CLEARWATER ― This is not a joke. Elizabeth Drayer is adamant about that.
Clearwater needs something different in its next mayor, Drayer says. It doesn’t need a person with a background in finance or government or management. In fact, Clearwater doesn’t need a person at all.
Clearwater needs a sea turtle.
“The goal of this campaign is to elect a nonhuman to give nature a voice,” said Drayer, 58, the latest entrant into the Clearwater mayor’s race, in an interview.
Unfortunately, city rules say that candidates for office must be registered voters who live in Clearwater. Records show that no turtles fit the bill. So Drayer, a retired lawyer and environmental advocate, was planning to run under the name “Sea Turtle.”
She ran into trouble there, too. The city wouldn’t let her unless Drayer legally changed her name. So instead, Drayer will have to sign an affidavit to appear on the Clearwater ballot as “Elizabeth ‘Sea Turtle’ Drayer.”
Drayer said she has spent a lifetime in the environmental movement, and she’s got relatively little to show for it. In her view, the political system must be expanded to include ecosystems and animals. And that means giving them the right to vote and hold office ― through human guardians who would look out for their interests.
Her ideas are not without some precedent. Earlier this year, the citizens of Toledo, Ohio voted to give legal personhood to Lake Erie, theoretically giving citizens the legal role of guardian over the massive body of water. (The measure, which was passed to make it easier to hold polluters legally accountable, was immediately subjected to a legal challenge.)
“It sounds wacky,” Drayer said of her plan to get a turtle elected, “but it really isn’t.”
Still, Drayer appears to be taking the “Rights of Nature” movement a step further than the citizens of Toledo. She wants a legally guarded species in power.
Drayer said she has not selected a particular individual turtle to represent should she win the March 2020 election. Rather, as mayor, she would represent the interests of the loggerhead sea turtle species.
This would be a political sea change in Tampa Bay’s third largest city. Drayer said she understands that, and she’s ready for litigation if it comes to that.
“When our country was founded, women and racial minorities did not have the ability to hold office either,” Drayer said.
Beyond voting rights for animals, Drayer is running on a number of environmental policies, including transitioning Clearwater to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. She worries that unless humans take drastic steps to reverse the environmental destruction they’ve wrought, they will face extinction.
When asked whether she was worried her environmental platform would get lost amid the talk of electing a turtle, Drayer said “yes,” but that “the core goal here is to broaden voting rights and representation.”
The married mother of two joins two other candidates in the Clearwater mayor’s race, both human: former City Council Member Bill Jonson and former Mayor Frank Hibbard. Like her opponents, Drayer has lived in Clearwater for decades and has served on civic boards, such as the Charter Review Committee.
However, Jonson and Hibbard also have deep bases of support. They’ll likely both be able to raise thousands of dollars for their respective runs.
Drayer does not plan to match her opponents’ fundraising efforts.
“I’m not going to accept money contributions,” Drayer said. “The sea turtle cannot be bought.”
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.