A Key Battle

The Conch Coalition and Taras Lyssenko claimed environmentalists were out to destroy the culture and economy of the Keys. Voters listened.

Lyssenko says the incident began when Elliot Baron, a restaurateur and environmentalist leader of the pro-sanctuary group Last Stand, wrote an article suggesting Lyssenko was linked to the Moonies. Lyssenko called Baron and left several phone messages, annoying Baron's wife. Lyssenko: "At the meeting I look over and Elliot says, 'You call my house again and bother my wife I'm going to break your face.' Then Dave Holtz says to me, 'Shut your mouth or I'll shut it for you.' When the meeting was over I went outside and Baron had taken off. I went up to Holtz and said 'What are you going to do to me?' This cop jumped in and said to me: 'I witnessed him threaten you inside the meeting; if you want this guy locked up, fine.' I said, 'I'd rather pound his head in.' The cop said, 'I know that but I'm not going to let you do it.' Basically, I think Dave Holtz has lost it. He was the tactical strategist for the pro-sanctuary side leading up to the referendum, and he looks like shit right now."

There is no touching the bottom of this quagmire, and law enforcement personnel in the Keys have largely shrugged and moved on to less muddlesome matters. But if some of the incidents swirling around the sanctuary fight look like frat-house infantilism, they nonetheless illustrate two verities. The first is that despite its causeways and Kwik Stops, Monroe County remains a string of isolated islands that rely heavily on gossip -- the "coconut telegraph" -- and thereby live a civic life through stories that are as much apocryphal as factual. The second is that the political atmosphere around the sanctuary issue has become polarized and has the potential for serious combustion.

Mike Collins: "It's a big leap from what we've seen so far to serious violence. But what you're really afraid of is some guy who's already on the edge, his truck is about to be repossessed, and pretty soon he reacts out of fear and frustration. The Conch Coalition has done a good job scaring people, and the people they've scared have some real reasons to be scared. The demographics and the economics of the Keys are shifting in a way that makes it hard for low-income people to survive down here."

Dave Holtz: "I think Taras and the Conch Coalition feel that if they can stir things up and cause some sort of violent confrontation it will be to their benefit politically. Yes, I think he is purposely trying to foment violence in the Keys. This is an odd place in the world. You have an area where people have moved to get away -- iconoclasts, individualists, nonconformists, roughnecks. And guess what? They've moved to one of the most regulated places in the country. This is the only county in Florida that's been designated an Area of Critical State Concern, a county where the state has said, essentially, 'You are in receivership. We don't trust you to manage your own affairs.'

"The individualists are thrown together with another bunch of people: old folks, liberals who like the environment and the warm weather," Holtz says. "Then you have that other twenty percent of the population who grew up here, who welcomed everyone into their home and find they have to leave because they can't afford to live here any more. It's a hell of a social stew. Even in normal times things are on edge here. And these aren't normal times."

According to Michele Wells-Usher, Conch Coalition vice president and long-time spokeswoman, the real intimidation and misinformation campaign emanates from NOAA and its green allies, who have tried at every turn to ostracize and marginalize the sanctuary opposition -- a strategy she believes has backfired.

"The reason there hasn't been real violence yet is because of people like Taras and this group right here," Wells-Usher says. "We have been the catalyst for control -- not the sanctuary officials and not the enviros. When people were getting mad and getting violent, we said 'We will go before Congress, we will take this issue to a referendum, we will do whatever it takes to fight it.' And we did all those things.

"Four years ago Last Stand's environmentalist president was put in jail for holding the Truman Annex building hostage in Key West and threatening to blow it up, okay?" Wells-Usher says. "And yet Last Stand was the group that came out with ads accusing the Conch Coalition of being extremist radical disinformation mongers with a tendency toward violence. I am still waiting for anybody to give me substantiation of any of these allegations against our members."

County Commissioner Mary Kay Reich, a charter member of the Conch Coalition, was re-elected the same day voters rejected the sanctuary at the polls. She warns that Tallahassee and Washington would do well to heed the sentiment expressed in the referendum. If not? "Then I think, if anything, we're going to see an escalation, a violent reaction. How violent, I wouldn't even hazard to guess."

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