Carlos Curbelo | A young master balancing on the political high wire

Carlos Curbelo

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-FL, speaks to the Key West Business Guild on Aug. 2.


Being Carlos Curbelo cannot be easy. The Miami-Dade-based Republican congressman whose district is defined by the Florida Keys archipelago that ends in Key West, legendarily left-leaning — or at least “little L” libertarian — must have two three-ring binders in his briefing box.

One blue, which he tends to fumble on occasion. And a far more comfortable one bound in red.

He grabbed the blue book Wednesday when he did a 40-minute town hall-style Q&A with about 250 members of the Key West Business Guild and their guests. Shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows. Open collar. Groomed casually enough to avoid looking like a “suit from the mainland,” but not so casually one might confuse him with a local. Albeit superficial, he was disarming even to an audience unlikely to be predisposed to applaud his actual voting record.

Curbelo dusted off his moderate bona fides, dodging and weaving around questions that might reflect poorly on his GOP cash flow and his own party-line politics. Lament the angry, divisive partisan rhetoric. Check. Promise to work with like-minded Republicans and Democrats to fix a “badly broken healthcare system where hospitals are flush with cash while 25 million are still uninsured.” Check. Stay focused on the economy by “fixing an incoherent tax code that encourages companies to leave this country.” Check. He hit a clearly predefined litany of soothing talking points.

“What brings us together in this room is equality and human rights,” he told the Guild, whose roots lie in the LGBTQ human rights movements. “We have a ways to go, and we are going to honor the service of transgender Americans. I will continue to make the case for the fair and equal treatment of every American.”

As frustrating as these six months have been, he continued, there’s an opportunity to make things better. He pledged to do so when Congress returns to Washington in the fall. “What’s my goal?,” he asked rhetorically. “My goal is to make this country happy again.”

It was good stump-speech stuff. Curbelo cracked a few self-deprecating jokes, did the customary “Hey, I know you and you’re great” shout-outs to a handful of the audience. He reminded us that he’s one of the Climate Change Caucus and, equally impressive, a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a relatively loose group of 43 Democrats and Republicans from the House of Representatives who think they ought be working together.

The Problem Solvers are off to a good start. A modest Obamacare “fix” released Monday by the caucus — and promoted by Curbelo at the Guild luncheon — drew applause from the The Washington Post’s Editorial Board. The Gray Lady in New York was a bit more subdued on Thursday, but nevertheless encouraging.

The caucus’s plan is not the only conceivable Obamacare fix, but it is a serious, generally sensible proposal. Lawmakers should quickly approve it — or a comparable plan — before insurers finalize their premiums for next year. — Washington Post Editorial Board


It is, of course, impossible to know if such efforts will succeed. Even if they result in legislation, Republican leaders could refuse to bring it to the floor for a vote. Having treated Obamacare as a political piñata for seven years, Republicans might find it hard to actually help the program. Another danger is that Mr. Trump and his health and human services secretary, Tom Price, could try to pre-emptively weaken the marketplaces through administrative measures. Still, it’s good to see politicians actually doing their jobs. The sight of members of both parties working together in the public interest is uplifting, especially after the long partisan campaign to take insurance away from so many Americans. — New York Times Editorial Board

Curbelo is a co-founder of the Congressional Climate Change Caucus, which he started in February 2016 with Rep.Ted Deutch (D-FL). Curbelo is justifiably proud of the now-50 members, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, who are committed to educating “members on economically viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation’s economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply and public safety.”

Curbelo could have been vying for a spot on the Democratic ticket. And, in a fascinating turn of political theater, a powerful group of Miami Democrats, including the mayor, is indeed hosting a fundraiser for Curbelo on Aug. 23.

“While we don’t agree with him on every issue, he is a voice of reason in an increasingly unreasonably partisan world, he works hard to represent Miami-Dade County in Washington, and, in particular, he is trying to bring both parties together for the good of the country,” Roland Sanchez-Medina said in an email to the Miami Herald. “We are proud to support Carlos.”

Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey. What’s not to like?

Perhaps it’s this, eloquently asked by one of those attending the Guild luncheon. I paraphrase: “It’s great that you come before us with these bipartisan approaches. But when are you going to take a stand publicly? It’s not enough to tell us in essentially private groups. Why aren’t you speaking out on social media, on your Facebook page, in public forums where the news media can quote you?”

Ah, there’s the rub. For all Curbelo’s private musings, for all his commitment to bipartisan caucuses on healthcare and climate change, he remains a GOP stalwart. The League of Conservation Voters gives Curbelo a dismal lifetime score of 38 percent for his votes on environmental issues. (To be fair, he’s up to 53 percent for 2016.) But his voting record on issues from fracking and land use conservation to national ocean policy and fossil energy puts him smack in line with the GOP, not the environment.

Curbelo’s on the right side on climate change and sea-level rise — when he’s talking. It’s unclear, however, whether he’d actually buck the GOP establishment when he’s voting. He certainly did not do so last year.

And then there are those pesky ACA repeal-and-replace votes. Curbelo cast every vote down the party line and he was prepared to keep doing so. In May he voted with the House majority on the ludicrous American Health Care Act after playing a cat-and-mouse game intended to make it appear as if he might actually vote his conscience.

