Here’s where the money in the Clearwater election is coming from

We follow the cash.
A file photo of the old Clearwater City Hall. The next council will not meet there, but it could be comprised of three new faces once the March 2020 election has come and gone.
A file photo of the old Clearwater City Hall. The next council will not meet there, but it could be comprised of three new faces once the March 2020 election has come and gone. [ JIM DAMASKE | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 14, 2020|Updated Jan. 14, 2020

CLEARWATER ― In a busier-than-usual election season, Clearwater residents have a lot to figure out.

Three City Council races. No fewer than four candidates in each race. Thirteen would-be office holders hoping their message is heard above the din.

Voters don’t get to weigh in until March 17. But a Tampa Bay Times analysis of campaign finance records through Dec. 31 shows how businesses and power brokers are already lining up behind certain candidates.

Take former two-term mayor Frank Hibbard, who’s running again for his old job.

The analysis showed that contributions from businesses accounted for about 25 percent of the $110,469 Hibbard has raised so far. Included in his more than 260 individual donations was influential name after influential name: State Sen. Ed Hooper, DEX Imaging’s chief executive Daniel Doyle Jr. and political action committees associated with Tallahassee fixtures Jack and Chris Latvala.

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And last week, Hibbard won the endorsement of Amplify Clearwater, the local chamber of commerce organization.

“They’ve seen the way I’ve run things previously,” Hibbard said of his donors. “Plus I’ve built relationships. I just know a lot of the players throughout the entire city. I consider them friends, and most of them have the same hopes for Clearwater.”

Former City Council member Bill Jonson, Hibbard’s most well-funded opponent, hasn’t garnered nearly as much support from the influential. Just nine percent of the $25,340 he’s raised has come from businesses or political action committees.

However, two-thirds of Jonson’s contributions came from Clearwater residents, while Hibbard pulled just 48 percent of his donations from within city limits.

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Business owner Morton Myers ($3,100 raised) and lawyer and environmental activist Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer ($20,000 raised) round out the field in the mayor’s race. Their campaigns have been entirely self-funded thus far.

In Clearwater’s city manager system, the mayor is just one vote on the five-person City Council.

In the race for Seat 2 on the City Council — currently occupied by Jay Polglaze, who is not running this time around — the business and political establishment appears to be more divided. The top fundraiser in the race, downtown business owner and artist Lina Teixeira, has garnered 12 percent of the $30,004 she’s raised from businesses.

Although Teixeira won admirers on the chamber through her work downtown, it was attorney Bruce Rector who won the endorsement of Amplify Clearwater. But Rector, the former vice-chair of the Clearwater Regional Chamber, has seen just 3.4 percent of his $11,652 in contributions come from businesses.

Small business owner Michael Mannino, another candidate vying for Seat 2, has more influential money behind him. The analysis showed that more than 40 percent of Mannino’s $10,651 in contributions came from either businesses or political action committees ― including the two close to the Latvalas. He has gotten more money from businesses and political action committees than anybody else in his race.

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The other candidates for seat 2, prominent Scientology critic Mark Bunker and former Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office technician Eliseo Santana Jr., garnered no business support.

Many of Bunker’s donations came from Scientology critics across the country, including attorneys Graham Berry, Ken Dandar and Denis deVlaming, all who have represented clients in legal cases against the church.

A little more than a quarter of Bunker’s $10,066 total came from Clearwater residents. Just 12 percent of Santana’s $3,877 haul came from Clearwater. Both candidates drew support from nearby communities including Palm Harbor and Largo.

In the race for Seat 3, which is currently held by Bob Cundiff, much of the business and political action committee money is lining up behind Bud Elias, an insurance broker. Elias, who has raised over $40,000 so far, has gotten support from a political committee chaired by Rep. Chris Sprowls, the soon-to-be Speaker of the Florida House.

Related story: Frank Hibbard is running for mayor of Clearwater again. Here’s what he had to say about that.

However, Amplify Clearwater did not endorse Elias. Instead, the chamber went with Scott Thomas, a human resources officer and relative newcomer to Clearwater. The Times analysis showed that more than half of Thomas’ $7,613 haul came from Pennsylvania, where until 2018 Thomas served on the Pottsville Area school board, a district with three schools and 2,500 students. Only 10 percent of his donations came from Clearwater.

Cundiff, the incumbent, has only raised about $8,200, with half of that coming from himself. But he overcame the fundraising odds in 2016, when he beat Polglaze for the seat Cundiff now holds.

Finally, retired teacher Kathleen Beckman has attracted no support from the business community. But she says that’s because she hasn’t solicited donations from them. Still, with the help of about $10,000 in donations from her family, Beckman is the second highest fundraiser in the race for Seat 3, with a total pull of $22,381.

“All that money can’t buy votes, “Beckman said. “It can buy a mailer and contact, but it can’t buy a door knock and a face-to-face conversation.”

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Times staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this story.