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In the race for Clearwater mayor, sharp attacks and a door-to-door push

City Council member Kathleen Beckman fends off criticism from lawyer Bruce Rector and his allies.
 
Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman, left, and lawyer Bruce Rector are canvassing neighborhoods in their campaigns for mayor as they work to speak with voters one on one.
Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman, left, and lawyer Bruce Rector are canvassing neighborhoods in their campaigns for mayor as they work to speak with voters one on one. [ JEFFEREE WOO/DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 7|Updated Feb. 7

CLEARWATER — City Council member Kathleen Beckman and lawyer Bruce Rector are the only two candidates running for mayor, but there is a third person in the middle of the race.

In a letter mailed to homes by the Rector campaign last week, former Mayor Frank Hibbard listed his reasons why residents should not vote for Beckman. “The first and most important,” he wrote, was Beckman’s position last March on a new City Hall, a debate that prompted Hibbard to resign from office in frustration during a council discussion on the matter.

Then last Thursday, Hibbard appeared at the council meeting and took another shot. The former mayor announced he was filing a complaint against Beckman with the Florida Elections Commission, alleging she used city staff time and resources to send a letter about flooding to targeted voters that comingled with her campaign. She denies the letters were improper.

Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard addresses the City Council on Feb. 1 to announce he was filing a state complaint against council member Kathleen Beckman for an alleged campaign violation. She denies the accusation.
Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard addresses the City Council on Feb. 1 to announce he was filing a state complaint against council member Kathleen Beckman for an alleged campaign violation. She denies the accusation. [ City of Clearwater ]

With Hibbard’s help, Rector is framing the March 19 election as a choice between his vision for government efficiency and Beckman being “out of touch” with residents.

Beckman called the efforts against her “disgraceful campaign tactics,” and said their intensity is more an attack on her promise to empower residents and neighborhoods.

In Clearwater’s city manager form of government, the mayor is one of five votes with no more power than the other four council members. But the mayor runs meetings, shapes discussions and acts as the public face of the government.

“I’m not part of that inner circle, I’m not part of a business establishment,” Beckman said. “I represent residents and I do what’s best for the city.”

Related: As Clearwater election approaches, here’s where the money is coming from

The City Hall debate

On social media, campaign mailers and public appearances, Rector is repeating that Beckman “supported spending $90 million on a new City Hall.”

Beckman said that’s a gross misrepresentation of the brainstorming process for a project that is now in design at $31.5 million.

During a work session last March, the council sorted through a list of 34 capital projects that could not all be funded. City Manager Jennifer Poirrier asked the council to select their top priorities. Those projects were going to be vetted by staff and brought back to the council for a vote on final costs.

When they got to the staff’s preliminary estimate for a combined city hall and municipal services building, Hibbard was the only council member to push back, calling the project wasteful.

“The price tag that we have on that now is $90 million, so there is an unfunded gap of about $60 million,” he said. “Is that a priority for everybody other than me?”

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“It’s a priority for me,” Beckman said of the project. The other three council members agreed.

About 30 minutes later, Hibbard gathered his things and resigned from the dais, citing this philosophical gulf as his tipping point.

Council members did not approve a $90 million joint government center in March but agreed to explore the concept. In June, they voted unanimously to begin design work instead on a $31.5 million standalone City Hall and spend $13.3 million to renovate the municipal services building.

Rector’s version of events twists the facts, Beckman said.

Rector stands by his portrayal because Beckman supported the idea of pursuing what then had a $90 million cost estimate from staff, which he said should have been an immediate deal breaker.

“That is so out of touch with what people in the community want,” Rector said. “I think there are better things — staffing police and fire, streets and roads — than spending that kind of money on a big building.”

“I have raised the bar”

For all of his criticism of Beckman, Rector said he is working to emulate her ground game.

Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman talks with residents Bill Haley and Susan Boyer Haley in the Northwood neighborhood on Jan. 18. Beckman is running for mayor.
Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman talks with residents Bill Haley and Susan Boyer Haley in the Northwood neighborhood on Jan. 18. Beckman is running for mayor. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

During her first run for City Council in 2020, Beckman, a retired teacher, promised a new level of resident engagement and knocked on thousands of doors to talk to voters one on one. She won that four-way race with nearly 49% of the vote.

Throughout her first term, she has remained a regular at neighborhood association meetings. When residents email with a question or complaint, Beckman will offer to meet them.

Rector said he is “out there trying to match” the face time Beckman has achieved with constituents. He’s going door to door like her, sharing his platform of regional leadership and government efficiency in scores of living room and front porch chats.

