CLEARWATER — Aaron Smith-Levin, a familiar figure in the world of Church of Scientology defectors, announced Tuesday he will run for City Council as someone who understands the church’s impact on Clearwater and will work to address it.
He said he will campaign for the city to push the IRS to review and revoke the church’s tax exemption.
His announcement follows the election last year of council member Mark Bunker, the first Clearwater candidate in recent history to advocate against allegations of abuse and fraud that have followed Scientology for decades. In one of his first actions in office, Bunker in May 2020 proposed the city should request that the FBI investigate Scientology for racketeering related to recent downtown property purchases made with $99 million in cash.
But none of Bunker’s four colleagues on the dais supported his idea. Smith-Levin said he doesn’t expect his election alone would provoke the IRS to act. But he said he would help break a pattern among local politicians who have for decades been reluctant to call for federal intervention in downtown Clearwater, Scientology’s international spiritual headquarters.
“If Clearwater’s own leadership isn’t loudly demanding that something be done, why would anyone higher up the food chain do anything about it?” Smith-Levin said Monday in a video on his YouTube channel. “The change in attitude has to start locally. Only then is there any chance of it working its way up to the county level, the state level, the federal level.”
Candidates for the March 15 election can formally file paperwork to raise money for their campaigns on Thursday, the official start of campaign season. Other candidates have discussed intentions to run for the two seats up for grabs, but Smith-Levin appears to be the first to make a formal announcement with his news release on Tuesday.
Smith-Levin said he is running for Seat 5, which will be vacated by council member Hoyt Hamilton due to term limits. Council member David Allbritton previously confirmed he intends to run for a second term in Seat 4, the other seat up for election. Residents city-wide can vote for the at-large seats.
Smith-Levin, 40, was raised in a Scientology family and at age 12 began working on the church’s public staff. At age 22 he joined the Sea Org, the church’s military-style workforce which requires members to sign billion-year contracts and pays less than $50 a week. He oversaw courses and counseling for parishioners before leaving in 2013.
Smith-Levin’s story was featured on the first season of the Emmy-award winning A&E series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, which detailed stories of alleged financial fraud, physical and sexual abuse, and family disconnection, Scientology’s policy of forced estrangement for members seen as violating church directives.
“Scientology is a criminal organization masquerading as a religion,” Smith-Levin said in his Monday video.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not immediately respond to a phone message or email for comment. But the church hosts a website that is critical of Smith-Levin, alleging he was kicked out of Scientology and calling him a “bitter, vindictive and at times violent man.”
Since leaving Scientology, Smith-Levin founded OTG Research Group, which conducts investment research for hedge funds.
Smith-Levin also serves as vice president of The Aftermath Foundation, which connects former Sea Org members with housing, work and other support upon leaving the church. In his advocacy, Smith-Levin works with Mike Rinder, who spent 25 years as a senior Scientology executive before defecting in 2007.
Smith-Levin said he is “not a single-issue candidate,” as he also wants to prioritize communication between neighborhood associations and the City Council, making permitting and business easier, and supporting the police and fire departments.
But nearly all of the 13 candidates who ran for three seats in the March 2020 election confirmed the top issue that citizens asked them about was what they were going to do about Scientology in the city.
Between 2017 and 2019, limited liability companies tied to Scientology bought 100 properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront. More than half of those properties remain vacant and undeveloped at a time when city officials are attempting to revitalize downtown.
“When people are looking to fill these City Council seats, your position on the environment, on business, on traffic, on neighborhoods on downtown, everyone has more or less the same opinions, everyone knows the right answers to these questions,” Smith-Levin said.
“There is one issue that actually moves the needle on how Clearwater is perceived, and that’s what is it doing about Scientology.”