CLEARWATER — In a robocall sent to voters Thursday, the person on the line sounded like a Church of Scientology member talking to fellow parishioners. She urged them to vote for Kathleen Beckman, a candidate for Seat 3 on the City Council.
“Beckman stands with Scientologists and we must stand with her,” the woman declared.
The call, however, was the work of Republican operatives, a bit of political misdirection just days before a landmark city election on March 17.
Beckman was indeed endorsed by a group of parishioners, but she suspects the call was designed to turn voters against her by linking her to the controversial church. She called it dishonest.
The Florida Values Coalition, the stated sender of the robo call, is a political committee backed by a string of Republican money and GOP interest groups. The Coalition also sent out mailers this week stating “Beckman stands with Scientology. We need to stand with her!"
It was registered with the state in August by Stafford Jones, a longtime Republican Party of Florida figure who was named in 2014 court records that showed GOP consultants drew gerrymandered Legislative maps and used third parties to push them.
Almost all of the Coalition’s $3,300 came from another committee chaired by Jones, Liberty4Florida, which got most of its $70,000 from Citizens Speaking Out Committee, according to state records. That group, also chaired by Jones, has nearly $1.3 million in funding from three dozen other committees with names like Citizens for a Conservative Future and Sunshine State Conservatives.
An advocacy group run by Scientologists recently endorsed one candidate for each of the three, nonpartisan City Council races. But the robocall only highlighted parishioners’ support of Beckman, a retired teacher and Democrat challenging the no party affiliated Seat 3 incumbent Bob Cundiff and two Republicans, Bud Elias and Scott Thomas.
Cundiff, Elias and Thomas all said their campaigns were not involved in the robocall.
“This divisive and dishonest robocall appears to be an act of desperation,” said Beckman, who is not a member of the church. “I wonder why they are so afraid to have a strong advocate for Clearwater residents on the council.”
The IRS prohibits tax exempt religious organizations from engaging in political activity. The Church of Scientology, whose international spiritual headquarters makes it downtown’s largest property owner, has not publicly backed any candidates.
But Citizens for Social Reform, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by Scientologists, has historically hosted events with political figures aligned with the church’s outreach campaigns, like anti-drug and human trafficking awareness.
In an email on Feb. 21, Brett Miller, who co-founded Citizens for Social Reform with fellow Scientologists Steve and Joanie Sigal, released the group’s recommendations for the three seats.
The group endorsed financial adviser and former two-term mayor Frank Hibbard in the four-way race for mayor “with some reservation,” according to Miller’s email. Miller referred to mailers Hibbard sent out that raised concern over Scientology’s growing control over downtown real estate as materials that “encourage anti-First Amendment divisions.”
But Miller said Hibbard has the leadership and agenda to bring progress.
Hibbard said the endorsement was “a huge surprise” that he did not seek out.
In the five-way race for Seat 2, Miller’s group backed retired technical supervisor Eliseo Santana for his “willingness to more aggressively defend constitutional liberties.”
Santana has publicly condemned one of his four opponents, Mark Bunker, a longtime church critic running against what he calls Scientology fraud and abuse.
When asked about his endorsement from Miller’s group, Santana said a priority of his is to “uphold the constitutional rights of all citizens."
Of the four candidates running for Seat 3, Miller stated “none have allowed themselves to be goaded into an anti-First Amendment stance.”
But the group endorsed Beckman for her “aggressive defense of constitutional liberties.”
Miller referenced a survey published by the Tampa Bay Times that asked all 13 candidates their views on nearly 100 downtown properties bought by companies tied to Scientology since 2017. In it, Miller said Beckman “correctly differentiated between individual citizens who were members of the Church of Scientology and the church itself.”
He stated she “cautioned against the prejudiced and anti-First amendment views promoted by the Times.”
When asked about the Scientologists’ endorsement, Beckman described herself as a “strong defender of the separation of church and state” who believes “the press is the fourth pillar of democracy.”
“I do not believe the Times promotes anti-First Amendment views,” she said. “While I have made it very clear that I am not a Scientologist, I can’t control who supports me and who advises their friends to support me."
Monique Yingling, an attorney for Scientology, said in a statement on Thursday that the church “has no official or unofficial relationship with the Citizens for Social Reform.”
“The Sigals and Brett Miller are Scientologists, but any political position they may take is as individual citizens and has no connection to or support from the Church," Yingling said.
Yingling also said the church was “not in any way involved with this robocall” touting Beckman.
The robocall is not the first partisan attack on Beckman, whose campaign has knocked on 13,000 doors to reach voters.
Last week, Thomas sent a mailer to 5,000 households that called Beckman a “progressive Democrat” with her photo next to an image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The mailer called Thomas a “pro-Trump conservative” next to a photo of himself with Vice President Mike Pence.
Thomas then sent out an email on Tuesday calling Beckman an “extreme liberal” and said Clearwater can’t afford liberal policies. It included a 2018 posting Beckman shared on her Facebook page supporting Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback who kneels during the national anthem to protest systematic racism.
Beckman said Thomas’ description of her as “an extreme liberal” was inaccurate and that she is advocating for "accountability and transparency, saving the city money, bringing the voice of residents to the city decision-making process and working to improve the lives of all who live here.”
Candidates in other races have used the Citizens for Social Reform’s endorsements against their opponents.
Bill Jonson, a former four-term City Council member running for mayor, pushed social media advertisements stating “Scientologists recommend Frank Hibbard."
“This is one endorsement I haven’t received, and I’m fine with that,” Jonson’s ad states.
On Thursday, small business owner Mike Mannino, running for Seat 2, issued a press release touting his endorsements from four Clearwater residents and Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski.
Mannino made note of the backing he lacks.
“Several prominent Scientologists released their candidate endorsements and Michael “Mike” Mannino did not make their list,” he wrote.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 9, 2020 with additional detail about a new mailer that was distributed after the robo call.
2020 CLEARWATER CITY ELECTIONS
City voters will decide three City Council races and six ballot referendums. Here’s what voters need to know:
MAIL BALLOTS: To request one, send an email to email@example.com or call (727) 464-8683. The deadline to request a mail ballot is March 7 at 5 p.m.
EARLY VOTING: Runs from March 7-15. Weekday early voting is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekend hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To find locations, go to votepinellas.com.
ELECTION DAY: March 17. Polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
REFERENDUM: Clearwater’s six referendum questions explained
IMAGINE CLEARWATER: Clearwater election could clinch — or kill — downtown amphitheater