florida city.

Someone had to tell her about it.

“That’s what I’ve been told,” she said Tuesday afternoon, while holding a campaign sign on the corner of United and White streets, right across from City Hall.

On Wednesday, Johnston said that fact isn’t stunning news in Key West, her home of 20 years.

“It really isn’t,” she said, taking a break from watching Winnie the Pooh cartoons with her grandchildren. “It’s such a different inclusive environment in Key West, those things don’t come to mind. Good government comes to mind.”

Of course, this is Key West, the laid-back, sun-bleached progressive city that had an openly gay mayor, Richard Heyman, in the 1980s - one of the first in the country. Police Chief Donie Lee is openly gay, as is Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers.

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Teri Johnston is the mayor-elect of Key West, having won 66 percent of the vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.

Johnston’s sexual orientation didn’t come up during her campaign against Margaret Romero, who quit her city commissioner post to make a fourth run at the office.

Johnston, an Iowa native who runs a contracting company with her partner of 34 years, Dar Castillo, is also no stranger to elected office. She is a two-term city commissioner elected first in 2007.

Locals say it just doesn’t matter that she is a lesbian.

“I hadn’t realized that she was a lesbian,” said Wayne Dapser, a local attorney who has a current-events talk show on Island 106.9-FM. “The campaign was run not with that being mentioned and it’s interesting she got elected on what she could do and not because of who she was. That didn’t matter and it never has and never should.”

Dapser, a 19-year resident of Key West, said the island has long been a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community.

“They’ve come here and realized the fact they don’t feel the same kind of stress they’ve felt in other places,” he said.

Said supporter Mark Masca, another resident: “Not the reason I voted for her. She was far and away the best candidate, but I’m super proud she’s a woman and gay. Couldn’t be happier all the way around.”

Yet one statewide group says it does matter.

“LGBT people are still very underrepresented in elected office and bring an all too rare perspective to the political discourse, which is evidenced by the fact that Teri Johnston is the first lesbian candidate ever elected mayor in our state,” said Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida.

Pollitzer said there has been an openly lesbian mayor in Florida, but she only came out while in office. Johnston is the first lesbian elected mayor in a major Florida city, he said.

Palm Beach County officials say they had an openly lesbian mayor long before Key West. Cloud Lake, with a population of about 135, elected Betty James mayor in 2007 while Palm Beach Shores, with about 1,100 residents, first elected Mayor Myra Koutzen in 2013.

“We have had two in Palm Beach County,” said Judge Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. “And there are probably more.”

Pollitzer didn’t contest Hoch but said Key West is a major destination on the Florida map in comparison to the Palm Beach cities.

“We’re thrilled Teri and the Key West community have broken another glass ceiling for Florida.,” Pollitzer said.

Tuesday was a night of several big firsts for lesbian candidates in Florida. Jennifer Webb from St. Petersburg was elected the first lesbian member of the Florida Legislature and Sarah Fortney from Polk County became the state’s first LGBT school board member, Pollitzer said. “That’s great progress and it also shows we have more work to do.”

Johnston, 67, is also only the second woman elected city mayor and the first since Sheila Mullins held the office in the late 1990s.

Johnston won all 10 Key West precincts, totaling 6,636 votes, taking more than 60 percent in all of them except for one, a New Town polling site at the Jaycee Clubhouse where Romero took 43 percent.

What was stunning about the campaign was the disparity in spending. Johnston raised more than $116,000 and plunked down $111,330 while Romero raised about $17,000 and spent nearly $16,000, according to the running tally kept by the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections.

Johnston said she knew she would win.

“I had great confidence,” she said. “I had tremendous support throughout the community. We have a new commission that is willing to look at new approaches to our long-term issues. Also, we’ve got a community willing to roll up its sleeves.

Johnston, who will be sworn in on Nov. 19, succeeds Mayor Craig Cates, who first took office in 2009. Cates was term-limited and endorsed Johnston.

As a girl growing up in Iowa, Johnston said she never dreamed she would be involved in politics.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “The reason I got into politics is because of FIRM (Fair Insurance Rates In Monroe). We had such a positive outcome dealing with legislators and Tallahassee. It really piqued my interest in continuing on in that advocacy role for the people.”

For a small town of about 25,000 year-round residents, Key West has some huge problems: climate change and a dire housing shortage, particularly for the working class.

“I think every community in the U.S. has a housing issue right now,” Johnston said. “We’re practically strapped because we’re a tourist destination, the Navy is here and we’ve got such a restriction on land. Our solutions are so much more challenging than many other communities.”

She also wants to see the city’s most famous thoroughfare, Duval Street, get a good scrubbing. She plans to form a committee made up of Duval business owners and other residents.

“We want to make it the most desirable spot to visit and have our residents enjoy it again.”

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