Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Politics

Pinellas supervisor of elections Deborah Clark faces familiar opponent

In 2008, Jack Killingsworth ran a traditional campaign.

He distributed yard signs and fliers. He attended political events and talked with voters. In the weeks before Election Day, he bought TV ads to get his message out.

It didn't work.

Killingsworth suffered a crushing defeat in his bid to become Pinellas County's supervisor of elections, losing to the incumbent supervisor, Deborah Clark, by a margin of 23 percent.

Four years later, Killingsworth is challenging Clark again. The office is too significant to go uncontested, he says.

"It's an important job, and it's not being done well," Killingsworth said. "I can't think of any other more important office."

Many have written off his effort to oust the popular incumbent, but he insists there is much that is different this time around.

Killingsworth, 78, a registered Democrat, is running this time with no party affiliation, hoping voters will appreciate a nonpartisan approach to a nonpartisan office. He has forgone the purchase of campaign signs and other materials, relying almost exclusively on mailers and a shoe leather effort with volunteers to get his message out.

And he has almost double the money of his opponent, thanks to two large donations he gave his own campaign, totaling $26,000. The investment, he says, is worth it.

Clark, 63, has largely ignored her opponent, even avoiding mentioning his name in conversation. She instead emphasizes the immediate concerns of her job as an elected official, challenges she has faced and how her office has met them.

"The job comes first," Clark said, noting that with a busy election year, she has not had as much time to campaign for herself. "I'm hopeful that voters will re-elect me. But I also have a strong resolve to do the job they elected me to do."

Supervisors of elections, who make about $128,000 a year, are responsible for overseeing all county, state and local elections, assisting local candidates with filing procedures, and registering new voters.

Chief among Clark's challenges has been the state's effort to purge noncitizens from voter rolls, an issue she uses to underscore her own leadership.

When the state produced a list of 36 potential noncitizens who were registered to vote in Pinellas County, Clark removed two people who verified that they were not citizens. But she sent the remaining list back to the state with a request that officials provide documentation verifying the reason for each voter's removal. She never heard back.

Despite her reluctance to comply with the state's request, Killingsworth accuses Clark of being complicit in efforts to suppress the vote.

He points to her closure in 2008 of all but three of Pinellas County's early voting locations. She wants to limit early voting, he says, because more Democrats tend to use that method to cast their ballots.

Clark, a Republican, responds that early voting locations are expensive to operate and don't necessarily increase turnout. Her office has instead promoted the use of mail-in ballots, which she says are more cost-efficient.

Clark has worked for the Pinellas County elections office for more than 30 years, holding its top job for 12. Her tenure as supervisor has not been without error and controversy, a fact that Killingsworth exploits as much as he can.

He notes her office's mishandling of some ballots in 2004, among other issues, as evidence that she is incapable of managing a modern, computer-based voting system.

Most recently, on the night of the primary election, a piece of computer equipment, known as a "gateway," failed to route election results from telephone lines into a computer server. The glitch forced Clark's staff to deliver the data by hand at local elections offices throughout the county.

She has learned from past mistakes, she says, and her office has backup plans in the event of unforeseen circumstances.

The latest mishap, Killingsworth says, is just one more in a litany of problems marking Clark's time as supervisor, revealing flawed leadership.

But will his efforts to unseat her pay off this time? The numbers suggest not.

The results of a telephone survey of more than 800 likely Pinellas County voters, released last month by local polling group StPetePolls, showed Killingsworth with 30 percent of the vote compared with Clark's 56 percent, with 12 percent undecided.

Still, he is confident in his approach.

"Everyone I talk to, there is support," Killingsworth said. "I've met a lot of people who don't particularly like Miss Clark, but they would never vote for a Democrat. There is a significant advantage in running for office in a totally nonpartisan way."

Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]

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