“I refuse to condemn my community and the country,” Curbelo said in a statement at the time, “to a healthcare system burdened by ever-increasing costs, fewer options, government threats and fines against citizens, rampant fraud, inefficiency, and mismanagement. So along with my colleagues, I’ve been working on legislation to create a truly patient-centered healthcare system where every American has access to quality care.”

And then he promptly voted for repeal and replace. When the U.S. Senate last week appeared ready to do the same — until GOP Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain cast the deciding “no” votes — Curbelo was ready to support once again another House attempt at repeal and replace.

For a man whose stump speech to the Guild on Wednesday was stuffed with caucuses and bipartisan exhortations, Curbelo has yet to show he’s inclined to put his vote where his mouth is.


Full disclosure: I am the one who questioned Curbelo about his repeal-and-replace vote in the House and his intentions had the Senate passed repeal-and-replace and sent it back to the House for another vote. As those who attended the luncheon are aware, Congressman Curbelo did not appreciate my persistence with follow-up questions.

Linda Grist Cunningham is owner and editor of KeyWestWatch Media, which designs custom websites and manages social media and digital marketing solutions for small businesses. She was a journalist, editor, columnist and editorial writer for four decades in print and digital media.




Key West tourists: The island’s love-hate affair

Key West’s love-hate affair with its tourists

A goodly portion of Key West’s 2.6 million tourists stops to primp in my office window on Whitehead Street. They don’t realize the mirror effect for them means they’re just inches from my to-them-invisible desk.

I learn about their families, listen to their enthusiastic reviews of architecture, the bars and the Hemingway House. I watch as they dig out a map or smartphone to figure out where they are, and I help with directions to the beach and how to use the parking meters.

Gaad, I love those tourists.

Key West has a love-hate affair with the tourists whose pocketbooks and credit cards pay the bills for the 25,000 or so permanent residents. Without the millions of dollars that flow annually into city coffers from cruise ships, day trippers and overnight visitors, Key West would be back to ramshackle houses and an exclusive enclave or two of mansions.

And, there’s the rub.

For lack of anything better, I’ll call them the “oh-so-awares.” Made up of long timers and newcomers, they’re a motley assortment of political, environmental and monied folks who’d prefer Key West were a destination exclusively for those with the wherewithal to afford second homes, high-end finishes and $50,000-per-canvas painting,

Heaven forbid our visitors only fork over for a T-shirt, a burger in paradise and a tour around the island on the Conch Train.
“Cruise ship passenger” is fighting words in this town. The oh-so-awares consider the 800,000 cruise ship visitors little more than uncultured, cheap rubes.

I wonder occasionally why the oh-so-awares don’t drown when they walk in the rain.

I’ll concede tourists — even those with gold card pedigrees — place an appalling demand on the island’s environment and infrastructure. I’ll concede automobile traffic and greenhouse gasses are out of control.

And, I’ll throw my support behind climate action plans, sustainability, clean-up efforts and plans to find a balance between tourism’s strain on the island and the island’s economic survival.

But, I won’t cease my love affair with those tourists who stop to primp in my office window. I used to be one of them.

60 years at the beach and “down the Shore”: Do we have 60 more?

Key West beach

The barrier reef that surrounds Key West ensures placid water and very little sand.


Holden Beach, N.C.

I grew up a Sunday afternoon’s drive from the towering sand dunes of Holden Beach. We’d park the car — mom, dad and five siblings under 10 — check both ways, sprint across the soft, sun-hot, barely-two-lane asphalt beach road with its non-existent traffic, then hike miles up and over the dunes and across the sand to THE BEACH. With shells.

It wasn’t miles. I know that now. But, it was a long way. A long way up, down and across. No houses. No boardwalks. No nothing except the sand mountains, some sea grass, a fishing pier and a sparse handful of similar 1950s families. We’d paddle and dig and almost drown in the riptides. We’d argue and whine and then sleep in the car, piled together like a litter of sticky, sandy kittens.

So begins my six-decade ocean love affair.

It’s a shared love affair, of course. Millions of us plant our toes in the water and our butts in the sand (with apologies to Zac Brown for a bit of literary license) for vacations or forever. Like poet John Masefield, we “must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.”

We’ve built our houses on top of the dunes, paved over the wetlands and we’ve insisted on our amenities. One really must have a super store and a gourmet grocer close at hand. We did it because we loved being at the beach, and we’re close on killing it with our love.

I’m going to stroll on down my sandy memories, but as I do, I ask this of myself, of you: If we can’t — or won’t — find ways to protect our beaches from ourselves, to step back from the water’s very edge by refusing to rebuild what has destroyed the dunes, the natural barriers to hurricane wind and surges, there will be no beaches left for our butts, our toes, or our memories.

From Holden Beach to the annual teenage girl’s pilgrimage to Atlantic Mecca — Myrtle Beach. Rebels and Redcoats playing slow dance music at the pavilion. Baby oil and iodine. Peggy burned so badly she had blisters along the waistline of her (1960s discreet) bikini. Lots of boys, especially the scary kind one’s parents frowned upon. My 15-year-old self wrote my parents that I thought perhaps I’d go back to Augusta, GA, with one of those boys rather than come home. To their credit, they barely flinched. I went home.

