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In Clearwater, a new campaign pitch: City Council needs diversity

A varied field of candidates creates potential to change the council’s all-male, all-white makeup.

CLEARWATER — When City Council candidate Lina Teixeira asked for the chamber of commerce’s support ahead of the March 17 election, she thought her resume could earn the endorsement.

She owns three businesses. As president of the Downtown Merchants Association, she’s helped entrepreneurs navigate code enforcement and relay concerns to city officials. Her constant presence in business advocacy over the past five years had Teixeira, 50, pegged by many as a member of the chamber’s inner circle.

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But ClearPAC, the chamber’s political arm, instead endorsed Bruce Rector, 56, for Seat 2, an attorney who does not own a business but has served as the chamber’s vice chair. It also chose men over female candidates in the two other contested races, as did the city’s police and fire unions.

“It’s the status quo, fear of change, and it’s disappointing,” Teixeira said. “There is a push back, there is an establishment that doesn’t feel there is a need for diversity, and that in itself is problematic because in order to better represent your people, you need to represent them in every way.”

Out of 13 candidates running for three open seats on the council, three women and one Hispanic man are highlighting the diversity they would bring to a governing body that for all of its history has been disproportionately white and male.

Among Pinellas County’s 24 municipalities, Clearwater stands out as one of only two with all-white, all-male elected officials. The other is Redington Beach, population 1,500. It’s a striking contrast to nearby St. Petersburg, where six of the eight council members are women, two are gay and two of the women are black — a first for the city.

In Clearwater’s 129-year history, nine women have been elected to the city’s governing body and one was appointed to fill a vacancy. Three African Americans have served, the last in 1993.

That record is not lost on Teixeira and two other female candidates, Kathleen Beckman and Elizabeth ‘Sea Turtle’ Drayer, who is running as a human guardian to represent nature as an environmental rights candidate. A desire to better represent undeserved residents is also what helped inspire the candidacy of Eliseo Santana, who is Puerto Rican.

“We thrive when there is participation, and within the city of Clearwater I have not seen the level of participation that is healthy,” said Santana, a retired technical supervisor running for Seat 2.

Deborah Figgs-Sanders, left, takes a selfie with Lisa Wheeler-Bowman after the two were sworn into their seats on the St. Petersburg City Council last month. The council's make-up, which includes six women, stands in contrast to the Clearwater City Council, one of two local governments in Pinellas County to have all-male, all-white elected officials. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

The Clearwater chamber passed over Beckman, 55, a retired educator and community activist running for Seat 3, in favor of Scott Thomas, 30, a human resources director. For mayor, the group endorsed Frank Hibbard, 52, a financial planner who served two previous terms in the job, over Drayer, 58.

Teixeira’s opponent Rector is an author and has worked in leadership for 30 years, including speaking at the International Chamber of Commerce in Rome. Before moving to Clearwater in 2018, Thomas served as a school board member for a 2,500-student district in Pennsylvania.

ClearPAC chair Ray Ferrara declined to provide the names of the 10 members who decided the endorsements, stating in an email that “our conversations remain in the room.” He said Rector and Thomas were selected for their “fresh thoughts and ideas” while Hibbard’s prior experience as mayor and community involvement outside of politics won him the nod.

The Clearwater Fire Fighters Association declined to endorse any of the four candidates for mayor because membership was split, said president Sean Becker. Beckman and Teixeira both supported the union’s goal of regaining lost pension benefits. But the group backed Michael Mannino, 42, owner of an athletic event company in Seat 2 and Bud Elias, 81, owner of an insurance brokerage firm, in Seat 3 for their compelling interviews, Becker said.

“The (police union) didn’t endorse a female, and that was something we really needed to look at,” Becker said. “We did put (diversity) into our thoughts as a whole, but it came down to their answers.”

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Beckman said her strategy of meeting voters face-to-face and knocking on doors has allowed her to put her policy and qualifications first, allowing the gender diversity she brings to speak for itself.

“We are raising the bar for the expectations of a council member,” said Beckman, who has centered her platform on the environment, affordable housing and small business support. “I want to be out there, shoulder to shoulder with residents, elected or not, and really listening and engaging.”

She taught high school for 14 years in Illinois, and since retiring to Florida in 2016, has been a near full-time volunteer with Guardian ad Litem, voter initiatives, Sierra Club, Pinellas County schools and other nonprofits.

