CLEARWATER — A couple of thousand Clearwater voters went to the polls Tuesday to elect two City Council members, but the truth is that this election was likely decided before those people ever drove to their local voting precinct.
Of the 8,026 voters who cast ballots in Clearwater, nearly three-fourths of them voted by mail before Election Day rolled around.
And every Clearwater resident who requested a mail-in ballot also got political fliers in their mailboxes from only two candidates, Paul Gibson and Bill Jonson, who went on to win.
Their campaigns requested regular updates from elections officials about which voters had ordered absentee ballots. They followed up by sending their mailers to those voters. That helped Gibson and Jonson fend off challengers and to win 57 and 55 percent of the vote in their respective races.
"I wish we would have had the money to send out those fliers to absentee voters," said candidate Herb Quintero, who finished second to Jonson with 17 percent of the vote. "We gave it a hell of a shot. If we had the money, I think I would have been more of a contender."
There was a big difference in the amount of money spent. The two victors' campaigns were noticeably better-funded than those of their competitors, who were political newcomers running low-budget, grass roots efforts.
Gibson, the only incumbent in the race, raised $12,300, several times as much as his challenger, Mike Riordon. Gibson also donated thousands of dollars to his own campaign.
Jonson, a former two-term councilman, got plenty of donations from fellow Republican officials and members of Clearwater's old guard. Jonson raised about $20,000 — three times as much as his three rivals combined.
"I congratulate Bill Jonson for his political acumen. That's the reason he won the election," said Joe Paige, who finished third in the race for Seat 4.
Paige, who wants a smaller government and publicly called for closing three Clearwater libraries, suspects he was too blunt with voters: "Telling people that they can't have something is not a way to win a local election."
The two winners performed better in the mail-in ballots than they did among walk-in voters. Jonson won 56 percent of mail ballots and 50 percent of walk-in ballots. Gibson won 59 percent of mail ballots and 51 percent of walk-in ballots.
"I think I lost large on the absentee ballots," said Gibson's opponent, Riordon. "A lot of people get a postcard and they say, 'The other guy didn't send me one. I'll support this guy.' "
Riordon, who was endorsed by Clearwater's firefighters union, was the candidate who was most critical of City Hall. By getting 43 percent of the overall vote, he did better at the polls than some political observers expected he would.
"I never asked one person for money," Riordon said. "If the City Council thinks this is a referendum saying they're doing a good job, they're delusional."
A few other points about Tuesday's election:
• With the departure of Councilwoman Carlen Petersen, the Clearwater City Council will now be all male for the first time in well over a decade.
• Jonson and Gibson, ages 65 and 61, were the oldest candidates of the six who ran.
• Clearwater's next election in 2012 will feature two open City Council seats because Mayor Frank Hibbard and Councilman John Doran are term-limited out of office.
• Because Tuesday's turnout was disappointingly low, Hibbard thinks Clearwater should move its municipal elections from March to coincide with November general elections. Voter turnout was only about 8 percent with slightly more than 8,000 Clearwater residents voting.
Now that the campaign is over, the two winners can hardly believe it went by so quickly.
"I just had the help of so many people. It's a huge factor in my success," Jonson said. "People who walked neighborhoods with me, and who stood on a corner on a very cold morning in a very strong wind and waved signs at cars coming off the beach."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.