From founding Islamorada as a city to becoming a Florida State Representative, Jim Mooney has followed his passion for preserving the small-town feel of the Keys, despite never wanting to be a politician.
Growing right alongside the Keys since the 1950s, Mooney has watched dunes turn into highways and neighborhoods turn into cities, inspiring a sense of pride and protectiveness that has guided his life.
Jim Mooney’s parents moved to the Islamorada area in 1953, when Jim was only 3 years old. His stepdad (Pop) was a former Navy man, which led to the life of a fishing guide. “Pop fished many notable fishermen, but Harry Truman would be at the top of that list,” Jim shares. He still has an autographed note from Truman wishing him the “best of luck in your future.” Little did either of them know that that little boy would become a State Representative someday.
In addition to being a fishing guide, Pop worked with Jim’s mom, Louise. They were bartenders and servers at the still famous Green Turtle restaurant and became caretakers of an estate on Lower Matecumbe. Jim, his sister Pam, and little Brother Frank, called the estate a wonderland, where prestigious people from all over came to stay, including Coach Bear Bryant. Unfortunately, the main house and the caretaker house Jim’s family lived in were destroyed in 1960 by Hurricane Donna, which were eventually rebuilt.
His parents later bought Jack’s Bar and “worked 7 days a week and what seemed like 20 hours a day to make sure our lives were as good as possible.” Jim and his siblings made the most of growing up in a small community nestled in paradise. “No A/C, tons of mosquitos, and no see ums, but life was great.” The handful of kids on the island owned the beaches, spending their days boating, fishing, and snorkeling. They even created a surf club and surfed Conch Reef (which didn’t thrill their parents) and what is now known as Bahia Honda State Park.
You’d think kids with so much free rein would get themselves into a lot of trouble, but Mooney says it was impossible. “We couldn’t get away with anything because every neighbor was like family. They all kept us in line.”Jim also played every school sport his “skinny legs” allowed. After graduating from Coral Shores, in a class of roughly 40 kids, Jim Mooney went to the University of Miami and returned as a teacher and coach.
After 6 years, however, Mooney left his teaching position after discovering a leg tumor. His long-time coach and mentor encouraged him to take a break and enjoy his youth more. It was great advice for a young man who just learned he’s not invincible, despite what an adventurous childhood led him to believe.
So, Mooney packed up his surfboard, headed to Mexico, and moved around surfing for a while. He couldn’t stay away for long, though. The Keys were and always would be his home. Mooney had loved teaching but decided to go into business when he returned. He opened a small landscaping company and married Betsy, whose family owned The Trading Post. After their two kids came along, Erica and Michael, they bought the store from Betsy’s parents.
As fate would have it, that store played a role in Jim going into politics. While he was stocking produce, Ron Levy came into the store and said, “Hi Jim, I heard you wanted to start a city.” That one greeting lit fire to an idea Jim had been tossing around with others. The Keys community was growing exponentially, and Jim knew that if they didn’t guide its growth, they’d be surrounded by high rises.
By turning their community into the village of Islamorada, the locals would have more say in how their small town evolved. So, Jim, Ron Levy, and a group of about 40 other advocates led the charge. The group succeeded, and the village was incorporated on November 4, 1997. Jim Mooney was not interested in running for council; However, others insisted that he fit the “keep it local” motto that the village was founded on. He acquiesced and was elected as a councilman in March 1998.
“The first 4 years as councilman were, at best, purgatory,” Mooney laughs gruffly. “It was endless meetings and a big learning curve for all of us. No matter what you did, you got flack back from friends or others who did not like change.” Despite the difficulties, it was worth it in the end, and when he was nominated for Mayor in 2001, he accepted.
“I didn’t run for office because I wanted to. I ran because I didn’t think anyone else was in it for the right reason,” Mooney explains. “If it doesn’t absolutely come from your heart, then it’s not the right reason. I love this community and didn’t want them to get anything less.”That mentality and his strong connection to the local community played a big role in his time as mayor, especially when Hurricane Irma hit in 2017. “We were the first to recover due to our incredible staff and the Council that trusted decisions I made during that event.
Since Mooney grew up in the Keys, he knows it’s not a question of if but when. “I know first hand how devastating a hurricane be. My family wouldn’t have survived if we hadn’t left when Hurricane Donna hit. As a district, we always have to be prepared.” The same passion that overcame his reluctance to run for councilman and become mayor for two terms led him to run for State Representative of HD 120 in 2020. He was quickly endorsed by State Representative Holly Raschein and Senator Anitere Flores and won the majority vote.
With his experience as councilman and mayor, Mooney was ready for the strong learning curve every new Representative must overcome. Even though bills and the committees are much more dynamic, he took the same mindset that served him well in the Keys and applied it to this higher position. “You have to hear all sides to be an effective leader,” Mooney says. “It should never be about ego because your name comes off the door every 18 months. Names fade away quickly, but the policies and bills we help put in place don’t.”
Representative Mooney cleared the way for the sheriff’s department to build up to 50 units outside of ROGO for the community’s first responders. He also opened the doors for the Land Authority to go directly after needed funds instead of going through time-consuming county and city channels. In his first term, he also brought home $80 million in funding critical to helping the Keys’ environment and maintaining a way of life HD 120 citizens deserve.
More than flashy bills, Mooney is proud of making unsung policy changes that made practical differences for the community. He also takes pride in fostering the relationships that were formed before him and nurturing relationships for those to follow, ensuring as much gets done as possible every term. Jim Mooney is now running for re-election as Florida State Representative for District 120. “I became a representative not to oppose change but to preserve who we are. We can make progress while preserving our small-town feel and protecting our beautiful environment.
(Paid by Jim Mooney, Republican, for State Representative District 120)
Contributed By: Jerrica Mah is a writer, Army wife, and freelance book editor, who loves to travel with her family.