In eclectic Key West, a guitar-playing commissioner jamming with his siblings in a band called ‘Total Recall,’ is not out of the ordinary. Ordinary could hardly be used to describe Commissioner Clayton Lopez and his inclusive leadership philosophy.
Born and raised in the southernmost tip of Florida, Commissioner Clayton Lopez brings a fiscally conservative, socially liberal approach to the position that he has held for nine years. His is a unique way of serving that includes a willingness to buck popular opinion.
For example, when some local ministers refused to allow gay participation in the Christmas parade during the 1990s, Lopez and his wife, Pam, marched in the parade to protest. His commitment to championing the rights of all people, including the gay community, has earned him three ‘Celebrating Achievement and Pride Awards’ from gay organizations citing him as a ‘Community Friend.’
The only black commissioner was elected in 2005, soon after Hurricane Wilma ripped through the city. Lopez had to hit the ground running to assist his constituents while dealing with his own loss.
“My wife and I lost our home in Hurricane Wilma,” Lopez told the South Florida Times.
He said that he spent his first term plus one year living in a FEMA trailer, providing him a bird’s eye view of the devastation experienced by his constituents because he and his family experienced it, too.
Lopez, 61, said that he and his fellow commissioners worked together to assist people after the storm.
“We banded together and helped deliver supplies, ice and other necessary things,” said Lopez, who will leave office in 2016 due to term limits.
Whether he is in office or not, Lopez said that he will always serve, in part, because it’s in his DNA.
“My father [Charles Lopez Sr.] was always involved in politics although he never ran for or held office. My grandfather was always involved in the community and helping others. These are the two men, as well as my uncle and other men in the community, who saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” Lopez explained.
A Key West health clinic is named after his grandfather, Roosevelt Sands Sr. “My uncle, Roosevelt Sands Jr. is also
someone that is well known for his community service.”
Lopez was 13-years old when he helped organize and participate in a march against a segregated Key West skating rink. He said that while the racial tolerance in Key West has certainly increased, the black population has not.
“Racially, minorities, the black population has diminished,” he explained. “The earliest settlers were the Bahamian settlers and a large number of them were black. Back in those days, there wasn’t a lot for them to depend on besides each
Being the only black on the commission comes with advantages and disadvantages. Lopez said that they often mirror each other.
“Advantages are that I can give a perspective that my colleagues are maybe sympathetic to, but may not be able to feel or understand fully as I can,” he said. “But that’s also the disadvantage because when I go to present an issue that deals primarily with the African American or minority in general population, the majority of my colleagues are very sympathetic, very empathetic, but the fact is that I have to really work sometimes to make them understand what if you haven’t been through it, it’s difficult to understand.”
Commissioner Teri Johnston has shared the dais with Lopez for the past seven years. She said that it is an honor to work with him.
“Commissioner Lopez is a man of principles and integrity with a deep, deep commitment to family and community,” Johnston said.
In the two years that he has left to serve as a commissioner, Lopez said that he wants to see “shovel to ground,” regarding the development of affordable housing. “There are a number of things on the table but I have to confess that we haven’t done enough, myself included.”
Developing the property on the Truman Waterfront is a chief priority.
“Ten years prior to my becoming commissioner, this property has been on the books and we’ve been hearing all of these wonderful plans that were supposed to take place that would have provided affordable housing and nothing was done. We’re looking closer to actually making that happen,” said Lopez, who expects to see ground broken in 2015.
Meanwhile, Lopez and his siblings recently performed at the city’s annual Goombay celebration. Although most of their gigs are for charity, he said that they play “every chance we get.”
“My brother, my sister and I have been playing for over 50 years. My sister was so young that we used to have to get permission for her to play with us in the clubs,” Lopez explained of the band’s early years.
As far as his political legacy, Lopez said, “It’s not about the politics, it’s about the service.”
Michelle Hollinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org