A DAY BEFORE the filing deadline, West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James has drawn an opponent in the March election, and it’s a name he’s familiar with — Subculture Group owner Rodney Mayo.
Mayo — the man behind the Subculture Roasters coffee chain, Hospitality Helping Hands charity and an ever-expanding empire of popular restaurants — went to City Hall on Monday, Nov. 14, and filed papers to run for mayor.
“I am not a politician. I am here for one term, to change as much as I can and then I'm going back to coffee,’’ he said, wearing a polo shirt, shorts and sandals when he dropped off two checks for the $9,000 qualifying fee.
“I'm just a business person who wants to see better things happen,’’ he said.
Rodney Mayo unveiled his campaign logo on Nov. 17, 2022.
The election is March 14.
James’ campaign consultant, Rick Asnani of Cornerstone Solutions, said his client would welcome any legitimate challenger. But Asnani said he planned to ask election officials to look into whether Mayo is qualified under residency rules to seek office in West Palm Beach.
According to the city charter, “a candidate for the office of mayor shall have continuously resided in the city during the six-month period immediately prior to the date of election.’’
Mayo owns a home in Lantana, but he also owns a building at 520 Clematis Street, where he said he lives and spends most nights in an apartment above his nightclub Respectable Street. He said he has maintained a water utility connection there since 1985.
He said the Clematis Street address is on his driver’s license and voter registration.
“People know I live, eat and breathe downtown,’’ Mayo said.
Asnani said he is not convinced Mayo is a West Palm Beach resident.
“I think this requires a closer look,’’ Asnani said. “We look forward to seeing him prove it.”
Mayo, 59, has flirted with the idea of running for mayor off and on over the years. He said the idea of James winning a second term by default because no one would challenge him spurred him to finally throw his hat in the ring and try to clean up the West Palm Beach “political swamp.”
“I'm the anti-politician,’’ he said. “I think people are ready.’’
Mayo, who has never sought public office, said he will present an action plan over the next 10 weeks called "10 Points of Light. "These will not be one-liner talking points but rather detailed steps to accomplish our goals for our City,'' he said in a Facebook post Nov. 17.
Although his name might be one letter removed from the office he’s seeking, he initially dismissed as “cheesy” any notion of a “Mayo for mayor” campaign motto. But by Nov. 17, he changed his mind and unveiled "Mayo 4 Mayor.''
Interim City Clerk Jacquline Mobley watches Rodney Mayo file paperwork Nov. 14, 2022, to run for mayor of West Palm Beach. (Joe Capozzi)
‘’I’m definitely in it to win it,’’ Mayo said in an interview, trying to quash speculation that his candidacy is a publicity stunt.
“Do I expect to win? I don't know,’’ he said. “I think I will get a decent amount (of votes). I don’t think it’s going to be a slam dunk but I think some issues will come out and (James) will be forced to answer some questions.’’
Two other mayoral candidates, Katherine Kress and Matthew Luciano, filed papers expressing interest in running for mayor but backed out before the Nov. 15 qualifying deadline.
Two city commissioners, Shalonda Warren and Joseph Peduzzi, automatically won new terms because they are not being challenged.
Mayo knows he’s facing a formidable opponent in James, a former city commissioner who has amassed a campaign war chest of more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Luciano said he had trouble collecting donations, which he thinks was because of James’ influence on potential doors.
“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me, very supportive, but they won't write a check and they are afraid of backlash from the mayor for some reason,’’ he said.
Unlike James’ campaign, Mayo doesn’t want big money. He said he will only accept contributions of no more than $100 from individuals and businesses. He said he won’t accept money from political action committees or special interests.
In West Palm Beach, the mayor's job is what's known as a "strong mayor,'' in effect the city's chief executive officer directing the administration.
By challenging James, Mayo said he hopes to shine a spotlight on what he and other downtown business owners see as festering problems at City Hall under a mayor Mayo has accused on social media of employing “pay-to-play politics” and bullying tactics with political opponents.
Mayo owns two restaurants on the 500 block of Clematis and one on Narcissus Avenue. He is credited with reviving the 500 block after opening Respectable Street Cafe in 1987.
He has been critical of downtown parking fees, noise limitations and sidewalk cafe fees.
