Jim Mooney in strong position to defend HD 120 seat from Democratic newcomer Adam Gentle

Gun Rights

When the dust from a hostile Republican Primary settled back in August, incumbent Rep. Jim Mooney stood with just 90 more votes than his challenger in House District 120. On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether to keep him in office or elect first-time Democratic candidate Adam Gentle to replace him.

HD 120 spans all of Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys and most of Everglades National Park, and the southernmost part of Miami-Dade County, including portions of Homestead, Homestead Air Reserve Base and Biscayne National Park.

The district leans Republican but remains more moderate than most of its North Florida counterparts. An MCI Maps analysis showed the district siding with former President Donald Trump by 4 percentage points in the 2020 election. Just one year before, voters there picked Democrat Andrew Gillum over Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Walking the line, sometimes

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HD 120’s voter composition comports to a large extent with the political inclinations of Mooney, a lifelong Floridian and real estate adviser by trade who served stints as a Mayor and Councilman of Islamorada before narrowly winning state office in 2020. On more than one occasion, Mooney has strayed from the general party line of the Florida GOP — something for which his Primary opponent frequently criticized him.

During the last full Legislative Session, he successfully backed legislation addressing derelict boats in the Keys and another bill bestowing more grant-distribution power to public-private agencies for sea-level-rise mitigation projects.

He also sponsored a bill to enable coastal cities to create pilot programs regulating single-use plastic products. The bill died with little movement.

Environmental protection is as prevalent an issue as there is in HD 120, and any politician who ignores it does so at their peril.

The 71-year-old was one of the few Republican lawmakers to vote against the Parental Rights in Education law limiting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual preference. Mooney, who earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Miami in the early 1970s, explained he wasn’t opposed to the measure in principle but instead took exception with its vagueness, which he worried could attract lawsuits.

He was also the lone Republican state lawmaker to vote against overturning a measure Key West implemented limiting the size of cruise ships. Many HD 120 residents have openly opposed port calls by massive cruise vessels, which they complain dredge up sea beds and disturb marine life vital to the local environment and livelihoods of fishers there.

In a related move, he joined six other GOP house members in voting “no” on a bill that would provide a framework for businesses to sue local governments for lost profits. The Legislature ultimately passed the measure, which DeSantis promptly vetoed.

In another vote, Mooney supported a Republican-backed measure critics bashed as favoring sugar companies over Everglades restoration. DeSantis vetoed that bill too.

But on other issues, Mooney was in lockstep with his party. He supported Florida’s new ban on abortion after 15 weeks with no exceptions for rape, incest or human trafficking. He also maintained that Florida’s gun regulations are strict enough as they are and suggested the state prioritize mental health services.

On the issues

In an interview with Florida Politics, Mooney described his opponent, Gentle, as “a levelheaded guy who just moved to the Florida Keys” who may not be well-versed enough in the issues facing the district to be effective as a lawmaker.

“But he’s very well-spoken, and I have nothing to say about him other than the fact that I’ve met him a couple times, he was a gentleman to me and vice versa,” he said.

Gentle, 41, is indeed a newer resident of Florida, having finalized his and his husband’s purchase of a home on the island of Big Coppitt Key in Monroe less than a year and a half ago. Prior to the move, he lived in Los Angeles. He grew up in Michigan, he said, but spent a lot of time in the Keys throughout his life.

According to the Miami Herald, Gentle claimed a homestead exemption — a tax break Florida homeowners get for their primary residence — not for the Big Coppitt Key house but another home the couple have in Miami, outside of HD 120.

A self-described “anti-corruption lawyer” and member of the Florida Bar, Gentle originally filed in May 2021 to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart before switching to the HD 120 race in January.

He is running on a platform that prioritizes defending local governance and home rule, eliminating corruption in government, protecting voting rights, restoring the environment and safeguarding women’s health, including reproductive rights.

Those concerns should resonate with HD 120 voters, he said, regardless of political allegiance.

“There are plenty of Republicans in HD 120, especially women, who believe women should have control over their own bodies. And there are plenty of Republicans in the district who know LGBTQ people, believe they shouldn’t be stigmatized and are concerned about the high suicide rate in the LGBTQ youth community,” he said.

