CLEARWATER — City Council candidate Bud Elias denounces a misleading election tactic deployed last week that attempted to tie one of his opponents to the Church of Scientology.
Voters received robocalls from a woman sounding like a member of Scientology urging fellow parishioners to vote for Kathleen Beckman, who is running against Elias and two others for Seat 3. Mailers printed with an image of Scientology’s cross had the same message.
The calls and mailers were actually the work of an obscure Republican political committee called the Florida Values Coalition.
“Those kinds of things shouldn’t be part of the political landscape,” Elias said. “Obviously nobody knows from where it came and that becomes an issue in and of itself.”
But on Thursday, five days before Election Day, Elias’ campaign deployed its own use of Scientology by sending a mailer to residents that prominently notes an endorsement Beckman received from a citizen group of Scientologists. The mailer contrasted the group’s backing of Beckman with Elias’ stand “against Scientology’s secretive land buy.”
Beckman is not a Scientologist, but Citizens for Social Reform, an advocacy group founded by parishioners, recommended the retired teacher for Seat 3 for her “aggressive defense of constitutional liberties.” The citizen group also recommended Frank Hibbard for mayor over his three opponents and Eliseo Santana in Seat 2 over his four opponents. Neither Hibbard nor Santana are Scientologists.
But the Republican committee’s robocalls and mailers only addressed Seat 3, ignoring the mayor and Seat 2 race. Elias said his Seat 3 campaign mailer was simply meant “to compare endorsements" between him and his opponents.
In a city that has viewed Scientology with suspicion since it arrived in 1975 under a false name, any alignment with the church is seen as potentially toxic for politicians. Still, no candidate or campaign in recent history has used residents’ anxieties about Scientology’s influence so overtly against an opponent.
“I have not seen such blatant use of Scientology fear tactics in the Clearwater elections before, it’s not something people have done,” said Alan Bomstein, who has run his company Creative Contractors downtown for nearly 40 years.
“I don’t disagree that (Elias) is just pointing out (Beckman) got the endorsement, and she’s got to carry that if she didn’t in any way deny or back away from it," Bomstein said. "But it’s clearly being used as a fear tactic.”
Beckman called Elias' mailer and the political committee’s tactics “an attempt to cause confusion and division” as her campaign has knocked on more than 13,000 doors.
“I think citizens should recognize that believing these mailers without research, without looking at my behavior and my responses in forums and in the Tampa Bay Times questionnaires, put all the power in the hands of one group,” Beckman said. “I hope people are not be so easily manipulated by these deceptive efforts.”
In public forums and in interviews, most of the 13 candidates running for the three contested seats have acknowledged that Scientology’s influence in the city is one of the top issues voters are talking about this election season.
In October, a Times investigation reported that since 2017, companies tied to Scientology have bought nearly 100 properties in the center of downtown. The companies spent $103 million, almost all in cash, and have done little with many of the vacant lots and empty buildings at a time when the city is preparing to spend $64 million on a waterfront redevelopment project nearby.
In her response to a Times survey asking how the city should react to Scientology’s real estate effort, Beckman said the city should ask the church for its plans. But she said it was not helpful to group companies run by parishioners that bought properties with the church itself because there is no evidence they operate “as a monolith.”
The Times’ October investigation detailed how Scientology has extraordinary control over parishioners’ lives.
Brett Miller, co-founder of Citizens for Social Reform, noted Beckman’s distinction between parishioners and the institution in his rationale for her recommendation.
To that same question from the Times, Elias noted Scientology’s lack of transparency and said "the city should attempt to seek more information from Scientology as to its plans.”
Elias said he recognized the implications that an endorsement from a Scientologist group could have even on candidates who are not Scientologists themselves.
“I feel bad for Kathleen, I’m glad they didn’t endorse me because it’s contentious," Elias said. "My intent was because it’s an endorsement, just as the endorsements I have, we just wanted to compare endorsements, who’s endorsed who. It just happened she was on the unfortunate end of that endorsement.”
Elias was endorsed by the Clearwater Fire Fighters Association and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 10, the local unions for Clearwater police and fire. His mailer incorrectly states he was endorsed by “Clearwater Firefighters” and “Clearwater Police,” which Elias called an oversight.
Beckman and Elias are also facing first-term incumbent Bob Cundiff and human resources director Scott Thomas for Seat 3. Elias' mailer does not name Cundiff.
The mailer placed a question mark next to Thomas’s name regarding Scientology and notes he has lived in Clearwater for less than two years compared to Elias' 43 years.
In an interview, Thomas, who served as a school board member for a 2,500-student district in Pennsylvania before moving to Clearwater in 2018, criticized what he called Elias' lack of political involvement in 43 years. He noted Elias' role leading the failed 2018 effort to change the city manager form of government to a strong mayor system, a referendum that was rejected by voters.
“When we look at leadership, I think we need to look at that,” said Thomas, who is not a Scientologist. “My leadership on the other hand, while it may not have been in Clearwater, I balanced budgets, I fought for fiscal responsibility.”