by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
I typically resist starting anything I write with a quote from somebody famous. But I’m going to break my rule this time. In fact, I’m going to quote Winston Churchill twice, starting with: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Most Americans agree that democracy is a superior form of government. But we have a problem. To make our democratic system work best, an informed electorate is essential. Voters need to know who or what they are choosing and why. Which brings me to a second quote from Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Yes, it is true that a large chunk of the American electorate is woefully under-informed. But ignorance doesn’t necessarily keep an under-informed voter from voting.
As an unapologetic political junkie, I have wondered for years about what might be done to (1) get citizens interested enough in good government to register to vote and, then (2) motivated enough to– before they vote– inform themselves about candidates and issues. In recent years, the government has made it easier and easier to register to vote and easier and easier to actually vote. Absentee voting and Early Voting are examples. And the press continues to play its traditional role in at least trying to inform voters about candidates and issues.
But in Key West, we have something additional– a citizens’ organization that has, for more than a decade, taken voter information to a whole new level. The group is called Hometown!– with an explanation point. This is the organization that organizes and sponsors those open-to-the-public political forums here before every election. These forums give candidates an opportunity to speak– and voters the opportunity to actually meet the candidates, hear their ideas, pick up their campaign literature, and to ask them questions face-to-face. These forums are streamed live on YouTube. In addition, Hometown! hosts a website that, before every election, lists the city and county elected offices being contested, as well as the names and photos of all of the candidates who are running to fill those offices– and the date, place and time of the next candidate forum. The website also includes important information about the dates of primary and general elections, the last day to register to vote, etc. The website even has a video archive of previous forums. I have been writing about elections here for years– and I don’t mind admitting that the Hometown! website is one of my primary sources of information. You can find this site at hometownkeywest.com.
One of the most impressive things about Hometown! is that, back in history, a group of Key Westers thought that creating such an organization was worth their time, effort and money. Nobody HAD to do it. But they thought that it was important thing to do for the community. And today, years later, nobody HAS to continue to spend their time, effort and money to keep such an organization alive and functioning. But they do it. Even if you are familiar with the free-to-the-public political forums sponsored by Hometown!, you may not be aware that this is a membership organization. And it’s not cheap. Annual membership fees range from $40 to $1000. And what do members get for their money? Nothing, really– other than knowing that, in Key West, any citizen with even the slightest interest in politics has a place to go for information. According to Todd German, the current president of Hometown!, the money generated by membership fees goes to pay rents for the venues and the “free” hors d’oeuvres, professional maintenance of the website and the uploads to YouTube, as well as other miscellaneous expenses. Hometown! has no employees and all members and board members are volunteers. German also emphasized that there is never a charge to attend any of the Hometown! forums.
Today, Hometown! is an important part of local politics. But that didn’t happen all at once. According to longtime Hometown! member Perry Johnston, the idea may have been conceived as early as the mid-1980s when Peter Ilchuk organized a group of neighbors in the Frances Street area to periodically get together at private homes to discuss neighborhood concerns. By the mid-1990s, this group had evolved into a larger neighborhood group organized by John Mertz and meetings were attracting politically-concerned citizens from all over town. By this time, the group had a name– the Key West Neighborhood Association (KWNA). By 2004, 60-100 residents were attending KWNA meetings and it became apparent to the organization’s leaders that holding meetings at private homes was no longer practical and public venues had to be considered. But the good news was that the size of the KWNA meetings routinely attracted political office holders as well as wanna-be office holders to the meetings as speakers, especially at election time.
During this period, KWNA members began to discuss the idea of converting the neighborhood association to a political action committee that would sponsor political forums in public venues. By April 2004, the PAC was registered and announced, and was organized in time for the 2005 political campaigns. The first candidate forum was held at the Tropic Cinema in August 2005. The house was packed. “The first thing I said to the audience,” Todd German recalled, “was, ‘And they said that nobody would come.'” In addition to German, early board members and advisers included Jane Vetter, Ericka Biddle, Peter Ilchuk, Carol Wightman, Ed Block, Richard Grusin, John Padgett, John Mertz, Perry Johnston and Bob Schettig. At first, in addition to sponsoring political forums and encouraging citizen participation in city and county government, the Hometown! board of directors also endorsed candidates and provided contributions of up to $500 to the campaign funds of the endorsed candidates. In 2009, however, the decision was made to discontinue endorsements and place more emphasis on voter information. The decision was also made to convert Hometown! from a PAC to a not-for-profit 501c3 organization, so all donations are tax deductible.
The next Hometown political forum is July 25 at the Studios of Key West, 533 Eaton Street, 5-7:30. This is a question-and-answer forum for candidates for selected offices on the ballot for the August 30 primary election– candidates for Mayor of Key West, City Commission, County Commission, Utility Board and Mosquito Control Board. The social period starts at 5:30. Free hors d’oeuvres and cash bar. The questions and answers start at 6. This event is open to all. If you can’t attend in person, the event will stream live on YouTube (just click the YouTube icon in the website) and will then be archived on the website.
More information: hometownkeywest.com