CLEARWATER — The puzzling political newcomer seeking the city's most visible seat proved a no-show this week at a series of election events, continuing her unprecedented vanishing act and drawing into doubt the seriousness of her mayoral campaign.
Christine Marketos-Cuomo's empty seat at a Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition forum Monday night shocked attendees, alienated organizers and emboldened the mystery that has grown in her public absence.
But her refusals to meet with firefighters, city leaders and business groups have also incited anger among local voters, who question why she would run for the city's top office without a hint of experience or the desire to speak or campaign.
"This is not a joke," said Norma Carlough, a longtime city volunteer and former council candidate who attended the forum, the first of the election season. "These are serious times. I can't imagine what she's thinking."
At the forum Vice Mayor George Cretekos, Marketos-Cuomo's opponent in the mayor's race, was able to speak without opposition on city issues like taxes, Scientology, panhandling and the downtown.
Dotting the Salvation Army Joy Center, where a crowd of 90 attended, his campaign signs punctuated his opponent's shortcomings: "George Cretekos: Here to Listen, Here to Work."
For incumbents and challengers both, the forums can serve as critical venues for sketching out platforms and shaking voters' hands. Council members-elect Doreen DiPolito and Jay Polglaze attended, even though they are unopposed in the Jan. 31 city election.
The forums also allow voters to learn about candidates' priorities. One example: Red light cameras, promoted by outgoing Mayor Frank Hibbard and council member John Doran, see little support from Cretekos, Polglaze or DiPolito, and could face stiff criticism when the new members are sworn in next month.
Yet for Marketos-Cuomo, a virtual unknown never seen on a city board, the forum only added to her growing list of missed events.
She said she would attend an interview with the Sand Key Civic Association last week, then skipped it. She never responded to firefighters seeking an endorsement interview. She rejected an interview with the regional Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, CLEARPAC, then skipped the beach chamber's forum Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency.
"Her mere absence disqualifies her from being an elected official, as far as I'm concerned," said the current mayor, Hibbard, who attended Monday's forum. "You can't hide from the public. That's who you serve. It's absurd."
Over emails Monday night, Marketos-Cuomo repeatedly dodged the question of why she missed the forum, saying she informed the coalition in advance of her absence and writing, "Let's leave it at that and let's go forward."
When pressed, Marketos-Cuomo wrote her absence was due to "campaign reasons." She would not elaborate.
Neighborhood coalition president Shelley Kuroghlian said Marketos-Cuomo stalled on whether she would attend for more than a month before saying she was scheduled for another event.
"I think we deserve to know what and where that event was," Kuroghlian said. "You owe it to the citizens of Clearwater to let us know who you are and what you do."
With two other City Council seats lacking opposition, Marketos-Cuomo's sudden filing in November for the mayor's race kept the city election from being canceled. The election will cost tens of thousands of dollars.
But her campaign, funded mostly by about $800 of her own money, has flown almost entirely below the radar. Signs of her campaign are discussed among city leaders like sightings of a rare bird.
"Nobody knows who she is, what she looks like, her position on anything," said Hoyt Hamilton, a former three-term City Council member. "I wouldn't know the lady if she walked up and kicked me in the shin."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.