Community activist pushes Clearwater ‘establishment’ in City Council race

Maranda Douglas, 31, says victory for her would be a win against “the good ol’ boy circle.”
Clearwater City Council candidate Maranda Douglas says, "The community needs to feel like they have someone on their side that is going to listen to them."
Clearwater City Council candidate Maranda Douglas says, "The community needs to feel like they have someone on their side that is going to listen to them." [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 28, 2022|Updated Jan. 29, 2022

CLEARWATER — Maranda Douglas stood in front of the lectern in City Council chambers on Jan. 20 and warned the Clearwater political establishment not to count her out.

Days before, council member Hoyt Hamilton had chastised campaign decorum surrounding the three-way race to fill his Seat 5, which he will vacate due to term limits after the March 15 election. In the process he made an endorsement from the dais in the other contested race, Seat 4, stating it would be “an absolute travesty” if voters did not reelect incumbent council member David Allbritton.

To Douglas, who is challenging Allbritton in Seat 4, it was another display of the well-connected, well-funded status quo telling the voting public what’s good for them. It was another thumb on the scale from the “good ol’ boy circle,” an influence that for decades has discouraged people of color like herself from running for office, she said.

“As I continue my campaign for City Council, let me remind you how the distorted representation on the current council is indeed a travesty,” Douglas, 31, told the all-white, all 50-plus council with one woman.

“Take a look at me,” she said. “I’m a young, Black woman and I know what it feels like to be overlooked, counted out and left unheard. Unlike my opponent, I have made it clear my commitment to public service by rolling up my sleeves, boots on the ground, sometimes baby in arm, bringing solutions to underrepresented communities in Clearwater.”

Douglas’ platform centers on supporting small businesses, making the city more responsive to climate change and pushing for affordable housing. But her main priority is to help bring diversity of race and life experience to a council that she said has been largely unrelatable to much of the community.

In Clearwater’s history, 10 women have been elected to the city’s governing body, and one was appointed to fill a vacancy. Three Black people have served, the last in 1993.

“I’m not really looking for this as a win for myself,” Douglas said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “This will be a real win for the community if we can break through the barriers of the good ol’ boy circle.”

Douglas, a small business owner and mother of a 4-year-old daughter, recognizes that beating an incumbent would be a feat. Allbritton has so far raised $21,395 for his reelection compared to her $8,433, according to the most recent treasurer reports filed the first week of January. Retired technology specialist Gerry Lee, 74, is also running for Seat 4 and reported $1,000 in contributions, all from himself.

Allbritton, a 71-year-old retired contractor, was born and raised in Clearwater and has been involved in city issues for the past two decades through various boards. He said he supports businesses and developers, a common connotation with the establishment, “because they bring jobs and help keep our taxes low.” He pushes back against the idea that it means he doesn’t represent needs of ordinary residents.

Allbritton has won endorsements from the political action committee of Amplify Clearwater (the city’s chamber of commerce) and the Pinellas Realtor Organization. But as she knocks on doors to meet voters, Douglas said, she’s not sure those industry backings are what really resonate with residents.

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“I started asking the community, would you really care if I got an endorsement from the Pinellas Realtors Organization?” she said. “And they’re like ‘no.’ I always feel like I do really well in these interviews because I do my homework — just to get an email back saying ‘thank you for your time we decided to endorse someone else’ ... that’s why I call them perfunctory.”

Douglas grew up in Largo and found a passion for community service through her experience at the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA. She began volunteering at 11 and later worked as a teen coordinator and helped develop summer camp programs.

She worked for Pinellas County Schools as a K-12 secretary in the math department before graduating from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in business management in 2019.

As volunteer executive director of FYI Community Partnership, which focuses on Clearwater’s South Greenwood community, Douglas launched three mural and public art projects to help beautify the Lake Belleview and North Greenwood neighborhoods. In 2018, she launched Top Nauts, a marine services business that connects boaters with charters and needs for boat ownership.

When council member Kathleen Beckman was running for office in 2019, she showed up to volunteer on Douglas’ storm drain mural project. It opened Douglas’ eyes to local politics. She said activists who helped get Beckman elected, like Marilyn Turman and Beth Davis, began encouraging her to run for office.

But she said she seriously began considering running for City Council last year while serving on the city’s Marine Advisory Board. It felt like resident input was an afterthought, she said, like how city staff selected the engineering firm to design the $18 million renovation of the Clearwater Beach marina without input on the firms from all advisory board members.

As a council member, Douglas said she would push the city to offer more incentives to developers to build affordable housing. She said she would serve as a relatable figure to constituents while advocating for these policies, noting the rent that she and her partner pay increased from $1,450 to $1,640 during the pandemic.

In 2017, Capitol One Bank won a $2,700 judgement against Douglas for an unpaid credit card, a case that is still open, according to court records. Douglas said it was a card she opened years ago for food and gas, where interest became unmanageable.

“I know what it feels like to live on the edge of poverty,” she said.

Douglas said she wants to enact city code changes to further protect residents from intrusive development, like requiring the city to provide neighbors more advanced notice before voting on developments.

Regarding climate change and sea level rise, Douglas said the city should be more proactive in enhancing seawalls and pushing a bike share program to encourage residents to bike to work. She supports a contract with Cenergistic to reduce the city’s energy consumption, an agreement the council tabled in December for more study.

“What’s really important is that the community needs to feel like they have someone on their side that is going to listen to them and is going to advocate for them,” Douglas said.