On a recent Saturday, about a week before the official start of Clearwater’s election season, two candidates running for the open mayor’s seat met for coffee. It didn’t go all that well.
City Council member Kathleen Beckman invited Bruce Rector, general counsel for a sports facilities management firm, to a Sand Key restaurant with a pitch to keep their campaigns clean.
“My suggestion to him was that we keep this race about city issues, we keep it positive and that we would agree to call out any blatant lies that any PACs or other people might say about us,” she said.
Rector’s response, Beckman said, “was not a resounding ‘yes.’” The meeting lasted less than 20 minutes.
“If something is extreme, if something is outrageous, I’ll call that out,” Rector said. “That said, I’m not going to call out everything that someone that supports me says that she doesn’t like.”
As Clearwater’s campaign season began on Thursday — the first day candidates could file paperwork to begin raising money for the March 19 election — the mayoral race is shaping up as the focus of what could be another high-stakes election for Tampa Bay’s third-largest city. So far, it pits a first-term council member who has led the charge on environmental and neighborhood advocacy with a candidate touting his business experience.
As of Friday afternoon, three candidates had filed to run for council Seat 3, which Beckman is vacating to run for mayor. Two candidates filed to run against council member Mark Bunker in his bid for a second term in Seat 2.
All council seats are elected at-large. And although the races are nonpartisan, early endorsements indicate the tone. The 15 initial endorsements that Rector, 59, released are all Republicans, from U.S. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna to Pinellas County Commissioner Chris Latvala and Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr., who is not running in March.
Beckman, 59, hasn’t released her endorsements yet, but was backed in her first campaign by a slew of Democratic leaders.
Clearwater has a city manager form of government in which an appointed administrator runs the day-to-day operations. The mayor has no more power than the other four council members, but the mayor leads meetings, represents the city in regional events and can set the tone on the dais.
Beckman said she decided to run for mayor instead of a second council term in order to “impact collaboration and build consensus.” She said she has accomplished what she promised for her first term: advocating for neighborhoods and affordable housing and promoting environmental sustainability and transportation while also prioritizing financial savings.
She said a priority as mayor would be fiscal responsibility as major decisions are imminent, like a new stadium deal with the Philadelphia Phillies and potential wage increases for city workers after a pay study is completed next year.
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“I have been and will continue to be laser focused on saving the city and residents money,” Beckman said. “It is critical to have a mayor that will always be focused on lowering costs.”
Rector first ran for council in 2020 but lost the five-way race for Seat 2 to Bunker. He said he decided to run for mayor because he wants to make “good things happen” for a city he said is often misunderstood.
“I want to unite people,” Rector said. “I don’t think we advocate for ourselves enough or promote ourselves enough, and I think we let ourselves as a city be perceived as a divided community.”
Asked about his priorities, Rector said he wants to focus on the basics, like streets and roads. He wants to be conservative on spending because “we’re going to need every penny of our reserves” in the event of a disaster, like a hurricane.
Rector said he will bring his business experience to advocating for the city on a regional level. He works as general counsel for Clearwater-based The Sports Facilities Cos., which helps communities plan, develop and operate sports venues.
In his first council term, Bunker, 67, has been the most vocal critic of the Church of Scientology and its connection to companies that have bought dozens of downtown properties since 2017, keeping most of them vacant. He will be challenged by Lealman Special Fire Control Capt. Ryan Cotton, 35, who is the son-in-law of City Council member David Allbritton.
Also in the race for Bunker’s seat is Michael Mastruserio, who works for the marketing firm ProForma. Mastruserio, 69, said speaking out about Scientology’s holding of vast tracts of downtown real estate will be a priority of his campaign, but that is not why he chose to challenge Bunker. If he ran for Seat 3, being vacated by Beckman, his name, he said, would look too similar on the ballot to Michael Mannino, a candidate in that race.
Mannino, 45, owner of the athletic event company Xanadu Race Management, first ran for council in 2020 but lost the five-way race against Bunker. In a statement, Mannino said he will focus on bringing stable leadership, strong services and fiscal responsibility to city government.
Also running for Seat 3 are freelance journalist Jared Leone, 41, and Javante Scott, 22, a neighborhoods coordinator for the city. Leone, chairperson of Clearwater’s Environmental Advisory Board, said he wants to focus on uniting the city, strengthening neighborhoods and environmental policy.
Scott said his priorities are housing, youth opportunities, economic development, environment, infrastructure and employment.
“I believe that Clearwater ought to be a place where all of its residents feel welcome and wanted, with a government that does everything it can to ensure that we remove all barriers that hinder us from creating a greater quality of life for our residents,” Scott said.