CLEARWATER — Residents delivered a historic election result Tuesday by voting into office the first candidate to so publicly address alleged fraud and abuse by the Church of Scientology in nearly four decades.
Mark Bunker, a filmmaker and longtime critic of downtown’s largest property owner, narrowly defeated four opponents in the race for City Council Seat 2. His platform included his desire for the city to urge the IRS to revoke Scientology’s tax-exempt status and hold hearings for city officials to understand the financial complexities and alleged abusive policies of the institution.
“This clearly shows that Scientology does not have the power they think they do,” said Bunker, who was about 260 votes ahead of business owner Mike Mannino in the five-way race. “Scientology has been leading by intimidation for decades, frightening politicians into being silent for fear they will be called a religious bigot. It’s not bigotry to talk about the actions and abuses of the organization.”
But his victory was clouded by health concerns: Bunker, 63, has been quarantined at home since Monday, awaiting test results for the coronavirus, which impacted election day across Florida. He took the test because of coughing and shortness of breath. His doctor advised he should have the results within five days.
Voters also elected former mayor Frank Hibbard over three other candidates to his old post, which he last held in 2012. Kathleen Beckman, a community activist and retired teacher, was elected to the City Council after unseating Seat 3 incumbent Bob Cundiff and defeating two others with a dominant 49 percent of the votes.
Hibbard, a 52-year-old financial adviser, won with 55 percent of the vote over nature rights activist Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer, former City Council member Bill Jonson and small business owner Morton Myers. His platform was focused on improving the city’s aging housing stock, finalizing a strategic plan and leading the national search to replace longtime city manager Bill Horne, who is expected to retire this year.
“I wish we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic,” said Hibbard, who will succeed the term limited George Cretekos. “But I have been through trying times in the past. And like those past times, we will get through this and we will be stronger and better as a community.”
The pandemic may have depressed turnout: Election data shows that across Pinellas County, turnout was 36 percent. That is down from the 50 percent turnout level from the March 2016 election. Clearwater’s turnout was not available late Tuesday.
Beckman won despite late-campaign tactics by a Republican political committee that blanketed voters this month with misleading robocalls and mailers attempting to link her to the controversial Church of Scientology.
But Beckman, 56, has been telling her own story to voters with an aggressive ground campaign that began a year ago. Her platform focused on the environment, affordable housing and small business support. Combined with volunteers, Beckman said she reached more than 14,000 doors by election day.
“Nobody worked harder than me and knocked on more doors,” Beckman said. “The advice I got from people that run national campaigns all the way down to City Council is if you knock on doors, you will win. Man, were they right.”
This month, the campaign of one of her opponents, Bud Elias, also sent mailers contrasting his endorsements from the police and fire unions with an endorsement Beckman received from an advocacy group founded by members of the Church of Scientology.
The group of Scientologists, Citizens for Social Reform, endorsed one candidate in each of the three contested council races. But the Republican committee only sent calls and mailers highlighting the group’s support of Beckman, a registered Democrat. Beckman is not a Scientologist and council races are nonpartisan.
The newly elected candidates will join sitting members David Allbritton and Hoyt Hamilton on the five-member council in Clearwater’s city manager form of government.
This year is poised to be one of the most critical junctures in the history of Tampa Bay’s third largest city. Clearwater is in the midst of designing a $64 million waterfront redevelopment project, Imagine Clearwater, the most ambitious attempt in decades to revive the depressed downtown. And like cities across the country, Clearwater is grappling with addressing the lack of affordable housing and the impacts of climate change.
But a unique 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.
This new chapter is a distant cry from Scientology’s most infamous. The church arrived downtown in 1975 under a false name and deployed a conspiracy to infiltrate government and civic offices. The City Council held a week of hearings in 1982 where witnesses discussed alleged financial crimes occurring in the city. But after a proposed ordinance that would have given the city power to scrutinize Scientology’s finances was overturned by the courts in the ’80s, few have been willing to criticize the church publicly.
The election drew an unprecedented field of candidates: 13 running for the three seats. Almost all of them acknowledged that Scientology is one of the top issues all voters raised during their campaigns.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday.
Bunker said the results show a new direction for the city, one where the issue of Scientology’s influence is addressed head on.
“Clearly Scientology is on the mind of a lot of voters,” Bunker said. “I’m trying to help Scientologist by reforming the abuses to make the church actually act decently instead of being this paranoid, vindictive organization.”