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Out-of-state money flows into Clearwater City Council race

Scientology defector Aaron Smith-Levin says his campaign donations from across the U.S. show the nationwide interest in addressing the church’s impact.
Scientology defector Aaron Smith-Levin, left, and community activist Lina Teixeira, right, are running for Clearwater City Council Seat 5.
Scientology defector Aaron Smith-Levin, left, and community activist Lina Teixeira, right, are running for Clearwater City Council Seat 5. [ Smith-Levin/Teixeira ]
Published Nov. 22

CLEARWATER — Church of Scientology defector Aaron Smith-Levin and community activist Lina Teixeira are running for Seat 5 on the City Council, but the donations they’ve received so far show just how differently their campaigns are unfolding.

Smith-Levin has slightly outraised his opponent, with $26,844 reported between Sept. 15 and Oct. 31, the first six weeks of election season, according to the most recent treasurer report. But of his 176 donors, 91 percent live outside of Clearwater and are unable to vote for him. Seventy-four percent of Smith-Levin’s donors live outside of Florida.

Teixeira has raised $21,020 with 70 percent of her 49 donors living in Clearwater, according to the most recent treasurer report. All but four of the 16 donors from outside of the city are based in Tampa Bay.

The financial reports underscore how distinct the candidates are in their platforms. Smith-Levin, 41, who walked away from Scientology in 2013 and now runs a foundation to assist people starting over after leaving the church, is running on a platform that the city should advocate for the IRS to review and revoke Scientology’s tax-exempt status.

“To me, my contributions tell me that the entire country wants to see Clearwater stand up to Scientology,” Smith-Levin said.

Teixeira, 52, has said addressing Scientology’s impact on downtown real estate is one of her top priorities, but she is also focused on making the city less reliant on tourism and bringing unity to neighborhoods.

Teixeira, an artist who has run a wine bar and her wearable fashion business downtown, said her contributions reflect the grassroots support she has from residents.

“It’s a testament to my years of service to our community as a volunteer and small business owner,” Teixeira said. “We are running a race focusing on all of the issues that affect Clearwater’s residents, including improving the quality of life, quality jobs and quality transportation systems.”

The Seat 5 incumbent, council member Hoyt Hamilton, will be vacating the seat due to term limits.

Council member David Allbritton, 70, who is running for a second term in Seat 4, has so far raised $18,645 for his reelection campaign. Allbritton has drawn support from mostly Clearwater residents, including business owners, attorneys and well-known figures in the community, such as former Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO Frank Dame and state Sen. Ed Hooper. Like Teixeira, Allbritton received $1,000 from the Florida Leadership Committee, the political committee run by former state Sen. Jack Latvala.

Allbritton has drawn two challengers. Retired data manager Gerry Lee, 74, filed on Oct. 22 to run, and community activist Maranda Douglas, 31, filed paperwork on Nov. 15. Lee and Douglas did not have donations to declare as of the most recent reporting deadline.

The announced candidates for the two at-large seats have until Dec. 17 to officially qualify for the March 15 election by obtaining signatures of 250 registered voters.

The last time a Clearwater election got as much nationwide attention was also when Scientology was a major campaign issue in the city, where the church has its international headquarters.

City Council member Mark Bunker won his five-way race for Seat 2 in March 2020 while running a campaign against alleged fraud and abuse in the church. Seventy percent of his donors were from outside of Florida. The race was also Teixeira’s first bid for office, and she outperformed Bunker in fundraising 3 to 1 with about $56,000. Bunker beat four opponents with 27 percent of vote.

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When asked if his few donations from Clearwater residents could be seen as a lack of local support, Smith-Levin said that’s unlikely. He said he has so far knocked on 500 doors and received “a 100 percent positive response rate” to every voter who engaged him in conversation.

“The only support I’m hoping for from Clearwater citizens is a vote,” Smith-Levin said. “I’m not asking Clearwater voters to donate to my campaign because I’m already getting donations from all over the country.”

Teixeira said she’s also engaging with residents in neighborhoods and is “listening to their concerns and what they want for the future of our city.”

In addition to Clearwater residents, Teixeira’s treasurer report reflects more support from business and political circles, like former Mayor Brian Aungst Sr., Republican candidate for the District 13 congressional seat Amanda Makki, and businesses like Shephard’s Beach Resort and Tropical Boat Tours. She also received $1,000 from Latvala’s political committee.

“This is a grassroots campaign that will engage with citizens at the doors, in the community and online,” Teixeira said.