Is it any wonder folks up the Keys occasionally (OK, a lot) wish Key West weren’t so arrogantly dismissive of and willfully ignorant of the 21st century challenges they face? For 200 years, Key West was the legendary alpha dog for which local political control meant one thing: Key West decided.

Up the Keys went along, muttering things, I suspect, like “someday they’ll get their comeuppance.” Up the Keys had no choice. Key West voters controlled the ballots from Key West to the mainland. Key West voters could sway a Monroe County Board of County Commissioners election 98 miles away. Same with state and federal elections. What Key West wanted, it got.

We loved being in charge. We celebrated our vaunted isolation and mystique and delighted in the fact that mainlanders thought all the Keys was Key West. Our self-importance showed itself in comments like “leaving the island; send help if not back soon.” Key West treats the Keys as its personal “fly-over” space, an island chain to be endured until we can make it from Key West to South Beach.

Way too many Key West voters got way too complacentbelieving they’d always be in charge and flat out failed to understand the demographic shifts occurring on Stock Island and islands east, shifts have turned up the Keys red — and have painted Key West a perhaps shocking purple.

The November 2020 Monroe County Commission race was the Key West comeuppance Upper Keys voters had long predicted. Key West’s casual assumption that it would always be in charge crashed when long-time Democrat and successful power broker Heather Carruthers lost what should have been a guaranteed seat on the County Commission to rarely-seen, barely known, probably doesn’t live here Republican Eddie Martinez.

Martinez has since resigned in the face of drug and abuse allegations, and the District 3 position is vacant. Gov. Ron DeSantis appears disinterested in appointing even a Republican supporter, perhaps preferring that Key West has little representation on the County Commission. Although, Craig Cates, former Key West mayor, represents District 1, which includes Stock Island.

It is entirely possible this November that Key West will elect Republican and former city manager Jim Scholl to fill the vacant Carruthers-Martinez seat on the County Commission. Scholl is the only declared candidate; his stints as city manager earned him good karma; his name recognition is significant; and, he is generally considered apolitical on local issues, as is Cates.

Whatever clout Key West had in the past is fading. We have limited representation at the county level. The Florida Legislature for decades has shifted Florida from a home rule state to one in which most, if not all, legislative powers fall to the state. From tree canopy management, gun legislation and vacation rental rules to cruise ship regulations, the state has preempted what used to be local political control.

Martinez won the County Commission seat, but not because Key West voted for him. It did not. Carruthers won Key West in a landslide. Instead, up the Keys voters determined who was going to represent Key West, casting enough county-wide votes for him to outnumber Key West’s choice (likely due to straight-ticket voting more than to any idea that Martinez was a sound candidate).

Up the Keys residents and voters have long known what it feels like to have outsiders from Key West deciding what’s good for them. Now, Key West has had its own bitter awakening.

As I wrote shortly after the November 2020 commission election, it’s time to change the way we elect county commissioners. It’s time that voters in each district elect the candidate they believe is best suited for them. That means Key West doesn’t influence Key Largo and vice versa.

Monroe County voters have a significant opportunity — right now — to make that happen. Florida Keys Regional Election Protection, a grassroots, non-partisan organization, known as KeysREP, is collecting 6,000 signatures on a petition that would ask the County Commission to let voters decide if they want single member districts, which would ensure not only that your commissioner would have to live in your district, but that they’d be elected only by voters in that district.

A poll released this week by KeysREP shows strong bipartisan support for the initiative. “71% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans support changing commissioner elections. 62% of respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote yes if a single-member district voting initiative was on the ballot, while 23% of respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote no, with 15% unsure. The poll has a margin of error of +/5.5%.”

This is the actual petition language: As a registered elector of Monroe County, Florida, I am petitioning for a referendum election to determine whether the five county commissioners of said county shall be elected from single-member districts by electors residing in each of those districts only.

I’ve signed the petition and I have donated to the campaign. It’s that important to every Monroe County resident. You can help by downloading the petition, signing it and returning it to the organizers. The petition does not establish single member districts; it asks for a referendum that would do so. If the County Commission agrees and a referendum makes it to the ballot, then you’ll make your decision.

Local political control is in jeopardy in Key West and the Keys. Together we can fix that. Please sign the petition. KeysREP will even come pick it up.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor of Key West Island News and owner of KeyWestWatch Media.