The Jersey Shore. Pizza. Or tomato pie, if you prefer. Taffy. Fudge and giant ice cream cones. Boardwalks. Houses right up to the edge of the water. Miniature golf and cotton candy. And, gaad, that awful sewage smell, a stew of hypodermic needles and medical waste, beer cans, milk cartons and feminine hygiene products washed up on the sand, rotting and stinking and closing the beaches lest one die of some dread, 16th century plague caused by dumping 20th century garbage just off-shore.

Still, we were down the Shore. Asbury Park and Belmar to Cape May with weeks in Seaside (the Park, not the Heights; can’t forget to say that). Summers were always down the Shore, even when the beach was a dump. One just cleaned up around one’s towel and smacked little toddler hands if they reached for a, well, “balloon.”

OBX. You’ll find the letters on the back of my car. The Outer Banks of North Carolina. Six of us 20-somethings pile into one car after deadline at the Roanoke (VA) Times. Ride through the night to be first in line Saturday morning at the campground with a stop for Wonder bread, baloney, mayonnaise, Hostess Twinkies and Dr. Pepper. Forty eight hours on the beach, pile back in the car barely in time for work on Monday morning.

OBX. This time a decade of family reunions. A nine-bedroom monster of a house oceanfront rented the third week of every September. We watch first our children, then our grandchildren discover Jockey Hollow and the Wright Museum (almost broke an ankle there on my honeymoon) and hurricane-driven waves that towered over the sand and ate it away. Today, the government “replenishes” the sand and makes miniature dunes. Nature can’t do that anymore.

And, there were the occasional side trips to Nantucket, Sanibel, Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the isolated end of Long Island and the rocky, not-really-a-beach shores of Maine.

Today, I live on an island at the farthest tip of the United States. Closer to Havana than Miami. An island with not much in the way of beaches, completely surrounded as it is with a barrier reef of coral. It, too, is dying. Sun screen, cars, sewage and snorkelers, you know.

Climate change and rising sea levels likely won’t much affect me. But, if I want my grandson, Connor, to share this ocean love affair with  his someday-granddaughter, I cannot forget it took less than 60 years to turn the Atlantic shores from soaring sand dunes to parking lots for beach side cities — and me.







Key West: Manhattan but no skyscrapers

Key West. Manhattan without the skyscrapers.

It’s a comparison helpful in explaining why Key West isn’t Florida. The cheek-by-jowl closeness of houses whose neighbors share their breakfast flavors and domestic squabbles – and hear their toilets flush at bedtime.

The dissonance of a dozen different languages and a hundred regional accents competing down Duval Street from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. The theater and the art galleries, the music, five-star restaurants and corner coffee shops, the ethnic neighborhoods, festivals and parades.

Breathtaking wealth juxtaposed against crushing poverty. Jaw dropping real estate prices where 600-square-feet and no outdoor space top half a million – plus condo fees.

It’s the idea, as one long-time Key West resident puts it, that the man with whom you’re discussing the relative value of apples at Fausto’s, the local boutique grocer, might well have had dinner with the Queen of England the day before.

At 22.7 square miles, much of it covered with concrete and asphalt, Manhattan long ago forgot it was an island. Not so much Key West.

Key West looks out its 4.2-square-miles of collective windows each morning across open water closer to Cuba than Miami. Key West knows it’s one hurricane, one storm tidal surge, away from trading its multi-million dollar economy for a spit of sand and a handful of palm trees.

Climate change and sea level rise are dinner table conversations in Key West.

There are the oh-so-awares who might happily nail up the NIMBY signs just below the Seven Mile Bridge, or maybe closer in at Stock Island. No trespassers beyond this point.

There is the economic development crowd for whom finding a viable balance between preserving the environment and boosting the economy ends them all too often in a no-win controversy, painted (sometimes fairly; sometimes not) as putting cash before conservation.

There are those who work the tourist trade, who fish and dive, clean the parks and renovate the houses. All know climate change and sea level rise will alter how their grandchildren live on this island.

Key West disagrees, often heatedly, about solutions. The unarguable effects are so far in the future, there’s no shortage of “don’t worry; be happy.” But, everyone knows that someday a hospital, a school, the favorite tourist haunts will be awash.

Hurricane Sandy reminded Manhattan the last week of October that it, too, is an island, subject to the vagaries of salt water, tides and wind that Key West takes in stride.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasted no time as he made clear that climate change and sea level rise were instrumental in driving the violence of the storm that paralyzed his city.

Hurricane Sandy afforded Bloomberg a bully pulpit to re-up on the 197-page, 2011 update to his original 2007 PlaNYC 2030 comprehensive, quality of life project.

On Nov. 1, Bloomberg wrote on

“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Key West has its own climate action plan. Monroe County is completing its. The Southeast Florida Four County Region has one.

Key West. Manhattan without the skyscrapers. Both facing the same challenges of climate change and sea level rise – and both prepared to find solutions.

Pin It on Pinterest