Mayo said he has no animosity toward James, even though he and the mayor have had their differences over the years.
In 2020, Mayo told The Palm Beach Post that James blocked Mayo’s proposed Clematis Street drive-in theater project because Mayo and his partners didn't contribute to James' 2019 mayoral campaign. A meeting in June of that year between Mayo and James ended with the mayor accusing Mayo of exercising "white privilege" for expecting the city to give him whatever he asked for, according to the Post.
Mayo said he has tried to communicate with James. “He’s the one who ignores me. He refuses to answer my emails,’’ he said.
Mayo’s campaign treasurer is Kristen Dagata, the operations and events manager for Subculture Group, which oversees 17 restaurants. Although Mayo has not hired a campaign consultant, he is taking advice from former city commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, Mayo’s childhood friend.
But Mayo, who grew up in West Palm Beach, sought to dismiss any notion that, if elected, he’d be a puppet for Mitchell.
“I am not naive enough to think I can go from business to government and answer all the questions,’’ he said.“I will take whatever experience and resources that are out there.’’
Mitchell, a commissioner from 2002 to 2015, when she ran for mayor and lost to Jeri Muoio, said she has no interest in getting back into city politics. But she said will offer advice to help her longtime friend.
If Mayo wins, she won’t be in control, she said.
“If that’s what some people think, then they have a fundamental misunderstanding of Rodney,’’ she said.
Rodney Mayo leaves the clerk's office Nov. 14, 2022, after filing paperwork to run for mayor (Joe Capozzi)
“Like anything I've ever done with him, it's his vision and you carry it out. That's it,'' Mitchell said.
"He wants input and ideas, but when Rodney moves on anything it's because it's sitting inside of him. He calculates it and designs it. He's got friends and people that he trusts and they go and execute it.’’
Mayo is like “a Joel Daves in a younger body with incredible business sense. That's who Rodney is,’’ she said, referring to the late former West Palm Beach mayor, who served many years as a commissioner before serving as mayor.
Mitchell said she tried to talk Mayo out of running as recently as Saturday, warning him about how ugly politics can get. He wouldn’t hear of it.
“I do believe every once in a while really good people can succeed in politics,’’ she said. “This is that once in a while. This is when lightning strikes.’’
Mayo can “bring true integrity and magic back to a town that deserves it and absolutely needs it,’’ she said. “It's never about him.’’
Mayo said he doesn’t own a suit. He is comfortable in shorts, sandals and T-shirts, usually ones advertising Joy Division, The Cure and other alternative bands whose music is played at Respectable Street.
“Does Rodney look like a politician? Heck no,’’ said Sean Scott, who helped Mayo launch Subculture Coffee Roasters before moving to North Carolina in 2020, in part because of his discontent over West Palm Beach downtown policies.
“He wears flip flops and T-shirts and shorts and he has long, tousled hair and he sleeps till 2 p.m.,’’ Scott said. “Not your image of a put-together attorney or businessman but he does know a lot. He has experience in the city for over 30 years. He has a lot to offer.’’
Once dubbed the “Prince of Darkness” in a newspaper profile — a nod to the hours he keeps — Mayo has often joked that he doesn't have the patience to sit in a City Commission meeting for three hours.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not mayoral material.
“He's absolutely mayor material,’’ Mitchell said. “He's the most reluctant politician you and I will ever know.’’
Mayo’s supporters warn against underestimating Mayo’s popularity in town and at the polls. They also point to the openness of voters in current political times to cast ballots for unconventional candidates.
They ask: If former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura can become governor of Minnesota, if singer Sonny Bono became a California congressman, if comedian Al Frankel can become a U.S. senator, if a former reality TV show host can become president of the United States, why can’t the man behind Subculture Coffee become mayor of West Palm Beach?
“Rodney is an idea guy,’’ said Scott, who flirted briefly, at Mayo’s urging, with a run for mayor a few years ago before backing out.
“He really cares about the city and he wants to get things done. If he has the right team in place, I think he will be a powerful voice whether he wins or not.’’
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
(Editor's note: Joe Capozzi is co-host of The Reporters, a weekly radio show sponsored by Subculture Group, which Rodney Mayo owns).
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.