CLEARWATER — Frank Hibbard returns as mayor. Kathleen Beckman will break up the all-male City Council.
And in the most intriguing race of the night, longtime Scientology critic Mark Bunker won a five-way race for a council seat by just 260 votes over his closest competitor, Mike Mannino.
Voters on Tuesday picked from an unprecedented crowd of 13 candidates to fill the three spots on Clearwater’s governing body. Learn about them here.
But Bunker is dealing with a serious health issue: He has been quarantined at home since Monday, awaiting test results for COVID-19. He said he was recently experiencing shortness of breath and coughing. So his doctor had him tested for the coronavirus. The test results should arrive in three to five days.
The winners will join David Allbritton, who occupies Seat 4, and Hoyt Hamilton, who occupies Seat 5.
The new council members will help lead Clearwater through a critical juncture in city history.
The city is in the midst of the design for its $64 million waterfront redevelopment project, Imagine Clearwater, the most ambitious attempt in decades to revive the depressed downtown. Longtime City Manager Bill Horne is expected to retire sometime this year, tasking the new council with a national search for his replacement. Like other cities in Pinellas County, Clearwater is grappling to address the need for more affordable housing and the impacts of climate change.
But the most critical challenge facing the city is the growing real estate stronghold of the Church of Scientology, which has doubled its footprint around its international spiritual headquarters in just three years.
Between 2017 and 2019, the church and companies tied to Scientology bought 100 properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront - putting the controversial church firmly in control of the property where the city hoped to lure businesses, retail and restaurants as a result of its Imagine Clearwater project.
The three candidates-elect will be sworn in to office the business day after election results are certified, which is expected no sooner than March 27, according to City Clerk Rosemarie Call.
All precincts have reported results.
Frank Hibbard will be Clearwater’s new mayor, securing more than 55 percent of the vote, or about 13,000 votes. The next highest candidate, Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer, received about 24 percent of the vote.
Kathleen Beckman will win Seat 3, having collected about 49 percent of the vote, or roughly 11,000 votes. The next highest candidate in that race was Bud Elias, who received about 22 percent, or about 4,900 votes. Bob Cundiff, the only incumbent running on Tuesday, came in third.
The Seat 2 race, between Mark Bunker and Mike Mannino, remains tight. Bunker is ahead, but only by about 200 votes.
The results include all early votes, all precincts and most of the mail ballots. Pinellas election officials said about 2,000 mail ballots that were left at collection boxes across the county remain to be counted. It’s unclear how many of those ballots originate in Clearwater and if they could change the Seat 2 outcome.
The canvassing board is set to meet Friday — unless coronavirus concerns force a delay — to send unofficial results to state elections officials. The results are set to be certified official on March 27.
Mail and early ballots have been tallied. Frank Hibbard is out to a commanding lead in the mayoral race, while Kathleen Beckman is dominating the seat 3 race. The seat 2 council race remains a dead heat.
The polls are now closed. We await mail and vote ballots.
We’re within five minutes of the polls closing in Clearwater.
Those who are at a polling location by 7 p.m. are guaranteed the right to vote, even if they are waiting in line. We didn’t see many lines all day.
Within minutes of the polls closing, Pinellas election officials post mail and early ballot results. It’s possible the race will be all but over then.
Precinct results will come shortly thereafter.
Don’t forget about the other important local races in Pinellas County. For example, the mayor’s race in Safety Harbor, pop. 18,000, has had all sorts of intrigue. Read this story about why former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn weighed in on the race:
According to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, turnout in the county during the 2016 presidential primary was 50 percent. With less than half an hour until polls close, it’s sitting at about 36 percent this year. It’s doubtful this year’s in-person election day turnout will boost the figure by that much.
Mayoral candidate Frank Hibbard planned to have an election party with supporters at Island Way Grill. But he called it off early this morning. Hibbard said he still planned to stop by the restaurant with his wife, Teresa, to greet any supporters who missed the memo.
According to the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections website, nearly 143,000 people voted by mail in the county, compared to just about 52,500 who voted in person. The Clearwater race could be basically over even before any precincts report.
Kathleen Beckman, who’s running for Seat 3, said she’s not going to have a watch party tonight. She’s watching results roll in with her core campaign team — seven people total. Because of COVID-19. Public health officials have recommended against gathering in groups of more than 10.
This is how you cast a ballot during a global pandemic. BYO pen and hand sanitizer.
Far more Democrats have cast ballots in Pinellas County than Republicans thus far. Surely that’s because Democrats are picking between two candidates, while Republicans have an incumbent candidate on their primary ballot. But how does that play in Clearwater, where one City Council candidate injected national partisan politics into the nonpartisan municipal election?
Depending on the results, up to three outgoing members of the City Council will take part in tomorrow’s emergency meeting. New members won’t be sworn in until at least next week.
The word of the day is “turnout.”
Already, turnout this primary day is down from 2016. That could be because more people voted by mail, or because the Republican ballot has an incumbent. It’s also likely down because of coronavirus.
There’s an “obvious correlation between coronavirus and turnout,” Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley told Tampa Bay Times reporter Allison Ross.