The shirt displays the silhouette of a dachshund on its back, feet pointing skyward.
“My Weiner does tricks,” the shirt reads. His mother instantly swoops in, leading father, young son and his smirking teenage brother through the crowds of cruise-ship tourists that spill off the sidewalk and onto the street.
Cruise-ship tourists, the bawdy clothing stores and cheap curio shops that feed their impulse buying and the giant cruise ships that trail mile-long plumes of mud as they pass through a federally protected marine sanctuary are the focus of what may be one of the country’s strangest and most ferocious municipal elections.
It’s a campaign that is measuring the limits of tolerance in this city celebrated for its embrace of the eccentric, the off-kilter and the outré. It also may be the only small-town election this year where gays, transsexuals, bisexuals and drag queens constitute a major voting bloc; where the issues include the sex lives of tiny coral polyps and a giant prehistoric fish, or where one side is led by a local contractor and writer who has authored a play about a conflicted metrosexual zombie.
At issue in the vote Tuesday is a referendum backed by the local chamber of commerce. It directs the city commission to request the Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of widening the main shipping channel from 300 to 450 feet to accommodate larger cruise ships.
The channel would be enlarged by dredging up a mile-long, 150-foot-wide swath of living corals, sponges, sand, mud and “live rock” — chunks of stone encrusted with marine life — from the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The resulting campaign has kept Key West’s 25,000 residents alternately entertained and appalled through the sweltering summer and into the fall.
Supporters of the dredging study are pilloried as a few greedy business owners with little regard for the environment or the equally fragile charms of their island city.
Opponents are ridiculed as “coral huggers” and elitists who would sacrifice local jobs to remake Key West into the Hamptons.
“This campaign is fierce!” said Sushi, the unofficial queen of the Key West drag queens and a local resident who is lowered in a giant ruby slipper outside a club on Duval each New Year’s Eve as CNN cameras roll.
New style of cruise ships
To supporters of the dredging study, the wider channel is necessary to accommodate the latest generation of cruise ships that are replacing an aging stock of smaller vessels on the Caribbean circuit.
The new ships carry 4,300 passengers and crew, and measure 1,110 feet in length and 127 feet wide — too long and wide to safely enter the existing channel.
Without a wider front door, these floating cities will continue to bypass Key West and the city’s $87 million cruise ship industry will wither, said lawyer Jennifer Hulse, the head of the pro-study group. Cruise ship tourism has plunged 30 percent since 2003, in part because of the narrow channel. A projected 714,000 tourists — roughly a third of all city visitors — will arrive in Key West aboard cruise ships this season, down 16 percent from the previous year, she said.