Clearwater mayoral candidate Bruce Rector, left, shakes hands with homeowner Luke Lovgren as he goes door to door on the 3100 block of San Bernardino Street. The stop was part of his campaign for mayor in advance of the March 19 election.
Clearwater mayoral candidate Bruce Rector, left, shakes hands with homeowner Luke Lovgren as he goes door to door on the 3100 block of San Bernardino Street. The stop was part of his campaign for mayor in advance of the March 19 election. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Beckman’s priorities are to continue supporting neighborhoods and small businesses. Environmental sustainability is central to her platform. She’s advocating for Clearwater to improve its federal rating for floodplain management policies, which officials say would lower residents’ flood insurance premiums.

In her first term, Beckman said she is most proud of online department dashboards the city created to publicly share information on everything from how much money is going toward affordable housing to how many tons the city is recycling each month.

She touts her role in the council voting unanimously to lower the tax rate by 0.07% in 2023 and to keep it steady for 2024. (Because property values increased both years, residents still paid more on their tax bills.)

In a recent campaign email, she called herself “a budget hawk” for “rejecting a $90 million city hall” and supporting the hiring of an energy management company that helped the city reduce electric, water and natural gas consumption and save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Beckman grew up in Michigan and has been involved in community service since she began volunteering at a hospital in middle school. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Aurora University.

She worked as a public school teacher in northern Illinois and raised three children with her husband. The couple retired to Clearwater in 2016. She volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, serves as a guardian ad litem for children in court who have been removed from their homes, and volunteers as a reading tutor for Pinellas County Schools.

“I have raised the bar in what it means to be a City Council member and I will raise the bar in what it means to be a mayor,” Beckman said.

“Clearwater is not reaching its potential”

Rector moved from Kentucky to Pinellas County in 2015 to work as general counsel for Sports Facilities Co., a Clearwater-based business that plans and manages recreation and events facilities.

Since then he has served as chairperson of Clearwater’s Parks and Recreation Board and vice chairperson of the Community Development Board. He also has volunteered with Keep Pinellas Beautiful, the Clearwater Historical Society and other groups.

He grew up in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a law degree from the University of Kentucky. After law school, Rector ran a general law practice in Kentucky doing business transactional work, litigation and estate planning. He is divorced and raised one son.

In 2003, he served as president of Junior Chamber International, a nonprofit that connects global leaders and citizens on economic development and diplomacy. It’s a role that he said took him to speak on a panel in China and meet with leaders of Nigeria, the Philippines and Monaco.

He said it instilled in him the importance of collaboration and relationships, values he wants to bring to local government. Rector first ran for the City Council in 2020 but finished last in the five-way race.

He said he decided to run for mayor to promote Tampa Bay’s third-largest city and attract more business investment.

Rector has earned the endorsement of the police and fire employee unions and the chamber of commerce’s political action committee. He said it shows the range of support behind his vision.

“The entire time I’ve been here I just felt like Clearwater is not reaching its potential,” Rector said. “I don’t think we’re going to get there unless we have strong city leadership, a mayor who will continue to push us toward that, who will address tough issues and will make our city more attractive to investment.”

Where they differ

The two candidates differ on some major issues.

Beckman supports a state transportation plan to eliminate one travel lane in each direction of the mostly residential portion of Drew Street and add a center turn lane to address safety problems. Rector does not and said it will worsen congestion and negatively impact traffic to downtown.

At a recent Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition forum, Rector said he would be in favor of privatizing the city’s parks and recreation facilities “if it would save the taxpayers money.” Beckman said she would not be in favor of privatizing and risk a for-profit company charging residents more.

They agree on some resiliency efforts, like investing in stormwater infrastructure to address flooding.

Beckman wants to incentivize and educate the public on solar energy for homes. She earned the endorsement of the Suncoast Sierra Club, where her husband serves on the executive board.

Rector said protecting the city’s water quality and environment is critical but that spending on solar must be weighed against other initiatives to lower costs for taxpayers.

“I can tell you (residents’) highest priority is paying their bills to stay in their homes, and we need to make that our highest priority as a city government,” he said.

If elected, Rector said he would not try to torpedo the $34.1 million City Hall project but would look to cut costs.

They both support contributing city money toward the Philadelphia Phillies’ plan to renovate BayCare Ballpark, but the team has not yet confirmed an amount it will request.

While the election is nonpartisan, the mayoral race has been colored by politics. Rector touts his endorsements from a slew of local and federal Republican politicians. Beckman has the support of Democratic leaders.

In the letter to voters about why they should not vote for Beckman, Hibbard alleged she does not respect opposing views.

“She once told our former City Manager Bill Horne that I was evil because I was a Republican,” Hibbard wrote. “This is not a desirable attribute in your future mayor.”

Beckman called that “completely false” and said the “blatant lies” show the extreme measures Rector and Hibbard are taking to defeat her. Noting that Horne died in 2021 and cannot corroborate the statement, she said the charge is disrespectful to his memory.

Rector said he believes Hibbard, who stands by the anecdote.

“It appears that my competitor will stop at nothing to get elected,” Beckman said.