Michael Ingram was one of the strongest candidates for the City Commission to come out in a long time. An architect. The former chairman of the Tourist Development Council (TDC). A member of the Planning Board. A past president of the Key West Business Guild. On top of that and not surprisingly Ingram was embraced by many of the community's most important movers and shakers. The so-called powerbrokers. The people who don't run for office themselves, but who often use their money and influence to control those who do.
Ingram's campaign war chest overflowed with contributions from the moneyed and connected. He could afford the top political consultants and spend big bucks on ads and mailings and signs and t-shirts.
And he was strongly endorsed by the Key West Citizen, Island News and Morning Star.
Yet, in last Tuesday's runoff election, he was soundly defeated, 60 percent of the vote to 40 percent, by maybe the unlikeliest of candidates political newcomer Tom Oosterhoudt. How could that have happened? How did a candidate who was an almost sure winner end up losing and losing big? What went wrong with the Ingram campaign?
Let's take a look.
First of all, recall that, last summer, Ingram originally declared for mayor, to challenge incumbent Sheila Mullins. But when City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley decided that he wanted to run for mayor, Ingram quickly acquiesced, announcing that he was dropping out of the mayor's race to run for the District 1 seat that Weekley would be vacating.
To some voters, this may have signaled a wishy-washyness on Ingram's part. And his challenge to Mayor Mullins, although shortlived, probably lost him a lot of support among Mullins supporters in District 1 a burden he didn't need once he was no longer running against her. Subsequently, after her defeat by Weekley, Mullins actively campaigned in opposition to Ingram's candidacy.
In the General Election, Ingram ran against three candidates, all running on various versions of "quality of life" platforms Art Kara, Tom Oosterhoudt and Michael Ritchie. Perhaps somewhat "tainted" by his TDC credentials and his backers, Ingram was, rightly or wrongly, generally perceived as the pro-growth, pro-development candidate.
Predictably, the quality of life candidates split that vote and Ingram emerged the frontrunner but only by 22 votes. He received 270 votes (36.7 percent).
The surprise in this election was that Tom Oosterhoudt came in a close second with 248 votes (33.7 percent). Prior to the election, the "experts" had been predicting an Ingram-Kara runoff. Kara was the third-place finisher with 175 votes (23.8 percent).
Morning Star editor Michael Ritchie came in dead last with only 43 votes (5.8 percent).
But because Ingram's lead was so slim, this newspaper and others immediately positioned him as the has-to-catch-up candidate. We came to that conclusion by simply counting the votes. We reasoned that the voters who voted for quality-of-life candidates Kara or Ritchie would most likely move over to Oosterhoudt, rather than Ingram.
We predicted that Ingram had gotten just about as many votes as he was going to get, while Oosterhoudt should be able to draw on the pool of voters who had previously supported Kara or Ritchie a total of 218 votes or almost 30 percent of the total vote!
Ingram could count, too. And he began to act like a second-place candidate. For example, he called for a debate with Oosterhoudt. Frontrun-ners don't call for debates.
But he was able to entice Oosterhoudt to what appeared to some as a rigged candidate forum at the 801 Bourbon Bar just a week before the runoff. The audience was packed with Ingram supporters guest-house owners and people from the hospitality industry.
Although the questions to be addressed by the candidates were reportedly selected at random, only Oosterhoudt was asked any questions at all. And Tom reportedly did a pretty good job.
But then, Ingram shot himself in the foot. Maybe both feet. He came down on the wrong side of two of the most important issues in District 1 parking and noise.
He attacked the Residential Parking ordinance, a new program designed to reserve some parking in Old Town neighborhoods for locals. Sources who were there said Ingram actually called for repeal of the ordinance to the delight of guesthouse owners in attendance. Ingram is also a guesthouse owner.
Ingram later denied that he called for repeal but the law needs to be "tweaked" he said.
Ingram also seemed to come down on the side of owners of noisy bars, rather than the residents in District 1, the area that encompasses much of Old Town's party zone. This may have been the beginning of the end of Ingram's campaign.
He was quoted in the Key West Citizen as calling the noise ordinance "unrealistic, unenforceable and divisive." The audience at the 801 Bourbon Bar reportedly applauded.
The Citizen quote continued: "District 1 is zoned to allow certain things to exist, and people have to realize that the hospitality industry generates noise. People who choose to live in such an area have no right to complain."
