An upcoming School Board candidates forum organized by one of the men running for the wide-open District 3 seat has already stirred up some debate.
All nine candidates running for the two seats on the fall ballot -- Districts 2 and 3 -- were invited. But the only incumbent in the mix has declined to attend, along with two others.
The reason: It was the brainchild of one Larry Murray, of Big Pine Key, a self-described community "gadfly" and "fiscal watchdog" who is never at a loss for an opinion.
He even bought a baseball cap that bears the Gonzaga (Spokane, Wash.) University's menacing bulldog for his campaign travels.
And Murray, who has never held public office, is known for the occasional irreverent banter.
At a Key West forum held in a bar last week, Murray announced, "The School Board needs a set of testicles."
The upcoming public forum is set for 6 p.m. Friday at the Big Pine Key Methodist Church, 280 Key Deer Blvd. US-1 Radio News Director Bill Becker will moderate.
Yet the various candidates' reactions to the do-it-yourself forum, not sponsored by any group or civic organization, amounted to a mini-debate all by itself, with arguments, explanations, and even a few insults bandied about in email exchanges over the past three weeks.
District 3 candidates Ed Davidson and Michael Cunningham declined Murray's invitation, along with 20-year veteran School Board member Andy Griffiths, District 2.
Cunningham wrote in a July 14 email that the Keys have enough forums already.
"I always felt that you personally putting together a forum, as a candidate in the race, was just a bit inappropriate," Cunningham wrote to Murray and the others.
Griffiths said Wednesday he has a meet-and-greet set for 5:30 p.m. Friday at Kaya Island Eats, Mile Marker 14.
Asked if he would attend the forum if he were free, Griffiths merely said, "I'm not free."
Originally announced July 10 via an email blast to candidates and reporters, the Big Pine Key forum was going to be only for the District 3 candidates. When it appeared that only three of them would show up -- Murray, Mark Peterson and John Welsh -- Murray opened it up to the three candidates vying for Griffiths' District 2 seat.
Griffiths' opponents, Howard Hubbard and Yvette Mira-Talbott, plan to attend, Murray said.
As for the no-shows?
"I'm not taking it personally," said Murray. "I also emphasize the doors won't be closed or locked. If anybody wants to come at the last minute, they will be greeted warmly. We're bigger than all that."
Murray served two years on the volunteer Audit and Finance Committee until outgoing School Board member Duncan Mathewson didn't reappoint him. That followed a meeting at which Murray stormed out and told Chief Finance Officer Michael Kinneer to "kiss my a--."
Murray is vying for the District 3 School Board seat that incumbent Mathewson is giving up, having served since 2004. Four men are on the ballot with him, Michael Cunningham, Ed Davidson, Peterson and John Welsh.
Sloan Bashinsky, a blogger and constant critic of the School District, is a write-in candidate whose name won't appear anywhere on the ballot, and whom voters can select only at the Nov. 6 general election -- no matter who comes out on top in the Aug. 14 primary.
At least 1 new voice
The nonpartisan School Board races will deliver at least one new voice to the five-member panel by this fall.
Voters across the Florida Keys select the winners, no matter if the seat is based in the Lower, Middle or Upper keys.
While the county must wait until Nov. 6 to learn who the District 3 winner is, the District 2 seat could be decided Aug. 14 if one of the three candidates takes 51 percent of the vote.
If not, a runoff will take place Nov. 6 between the top two vote-getters.
While Griffiths hasn't commented on the value of Murray's forum, Davidson, who has attended a decade's worth of School Board meetings, refused to attend specifically on account of Murray.
"However much lipstick you put on it, Larry's forum is still primarily Larry's forum, organized by a single candidate for self-serving reasons to suit Larry's personal penchant for bombast and the attacks on the personal integrity of others," Davidson wrote in a July 17 email.
That email came after Murray rescheduled the forum -- from Wednesday to Friday -- over Davidson's concern that lobster mini-season would clog up U.S. 1.
"I wanted everybody in the room, no holds barred," Murray said Wednesday. "If Ed Davidson comes walking in, he gets a chair."
Murray paid $100 to rent the parish hall and got the word out via email and phone calls. But he says the format is Becker's and he isn't getting any special treatment.
Besides, Murray said, political forums in the Florida Keys don't always allow for hearty debate.
"Most of these forums are a waste of time," said Murray. "You get one minute. If I hear any more about Amy Heavilin and she's got a CPA and a B.A. credential ... ."
This one different
Becker won't asked prepared questions on Friday. Instead, the candidates will speak under the theme "The State of the School District," and offer solutions to improve the system.
"Each person gets a couple of minutes to lay out what you might call their assessment of the state of the district," said Murray. "The second half is, if I'm elected, this is what I will try to do."
The candidates for School Board have met together for several recent events -- Hometown PAC's three forums, and the Key West Chamber of Commerce's luncheon this month.
Murray says Friday night will be different, and better, because the candidates will talk about platforms instead of their resumes.
"It's candidate-driven," said Murray. "Everybody will get their say and the opportunity to respond and rebut."
Murray didn't crack on any of the no-show candidates in an interview Wednesday.
But in a July 14 email, candidate Peterson accused the no-shows of finding excuses not to attend, "because if they are hit with a tough question, with more than a minute or two to respond, their general incompetence to hold the office will become evident."
A District 3-only debate would provide plenty of time to discuss school issues in detail, Peterson wrote, responding to Bashinsky's refusal to attend because Murray hadn't invited the District 2 candidates.
As for Bashinsky, Peterson took a parting shot, saying his decision not to attend "was of course a blessing. Does anyone who wants a serious discussion on a topic, want to listen to someone who thinks he can talk to God, angels, demons, etc?"
Bashinsky later decided to attend after the District 2 candidates were invited.
John Welsh, the former Key West High principal running for District 3, was characteristically practical about the forum.
"It is an opportunity to meet some community members from the Big Pine area," Welsh said in a email to The Citizen on Wednesday. "It seems somewhat unorthodox for a candidate to set up his own forum, but nothing in this campaign surprises me."
Welsh's District 3 race includes Bashinsky, who is known for taking to task just about anyone who displeases him.
At Monday's School Board meeting, Bashinsky scolded member Robin Smith-Martin, who asked the public speakers to "temper" any arguments over the incoming superintendent's contract before anyone stood up to talk.
"Robin, you know better than to say something stupid like that," Bashinsky said. "You know nothing about democracy, freedom of speech. What are you doing on the board?"
To Peterson's "thinks he can talk to God" wisecrack, Bashinsky typed back a lengthy response, calling it a "racist remark about my life," and writing that he considered filing a civil rights violation over it.
But such a charge would be lost on Peterson, Bashinsky wrote and posted to his daily blog, goodmorningfloridakeys.com.
"Mark, you cannot possibly imagine what it is like for someone like me to live on this planet where there are almost no people who are not so devolved from the HOLY DESIGN they came into this world BEARING, that they are viewed in HEAVEN like humans view amoeba," Bashinsky wrote.