Issue #127: Jimmy Buffett's Politics and the Florida Keys
The Environmentalist singer was a staple of FL DEM politics
On Friday, September 1st, famous rock musician Jimmy Buffett passed away. Buffett has near-universal name ID in America, best known for beach rock hits like Margaritaville, Cheeseburger in Paradise, and It's Five O'Clock Somewhere. Buffett and his fans, known as Parrotheads, were synonymous with beach vibes and rock.
Buffet fell in love with Key West in the early 1970s, keeping a homes on the Island and opening the first Margaritaville Restaurant in the city. The city has long been called his muse; inspiring his sound for decades to come. When the news of Buffett’s passing broke, mourners paid respect across Key West.
What is perhaps less known, especially to those outside of Florida, was Buffett was very political involved. A major environmentalist, Buffett has held concerts and fundraisers for Democratic politicians in Florida since the 1980s. He found the “Save the Manatees” PAC in 1981 with then-Governor Bob Graham. Up until just a few years ago, Buffett remained political active. In his honor, I wanted to delve into politics down in the Florida Keys, the area Buffett loved and helped popularize.
The Blue Dot of Key West
If you spend any time in Key West and talk with its locals, you will likely conclude it is a Democratic town. The city is largely white, but has a growing Hispanic population and an historic black community. It’s white population, broadly, if classic liberals; easy-going social progressives. In 2020, Joe Biden secured just under 62% of the vote in the city, winning every precinct.
While Biden easily took the city, that same day, Monroe County, which covers all of the Florida Keys, voted for Donald Trump by 8 points.
Over the last decade, the Florida Keys have been growing more Republican. A big issue here is the cost of living in this region. Land and home prices have skyrocketed in the area, forcing many middle and working class residents to move to south Miami-Dade. This issue first came to my attention around 2015, when I predicted the Keys would vote right of Florida due to this change. It did. A recent article on the struggles for longtime Keys residents can be read here. Cost increases will only further drive out longtime Keybillies, as they are called, and replace them with well-off and more Republican-leaning residents.
Monroe county, which used to be very politically down the middle, has trended to the right. As of today, almost all local officials are now Republicans.
To further highlight this partisan shift, below is all partisan races in Monroe County from 2012 through 2022. As the year-by-year shows, the county went from ticket-splitting to voting steadily Republican.
The last Democrat to win Monroe County was Bill Nelson in 2018. In fact, Nelson initially lost the county, down to Rick Scott by 1 vote. However, the certified results from the recount gave Nelson a handful of vote lead.
The last big Democratic win was in 2016, when the county split its tickets for Mosquito Control Board. In the District 4 seat, Stan Zuba won the post for his party. He was unopposed in 2020.
For my non-Florida readers, yes several counties have Mosquito Control Boards! This varies by county, and only a few still have partisan elected posts.
While the Keys have broadly become more Republican, the city of Key West has remained firmly Democratic. It has voted on average 30 POINTS to the left of the county and the state. Below is the partisan breakdown of several races in the city, the county as a whole, and the state.
The city has rarely voted Republican. One recent example was in 2012 when Republican Clerk of Court Amy Heavilin got 64% in the county and 51% in the city. The city voting Republican is even less likely today. In 2016, Republican State Rep Holly Raschein got 64% in the county, but only 48% in the city.
This right-wing trend for the county will not change anytime in the near future. The Keys are more expensive to live in, but many longtime residents in Key West have Homestead on their properties, keeping their tax bills down; though cost of living is a major issue. The area is also a popular destination for affluent liberals, meaning there is a built-in base of lefty voters to move there. Republicans seem much more content moving into the upper Keys, closer to the mainland. We will see how trends continue.
Liberalism, Environmentalism, and Buffett’s Influence
Buffett, being a liberal environmentalist, fit in perfectly with the political nature of Key West. This is a city that was known as a rum-running town during prohibition and a weed smuggling town during the War on Drugs. It should be no shock to find that medical Marijuana legalization got 79% in 2014 and 85% in 2016, winning all precincts in the city.
