Editor’s note: Ahead of the March 13 election, the Tampa Bay Times is publishing profiles on Clearwater City Council candidates for Seat 4 today. Profiles on candidates for Seat 5 will appear next week.
CLEARWATER — Tom Keller is the first one to admit it.
He’s earnest in his passion for the city, but strikingly self aware. When it comes campaigning for political office, he’s a little over his head.
"This is all new to me," he said. "I’ve got a learning curve."
But that very greenness, and his disconnect from the local political scene, is the motivation behind his run for City Council Seat 4 in the March 13 election. Keller, 56, a longtime salesman for Metropolitan Media Company, said he is making his first bid for public office to ensure ordinary citizens are represented and to inspire more residents to participate in local government — especially those who never felt welcome in City Hall before.
Keller is running against retired contractor David Allbritton, a well-known figure in the community armed with the funding of Clearwater’s business and political brass. The two are vying for the seat being vacated by the term-limited Bill Jonson.
"If it’s about (raising) money, I’m not going to make it, but if it isn’t, I think I’ve got a good chance," Keller said. "People are really concerned about their neighborhoods and getting represented."
Keller has raised $12,050 to date, but $10,000 of that has come from his own pockets, according to the most recent available campaign treasurer report. Allbritton has raised almost all of his $13,647 from outside sources.
Keller grew up in South Tampa, raised by a father who was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and a homemaker mother who cared for the four children. He graduated from Flagler College in 1986, where he played for the baseball team, and began work with Metropolitan in 1987.
After years of volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Oldsmar Cares, and organizing the annual Frenchy’s Fun Raiser Tennis Tournament, Keller said he decided to move into politics this year after watching several City Council candidates run unopposed in previous elections.
Mayor George Cretekos and City Council member Doreen Caudell were both re-elected in March 2016 with no challengers.
Caudell also ran unopposed for her first term in 2012. Former City Council member Jay Polglaze won his first term in 2012 facing no opposition but was ousted in 2016 by challenger Bob Cundiff.
"Over the years I’d see people go unopposed and it always bothered me," Keller said. "I’ve always been in team sports ... so I’m just used to competition."
Keller said he also hopes his no-name leap into politics inspires residents to attend more City Council meetings, get involved on boards and take ownership in the city that can sometimes feel controlled by a select few.
Only 21.8 percent of eligible voters went to the ballot for the November referendum, a participation rate Keller would like to change. On the March 2016 ballot, which had the presidential primary and one contested City Council seat, only 40.5 percent of Clearwater voters turned out.
If elected, Keller said his priority would be to advocate for more activities for Clearwater’s youth, especially in the east side of the city. He said he’d like to see lights at city basketball and tennis courts stay on later.
Currently, outdoor lights on city courts can be manually turned on by users until 11 p.m., when the system is shut down for the night, according to Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar.
Keller said he would advocate for the swift implementation of Imagine Clearwater, the city’s $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan, but would be a watchdog to ensure conservative spending on construction costs.
He said he supports the plan as a way to revitalize the city’s long-struggling downtown. He said while the Church of Scientology takes immaculate care of its properties, its overwhelming presence downtown can be a deterrent to the general public.
"If they are going to buy property downtown or buy any more, is it going to be something all the citizens can enjoy?" Keller said. "Moving forward, I want to speak to them and tell them my desire with anything they’re doing, I don’t want to have to convert to Scientology to enjoy stuff they’re doing down there. We can’t just have Scientology downtown."
Keller said he is interested in improving communication between the city and the church, which has frayed in recent months, but that he has not yet been in touch with church officials for his campaign.
Relieving traffic congestion on the beach is another priority for Keller, who said he believes the solution may come from private enterprise. But apart from the beach and downtown, Keller said he wants all of the city, including east Clearwater, Countryside and the U.S. 19 business district to feel they have an advocate in him.
His campaign strategy so far has been word-of-mouth. When he filed initial paper work in September to announce his candidacy, Keller said he had no idea he’d have to collect 250 signatures to officially qualify.
While his opponent kicked off his campaign with a party featuring some of Clearwater’s most well-known figures, Keller said he decided against a big to-do.
"I wouldn’t even know if anyone would come," he said.
And that’s his most valuable quality of all, he said.
"I’m not influenced by any special interests or cliques going in," Keller said. "We need that independence and fresh perspective on the city council, and I pledge to stay that way for as long as I serve."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.