Appeal to prejudice may have fallen flat

Scientologists are relieved that Frank Farkas' efforts to use Kim Berfield's links to the church against her didn't work in their primary race.

St. Petersburg Times/September 10, 2006
By Robert Farley

Dwight Matheny of Dunedin doesn't live in Senate District 16, but he and many other Scientologists were glued to the heated Republican primary between Kim Berfield and Frank Farkas.

The reason: Farkas focused two campaign mailings on Berfield's ties to Scientologists. For Scientologists, it was hard not to view the race as a referendum on community attitudes toward Scientology.

Was it still political poison?

Farkas' campaign clearly thought so, political analysts said.

And Matheny, outraged at what he regarded as religious bigotry, recalled thinking: "Now, let's see what happens."

When Berfield won comfortably, Scientologists were delighted. Matheny and several other Scientologists who spoke to the St. Petersburg Times said the message is clear: Scientology no longer can be used as a political punch. At least not effectively.

"That tool doesn't bite anymore," Matheny said. "It sort of closes a door that once was open. To those of you who want to continue this ghost of a battle, it's over. Grow up."

But others, including Berfield's general election opponent, Charlie Justice, caution against such end-game conclusions.

"The turnout was so small," Justice said. "I think certainly people have a lot of questions about Scientology, with their obvious expansion plans in St. Petersburg and Tampa."

He said he doesn't plan to play the Scientology card during his campaign, insisting he will focus on issues such as homeowners insurance. But he said if others bring up Scientology, "that's their business."

Berfield, who grew up in Clearwater and has seen the Church of Scientology struggle to gain community acceptance, said her involvement with Scientologists has been minimal. She has attended a few functions, as have dozens of other prominent bay area politicians.

"It really had no place in the campaign," she said, noting she believes Farkas' mailings were meant to give the impression she is a Scientologist. She is a born-again Christian.

"People were questioning my beliefs and that was frustrating," she said.

Berfield said she knows other politicians were watching her race, and even though she won, she suspects some will be more wary of attending Scientology events.

Scientology's effect as a swing issue is difficult to gauge in any race, said Clearwater lawyer Ed Armstrong, long an adviser to many Pinellas politicians and also an adviser to the Church of Scientology in public relations matters. But Berfield-Farkas was as close a measurement as he has seen - two Republican state representatives with similar voting records, and one using Scientology as a weapon.

"The tactic backfired," Armstrong said. "If Farkas had won, it would have had a chilling effect."

Perhaps no one has been stung by the anti-Scientology vote as much as Jim Warner.

Ten years ago, Warner wanted to be the mayor of Clearwater. A real estate agent, he had sold a few homes to Scientologists, so he reached out to them for campaign donations. Money started pouring in.

"I raised $60,000 in 60 days," Warner said. "I was getting checks from (Scientologists in) California. I got one from Greta Van Susteren," the Fox News host and Scientologist.

When the media reported he had backing from Scientologists, he was cooked, he said. He lost the election to Rita Garvey, a hard-liner against Scientologists.

His campaign manager then was Jack Hebert of the Mallard Group. The same Jack Hebert who ran Farkas' campaign.

"Maybe he saw that work to Rita Garvey's advantage 10 years ago and figured he could use it to his advantage this time," Warner said. "For Jack to spin that the other way ... boy, that's wild."

Hebert did not return messages seeking comment.

Another irony, Warner said, is that Garvey's campaign manager was Mary Repper, who now does public relations work for Scientology and has been instrumental in getting Scientologists access to political and civic leaders.

Farkas' campaign strategy smacked of McCarthyism, Repper said.

"People are not afraid to stand next to Scientologists anymore," she said.

But, like Scientologists, she too saw Berfield-Farkas as a litmus test.

"I wondered how far the community had come and how far Scientology had progressed," she said. "We don't go out and poll, so this was an interesting test. My own gut reaction was that Frank Farkas had overplayed his hand. But it was wonderful to have that reaffirmed with the results."

Certainly, Farkas mailings stunned and hurt Scientologists.

"Kim is not a member of my church," said Scientology activist Joanie Sigal of Clearwater. "She is not overly friendly to my church."

Sigal is a co-founder of Florida Citizens for Social Reform, a political action group that promotes drug treatment and reading programs developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The group paid little attention to the Berfield-Farkas race until Farkas made Scientology an issue, she said.

Sigal was so outraged, she was tempted to do a fundraiser for Berfield, but she didn't.

"When someone makes your religion an issue, you want to see what's going to happen and you hope for the best," she said.

Warner said he doesn't think it's problematic any longer for a politician to accept money from Scientologists. "It isn't as dirty as it used to be," he said.

But in a local election in Clearwater, where Scientology has had its spiritual headquarters for 30 years, Scientology still matters to voters, Warner said.

In Clearwater, it's still possible to "scare the hell out of them with Scientology, especially if they are an elderly person," he said. "I think it's terrible."

Matheny believes the Berfield-Farkas election put to rest the idea that smearing a candidate with Scientology is a viable campaign strategy, at least locally.

But wait until a Scientologist runs for office, he said.

"Someday a Scientologist will run for state Senate, and it will be a big deal," he said. "Someday a Scientologist will run for governor, and it will be a big deal. Over the next 50 years, we'll see that story play out again and again and again."

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