CLEARWATER — Voters on Tuesday filled two City Council seats by keeping a well-known incumbent and ushering in a newcomer who is no stranger to City Hall.
Incumbent Hoyt Hamilton kept hold of Seat 5 by getting 9,537 votes. That's 79 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. He bested challenger John Funk, a real estate broker, in a heated race marked by high tension and attack mailers.
Retired building contractor David Allbritton defeated advertising salesman Tom Keller with 8,028 votes, or 67 percent of the electorate, in the tamer race for Seat 4 being vacated by the term-limited Bill Jonson.
The election sets the stage for a critical period in the city's history, as officials embark on the $55 million waterfront redesign Imagine Clearwater, an ambitious attempt to revive the long struggling downtown.
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Despite the significance of Tuesday's election, it was given little attention by Clearwater residents — about 17 percent of the 72,159 eligible voters cast ballots for each citywide seat, based on unofficial results, making it one of the worst participation rates in two decades.
Both Allbritton and Hamilton said they still viewed their wide-margin victories over their opponents as a show of confidence from voters.
"It's humbling to see that kind of support," Hamilton, 59, said after watching the results from the Palm Pavilion restaurant he owns on Clearwater Beach. "I am just chomping at the bit because I think the next four years are really going to define where this city moves in the future."
In his fifth successful run for office, Hamilton raised $41,740 from well-connected businesses, local politicians and residents.
Besides the $3,196 he self-funded, Funk, Hamilton's challenger, saw almost all of his $17,486 of contributions come from prominent members of the Church of Scientology.
Hamilton said the campaign itself was the toughest of all the ones he's run since being first elected in 2001. The candidates traded attack mailers, with Hamilton calling out Funk's personal financial history and Funk blasting Hamilton's time in office as being ineffective.
On Election Day, Hamilton said he felt the race had been decided. He hit a few precincts in the morning to greet voters after working out and meeting his regular group for 7 a.m. coffee. But by the afternoon he took his mind off the race by going to watch the Philadelphia Phillies 1 p.m. spring training game.
"I give John Funk great credit because he called and congratulated me," Hamilton said of the results. "That's the first election that I've actually had the opponent congratulate me on the win."
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Allbritton, 67, who has served on numerous city boards for 20 years, said he was out of the door by 4:30 a.m. to post campaign signs at the polls. The low turnout had him worried when he didn't see his first voter walk through the Salvation Army precinct until 9 a.m., two hours after polls opened.
But Allbritton, who lost his first bid for Council in 2014 to Jonson, said the importance of this period cannot be overstated. He said with three more council seat up for grabs in 2020, and the elected officials to hire a new city manager and attorney soon after, those in office will shape Clearwater's potential.
His campaign against Keller, a political newcomer, was low-key. The two met for coffee before the race kicked off and neither blasted each other in mailers or public forums. Allbritton out-spent his opponent, raising $45,792 from Clearwater businesses and residents. Keller pulled in $14,275, but $10,000 came from his own pockets.
"Now that we got the campaign behind us, we need to move forward and get things done," Allbritton said from his victory party at Rumba Island Bar & Grill, where Hamilton later joined him. "I'm ready to go."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.