“They resent the fact that in Tallahassee they’re talking about that rather than talking about the housing insurance rates, which are through the roof and out of control.”

When he announced plans to run for office last year, Gentle cited the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as motivation. An early video ad his campaign released said he supported “compassionate capitalism” and decried Republican conspiracy theories, including Donald Trump’s baseless lie that the election was stolen.

“Those folks hanging Trump flags — yeah, they’re there, but I’m not worried about them, and they’re certainly not my focus. A Trump flag in front of your house isn’t allegiance to a party; it’s allegiance to a man, and I certainly would never encourage our electorate or the citizens of this country to idolize any individual,” he said.

“There are politicians, and there are public servants. And to be a public servant, you have to use politics to get things done. The problem is when we lose the public service part and it becomes all about the politics.”

In addition to passing protections for local governments and ecosystems, repealing anti-LGBTQ and restrictive abortion laws and strengthening voting rights, Gentle said he’d like to create a “tenants bill of rights” to guarantee legal representation for renters facing disputes with their landlords. Miami-Dade Commissioners passed a similar measure in May.

Everyday Floridians are feeling increasingly squeezed, Gentle argued, and new leadership is needed.

“If you come back from a Legislative Session in Tallahassee and you haven’t found funding for a domestic abuse clinic on Marathon or for children’s health care — if you haven’t addressed the affordable housing crisis or soaring property insurance rates — I think there’s a big problem,” he said.

Party support (or lack thereof)

Mooney defeated Key Largo businesswoman Rhonda Rebman Lopez by 1 percentage point on Aug. 23, securing 45.3% of the total vote. He also far outpaced a third Republican candidate, Big Pine Key-based house painter Robert Allen, who scored 10.2%.

Roughly a month before the Aug. 23 Primary, Lopez received a boost from the Democratic Party, which funded direct mailers bashing Mooney on his votes against the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its detractors, and funding he received from Disney.

Around the same time, the Florida House Republican Campaign Committee (FHRCC) paid for an attack video calling Lopez a “RINO” (Republican in name only) who was “paid for by Democrats,” referring to the mailers.

Lopez told Florida Politics after the Primary that she was “considering a slander lawsuit” against the FRHCC. She also questioned the legitimacy of the Primary outcome, arguing county election departments “miraculously found” more ballots supporting Mooney.

Even before the Primary, the Florida GOP was squarely behind the incumbent. And through late October, the party has given him $170,000 worth of in-kind assistance for campaign staff, consulting, phone banking and research costs.

That’s in addition to more than $440,000 Mooney has raised this election cycle between his campaign account and political committee, Friends of Jim Mooney. He’s leaving little of that on the table. Through Oct. 21, he spent all but $40,000.

Mooney heads to Election Day with endorsements from House Speaker-designate Paul Renner, future House Speaker Daniel Perez, Rep. Sam Garrison, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, National Rifle Association and Chief Executive Officers of Management Companies, a group that represents homeowners’ associations.

He also held a joint fundraiser with Republican Monroe County Commissioner Holly Raschein in May. Raschein served in HD 120 immediately before Mooney.

Gentle, meanwhile, bested former congressional Chief of Staff Dan Horton-Diaz in the Democratic Primary, scoring 55.6% of the vote to best the lesser funded opponent.

He’s been endorsed by Key West Mayor Teri Johnston and LGBTQ Victory Fund. If elected, Gentle will be the eighth openly gay person to serve in the Legislature and the first to represent the Keys.

But unlike Mooney, Gentle — who holds a bachelor of arts from Columbia University and a juris doctor from the George Washington University Law School — has enjoyed scant support from his party. Gentle’s campaign filings show he received no contributions from the Florida Democratic Party or any of its fundraising or spending arms.

That’s not the only way Gentle’s campaign finances differ. While Mooney has consistently leaned on businesses and political organizations for donations — only a fraction of his gains came through personal checks — Gentle’s fundraising approach has been exclusively grassroots.

The strategy yielded him considerably less money. Through late October, Gentle had raised about $177,000 between his campaign account and political committee, Adam for Democracy.

With just over a week before Election Day, he had about $45,000 left.

Early voting runs until Nov. 6.

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