Ingram would later say that his remarks were taken out of context, that he had been speaking only about Fantasy Fest events. But when we asked him to confirm in writing what he really said, he said it again: "People who choose to live in areas where there is noise have alternatives (like moving, presumably) or no right to complain."
Oosterhoudt, on the other hand, said that he believes that residents do have the right to peace and quiet in their own homes even in District 1. And he said he supports the Residential Parking program.
"While we love our visitors, locals should have priority when it comes to parking in our residential neighborhoods," he said.
So, what we had going into the final week of the campaign, was clear differentiation between the two candidates on two important and easily understandable issues. And while Ingram's stated positions on these issues may have pleased his friends in the guesthouse and hospitality businesses, most of those people don't vote in District 1. And most of the people who do vote in the district clearly disagreed with Ingram on both of these issues.
At the same time, Ingram even with his significant advantage in terms of financial contributions was running an almost-invisible campaign. Following the General Election, knowing that Ingram had to make an almost-desperate effort to attract the majority of the votes that had originally gone to Kara and Ritchie, we had expected to see him conduct a massive Weekley-style media blitz. That didn't happen.
Instead, his high-priced consultant advised him to spend much of his money on mailings directly to the District 1 voters. But many of those voters told us they considered those mailing to be "repetitive jumk mail."
And it didn't help when Kara, who had received almost 29 percent of the vote in the General Election, not only publicly threw his support to Oosterhoudt, but actively worked for Oosterhoudt's.
Ritchie tried to throw his support to Ingram, but after pulling only 5.8 percent of the vote, he didn't have much support to throw.
Ritchie also tried to support Ingram's candidacy by writing a series of ranting editorials in Morning Star viciously bashing Oosterhoudt and one of his key supporters, former Key West Police Chief Ray Peterson. Peterson, now retied in Jupiter, Florida, traveled down to walk door-to-door with Oosterhoudt before both elections.
"It was like campaigning with a movie star," Oosterhoudt said. "He seems to know everybody and he is still very popular here."
Two years ago, it was Oosterhoudt who organized a series of rallies and protests to try to save Peterson's job when newly-appointed City Manager Julio Avael contrived a "blue book" of charges against Peterson and removed him from office.
Oosterhoudt argued that the attack on Peterson was politically motivated. And, indeed, although Peterson was finally forced to retire, City officials were forced to admit that all those charges were "without merit" as part of the final settlement.
During the runoff campaign, Ingram tried to characterize Oosterhoudt's support of Peterson as "a little protest movement." It was far more than that.
We can probably never know the full impact of Peterson's involvement in Oosterhoudt's campaign, but we think it was huge. Maybe even the deciding factor.
It is possible that many voters, still outraged by the treatment of one of the most popular police chiefs in the history of the city, saw a vote for Oosterhoudt as a "thank you" and maybe even a chance to "stick it" to the City officials who perpetrated the Peterson debacle.
Of course, it should also be noted that Tom Oosterhoudt worked his chunky little butt off. He walked the District twice, knocking on doors. He visited the liveaboards in the City Marina. He visited the residents at the City's Porter Place housing project. He stood on the street for endless hours holding his campaign sign and waving to passersby.
A seemingly organized effort to tear down and deface his signs probably helped him more than it hurt him "although, at the end, I was running out of signs," he said.
On election day, although a dismal turnout had been predicted, only 100 fewer people voted in District 1 than had voted in the General Election. But Oosterhoudt received 132 more votes than he had gotten the first time around. Ingram got 15 fewer votes!
The final tally: Oosterhoudt 380 votes (60 percent). Ingram 255 votes (40 percent). Ingram who many considered virtually the "perfect" candidate had been blown out by a candidate who few had originally thought would even make the runoff.
This sets up a classic situation here: A sitting City Commissioner who was able to win without the support of the so-called powerbrokers. Tom Oosterhoudt doesn't owe anybody anything. A truly independent City Commissioner.
An interesting concept, huh?
NOTE: While we supported Tom Oosterhoudt in this election and we are confident that he will make a fine Commissioner, we are not comfortable with the fact that only 380 voters in one area of town have elected a City Commissioner who will now vote on issues affecting the entire island. This is the tragedy of the single-member district system now in place. It is a absolutely stupid system and must be revised to allow all of the people to determine who will be making the laws that affect them.