But she said the lack of diversity in government is part of what prompted her to run. A common theme she hears from residents is a sense of disenfranchisement, which she sees as a consequence of a lack of varied backgrounds on the council.

“When you see a council that doesn’t look like you, you have this unintended consequence of, ‘That’s just them and that’s not me,'" she said. "People’s needs are not being addressed. I’m talking about single moms or people who are working multiple jobs. Their unique experiences are not being brought into discussions.”

Drayer emphasizes that true representation goes beyond race and gender. Diversity also means a range of sexual orientation, physical ability, socioeconomic backgrounds and other life experiences.

But with her mayoral campaign based in the rights of nature movement, an effort to give animals and the environment government representation, Drayer is working to bring what she describes as ecological diversity to the Clearwater dais.

A retiree who worked as a regulatory attorney, including at the Environmental Protection Agency, Drayer said the catastrophic effects of climate change must be the city’s priority.

She wants an impact fee on new development to pay for the purchase of land to be turned into green space. Drayer also proposes phasing out fossil fuels, including the city’s natural gas program, and switching to solar and electric power for municipal buildings.

As a Jewish woman running as a nature candidate, Drayer said she’s felt a heightened resistance. Some residents have told her they could not vote for a non-Christian, she said.

“We need a strong City Council holding Tallahassee’s feet to the fire to change laws preventing us from addressing climate change,” Drayer said. “Don’t tell us we can’t regulate plastics. That hasn’t happened in Clearwater. They are not taking on the establishment.”

The 2019 Charter Review Committee spent eight meetings discussing the idea of replacing the five city-wide council seats with districts as a way to nurture diversity and ensure candidates are elected from different parts of the city. But the panel could not agree on districts and did not include the change in its proposed charter amendments to the council in November.

Jennifer Lawless [ University of Virginia ]

The barriers that have prevented more women from running for office are similar on the local and national levels, according to Jennifer Lawless, the Commonwealth Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Women are less likely to be tapped to run by community leaders and political organizations, Lawless said. They are also less likely to think they are qualified to run even when they have the same objective measures as men.

“Party leaders and elected officials generally speaking tend to operate and recruit from their own circles,” she said. “They look around, see who they know, see who have been politically active already and those low hanging fruit tend to be white men.”

Konrad McCree Jr., a pastor and assistant principal at Lealman Innovation Academy, said it requires extra effort for people of color and women to break through exclusionary circles locally.

Konrad McCree [ Times (2014) ]

As a first-time candidate who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2014, McCree, who is black, said it was difficult to raise money for yard signs and mailers without support of businesses and establishment groups.

When former council member Doreen Caudell abruptly resigned in November 2018, McCree was the only person of color out of roughly two dozen residents who volunteered to replace the only female council member.

The council voted 3-1 to appoint former council member Jay Polglaze, making an all white-male council. Besides McCree, the volunteers included five women, among them a former school board member, a sexual assault victims advocate and a former council member.

“When you have a group of people who all look the same, have similar backgrounds, you get a one-sided council," said McCree, who worked as a financial analyst before teaching. “There needs to be a candid conversation about that.”

While there is no nationwide data for diversity in local governments, Lawless said most politicians start at the municipal level and ascend to federal office. And more women were elected to the current Congress than anytime in U.S. history, but only on one side of the aisle. Women now account for 38 percent of House Democrats and 36 percent of Senate Democrats compared to 8 percent of House Republicans and 15 percent of Senate republicans, according to Pew Research Center.

Teixeira is leading comments at public forums with the diversity she offers as a Canadian-born woman whose parents are Portuguese immigrants. She speaks four languages and had a career as a nurse before opening a fashion design business and a wine bar on Cleveland Street.

She said she wants to be elected not because she’s a woman, but “because I’m a woman who is highly qualified.” Despite her time invested in business advocacy, she said the resistance to change has been palpable.

“The consequence is definitely the people feeling disenfranchised," she said. “There is nothing unifying us. If we had a diverse City Council, that could change.”

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Clearwater at a glance

Population: 116,478

52 percent female

66 percent white alone

11.5 percent black or African American

17.8 percent Hispanic or Latino

2.4 percent Asian alone

Source: United States Census

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