Mar 16, 2020

Shadow group weaponizes Scientology in Clearwater election | Editorial

Retired teacher Kathleen Beckman, candidate for Clearwater City Council's Seat 3, has been targeted by a Republican-affiliated group using deceptive ads that sound like they are from members of the Church of Scientology. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times] By Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board
A political committee with Republican ties unfairly uses Scientology to target a city council candidate.

Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board
Tampa Bay Times
March 13, 2020

It’s fair play to point out which candidates in Tuesday’s Clearwater City Council elections have been endorsed by a group of Church of Scientology members. It’s entirely unfair to flood voters with deceptive phone calls and mailers targeting one particular candidate for politically partisan reasons and not come out of the shadows to identify yourself. That’s how low Republicans are sinking to target council candidate Kathleen Beckman, and Clearwater voters should not put up with it.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Tracey McManus reported, Clearwater voters have received robocalls from a person sounding like a Scientology member and urging them to support Beckman. Similar mailings also have been received that appear to come from Scientology members. In fact, the calls and mailers did not come from a Scientology group but from the Florida Values Coalition, a political committee backed by Republican money and interest groups. This sort of deception has no place in any election, and a shadowy Republican group has no business meddling in a nonpartisan city election.

The Church of Scientology is the third rail of politics in Clearwater. The church and its members control much of downtown, and they cannot be ignored. But Scientology is being weaponized in this election like never before by others using it for their own partisan purposes against Beckman.

In this case, as McManus reports, the Florida Values Coalition that takes credit for the deceptive calls and mailers was registered with the state in August by Stafford Jones, a longtime Republican Party of Florida figure. Almost all of the coalition’s money came from another committee chaired by Jones, Liberty4Florida. Most of that group’s money came from Citizens Speaking Out, another committee chaired by Jones. And that group has nearly $1.3 million in contributions from three dozen other committees tied to Republicans. This is legalized money laundering, and it is another example of the desperate need for campaign finance reform at the national and state level.

Of course, there is no reason Republican groups, or partisan groups backed by Democrats, should be sticking their noses into Clearwater’s nonpartisan elections in the first place. Beckman is not a Scientologist, but she is a Democrat -- and that should be immaterial in this race. There is nothing partisan about deciding how to proceed with the ambitious downtown waterfront project, Imagine Clearwater. Or deciding where a new city hall should be located. Or hiring a new professional city manager. But injecting partisan politics into nonpartisan elections is a disappointing trend and already has impacted races such as the 2017 race for mayor in St. Petersburg.

In Clearwater, the long shadow of the Church of Scientology further complicates the situation. Scientology groups have the same free speech rights as others to support candidates, but that should be an unwanted embrace by most campaigns. For example, Bud Elias, one of of Beckman’s opponents, sent his own mailer this week highlighting the endorsement of Beckman by the Scientology group. That’s fair game, and Elias put his name on it so voters can judge that tactic for themselves.

But shadowy Republican groups that weaponize Scientology for their own purposes, use deceptive tactics and hide behind innocuous-sounding names are a corrupting influence in the city election. Clearwater voters should send their own message about those tactics on Tuesday.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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