The city also stood out in 2008. That year, Florida voted to ban Same-Sex Marriage. I wrote about this campaign in a substack last year. In that election, only Monroe County voted to reject the measure.
How did Key West, specifically vote, you may ask? The ban absolutely tanked, getting only 35% and not winning a single precinct.
As I stated, Buffett has long backed Democratic politicians for office. However, he has maintained good relations with environmentally-conscious Republicans. This matches well with the City’s politics - as the area is near universally pro-Environment.
A 2014 ballot measure mandating funding for preservation got 85% in the city
A 2016 summer ballot measure that gave tax breaks on solar panels got 82% in the city
A 2019 ballot measure that banned offshore oil drilling got 79% in the city.
Buffett maintained good relations with Charlie Crist, even when the man was the state’s Republican Governor. Buffett and Crist did events together to highlight the effect of the BP oil spill in the golf coast in 2010.
Later that year, Crist would run for US Senate as an Independent. While he’d lose to Marco Rubio, he would easily win the city of Key West.
Rubio did not manage to take a single precinct in the city, with Crist only losing the Bahama Village community (the precinct is around 35%-40% Black) to Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek.
Buffett’s longtime relationship with Governor and Senator Bob Graham would continue well into the 2000s. When Gwen Graham, the daughter of the former Governor, ran for Congress in North Florida in 2014, Buffett did a concert for her in Tallahassee. Graham would go on to win that race, defeating Republican Steve Southerland. I wrote all about that race here!
In 2018, Graham ran for Governor and again got the backing of Jimmy Buffett; who held a concert for her on the eve of the primary. While Graham would narrowly lose the primary to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Buffett rub still secured her the victory in Key West.
After the primary, Buffett would rally with Democrats around Andrew Gillum, Bill Nelson, and the rest of the Democratic slate; holding a concert in West Palm Beach.
In the concert, Buffet changed the lyrics to “Come Monday” to take a dig at the GOP
“Come Tuesday, things will change. Come Tuesday, we’re making a change. It’s been two insane years and it’s time to really switch gears.”
Buffett never hid his politics. This may have cost him some listeners and dollars. However, his Margaritaville Restaurant Empire tells me the whole “GO WOKE GO BROKE” thing doesn’t work in real life.
BTW, I cannot recommend this travel blog of Youtubers Ted Nivison and Eddy Burback traveling to every Margaritaville in one long road trip enough. Its an epic adventure. Both vloggers have their own videos/accounts of the trip.
And Buffett’s politics certainty didn’t hurt him with voters in the Keys.
Speaking of politics in the Keys, an article I cannot stress enough that you should read is my 2021 article looking at the Cruise Ship referendums in the city. In 2020, the city passed three measures that aimed to limit the number of cruise ship attendees that could disembark in the city, as well as limit boat sizes, which have been tearing up the environment.
The referendums led to the state of Florida passing legislation that nullified the votes and took such issues out of the city’s hands. This came after the owner of one of the piers gave Ron DeSantis $1 MILLION for his re-election fund. The bill, which seemed dead until the last week of session, was then suddenly revived and passed on a party-line vote.
Voters in the Keys will continue to fight for their way of life. Their fights with the state are of course nothing new.
Most Florida voters know the infamous story of the Conch Republic. If you don’t, this video sums up the fun perfectly.
Long story short, in the early 1980s, the federal Government set up border patrol stations on the road out of the city. This effort, aiming to crack down on immigration and drugs, led to crazy long delays on the roads, killing tourism in the city. As a result, the city opted to “secede” and become the Conch Republic.
They declared war on the US! They attacked troops with stale Cuban bread and Conch fritters! Then after one minute of battle, they surrendered to the US and applied for $1 BILLION in aid.
It was a silly and fun publicity stunt that perfectly matched the vibes of Key West. It also did succeed in getting the checkpoints changed.
Jimmy Buffett will forever be a national icon, but he is especially a Florida icon. His memory will live on in the vibes of Key West; both its culture and also its political allegiances.
And one last time…….
Wasted away again in Margaritaville
Searching for my lost shaker of salt