Rhonda Rebman Lopez’s campaign is denying it is behind a series of mailers attacking both her opponent for the District 120 state House election and a candidate for a county commission seat in the Florida Keys.
However, at least one of the mailers targeting James “Jim” Mooney, one of Rebman Lopez’s two opponents running in the GOP primary, was sent by South Florida First, a political action committee. She is registered with the state as chairperson.
The others were sent by an electioneering communication office called Voters Response, which shares the same street address in Tallahassee as South Florida First.
“The answer to your question is no,” Max Losner, a spokesman for Rebman Lopez’s campaign, responded in a text to the Miami Herald/FLKeysnews.com when asked if the campaign or a political action committee supporting the campaign sent the mailers.
Rebman Lopez said Friday evening that she did not pay for the mailers and she will investigate who funded them.
“I had nothing to do with this. I’m a Christian woman. I’m from the South. My parents raised me right” she said.
Pressed on whether it’s possible the PAC she chairs could have sent them out without her knowledge, Rebman Lopez said she will look into it.
“I will find out what is going on here,” she said.
One of the mailers, asks, “Who is the real Jim Mooney?” Then it ticks down three other questions. The first, bulleted with the Soviet hammer and sickle, asks: “Communist Sympathizer?” The others ask: “Fiscally Irresponsible?” and “Tax and Spend Liberal?”
Another distorts Mooney’s face, giving him a Cheshire cat-like grin and menacing eyes. That ad accuses him of having an “interest in paving over farmland and destroying our environment to benefit himself.”
Mooney, a Florida Keys real estate agent, is a longtime Islamorada village councilman who identifies himself as a conservative and an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. He labeled the attack ads “childish behavior” when reached Friday.
“The attacks are simply not true. And, to who and where they come from, I think the facts speak for themselves,” Mooney said.
A mailer sent by Voters Response this week also targeted Mike Forster, a colleague of Mooney’s on the village council who is running for a four-year term as a Monroe County commissioner.
It was a 14-page document regarding a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Forster last year by a former employee of his at his Mangrove Mike’s Cafe. Forster denied the allegations, and the suit was settled out of court, and the terms of the agreement were sealed earlier this year.
“There is no secret that I wholeheartedly support Jim Mooney as our next House representative for District 120,” Forster said Friday. “So, that puts me in the firing line of all the dirty negative mailers.”
Forster’s opponent for the county commission seat, Robby Majeska, said in a statement on Facebook Thursday that he condemns the ad and he had nothing to do with it.
“Today I heard of a distasteful mailer being sent around about my opponent. I would like to state on record that I was not the sender or coordinator of this mailer nor did I have any knowledge of its existence until today. I have reached out to Mike to let him know these mailers were not my doing,” Majeska wrote.
Another mailer sent this week went after both Mooney and Forster, showing both of their faces painted green inside a pea pod and accusing them of raising taxes during their time on the village council. It reads: “Jim Mooney & Mike Forster. 2 Peas in a Pod.”
“I’m hopeful, and I believe, the constituents of Monroe County will not put up with this type of negative political campaigning,” Forster said.
Losner on Friday, responding to questions about the mailers, accused Mooney of being behind attack ads against Rebman Lopez.
“However, our campaign would be interested in hearing Mr. Mooney explain the money flowing from developer and special interest-funded PACs in Tallahassee to attack Ms. Rebman Lopez,” Losner said in a text.
Mooney denied any connection to ads attacking Rebman Lopez.
“No idea what that is about,” he said.
Mooney was also the target of mass texted campaign attack ads earlier this summer, one of which was in support of the other Republican candidate, Homestead attorney Alexandria Suarez, who condemned them and says neither she, nor her campaign or advisers sent them.
One accused Mooney of once dating a high school student. Suarez last month called the messages “egregious and vile.” The texts stated they were paid for by a PAC called Help Trump Secure the Border Political Action Committee.
However, that group issued a press release on July 24 condemning the texts, and vehemently denied sending them.
“Last night, a text blatantly misidentified as originating from our organization was sent to voters. It viciously attacked another candidate, Jim Mooney, with salacious verbiage that we believe to be untrue,” the statement read. “The disclaimer ‘Paid for by Help Trump Secure the Border PAC’ was used. Our committee did not send or commission this text. We had nothing to do with it.”
Thomas Wheeler, chairman of the PAC, said he believes allies of Rebman Lopez sent the texts because the organization supports Suarez because it believes she is the “best candidate in the race to support and uphold President Trump’s immigration policies.”
Wheeler’s PAC commissioned a text that went out on July 21 that accused Rebman Lopez’s campaign of accepting a contribution from a company linked to Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, a socialist. He said he believes it is no coincidence that the texts falsely claiming to come from his PAC went out just days later.
“It is also important to note that this misleading text operation began only after we came to the defense of candidate Alexandria Suarez after she was attacked by the Rebman Lopez campaign or her allies,” Wheeler said. “It is our opinion that allies of candidate Rebman Lopez are misusing our disclaimer to try to discredit our organization.”
The Mooney campaign also came under attack from a mysterious party in December, when letters were sent to some of his financial backers with bogus Florida Department of Law Enforcement letterhead. The letters threatened the recipients with criminal action if they contributed any more money to Mooney.
The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office investigated the letters but could not find out who sent them.
Rebman Lopez is president of Peco International Electric Inc., a Miami-based company that exports power equipment to the Caribbean and Central and South America.
She came under fire early on in the campaign because there were doubts over whether she lives in District 120, which includes a portion of South Miami-Dade County and all of the Florida Keys. While a longtime Keys homeowner, her husband’s homestead exemption was outside the district in Dade when she launched her campaign.
In February, she told the Miami Herald that her husband was in the process of changing the family’s homestead exemption, which reduces property taxes on a primary residence, to a house in the posh Ocean Reef community in north Key Largo. It’s not clear if that happened yet.
According to the Monroe County Property Appraiser’s website, the home is held in a trust registered to a Daytona Beach couple. The trust is called the 33 Baker Road Revocable Living Trust.
Losner, Rebman Lopez’s spokesman, did not immediately respond to questions about the homestead exemption. He said she “has been a resident at 33 Baker Road in Key Largo since before getting in the race for state representative.”
The family’s home on Southwest 67th Street in Miami-Dade, which is owned by Rebman Lopez’s husband, Jorge Lopez, received a $50,000 property tax exemption this year, according to the Dade property appraiser’s website.
While Mooney has the backing of much of the state GOP establishment, including current District 120 state Rep. Holly Raschein, who is term-limited from running again, Rebman Lopez has far out-raised all three of her primary opponents.
According to the latest state elections records, her campaign has raised $242,132. Mooney has raised $115,694, and Suarez’s total contributions are $52,756, according to the Florida Department of State website.