Striving for mainstream, building new connections

A local lawyer and political consultant are hired to help break down barriers for Scientology.

St. Petersburg Times/July 19, 2004
By Robert Farley

It was a sticky decision and everyone in the room knew it.

Bennetta Slaughter, the charismatic businesswoman whose tireless committee work had impressed so many, was being nominated to the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

"Do we really want one on the board?" several asked.

By "one" they meant: a Scientologist.

Board members worried that the chamber's rank and file might quit in protest. One member had resigned in a huff two years earlier when chamber leader Ed Armstrong, a lawyer, took on the Church of Scientology as a client.

After several tense moments, one board member spoke up - Armstrong.

"Think about what you're thinking in your heart," he pleaded, his words still recalled vividly by chamber president Mike Meidel.

"Think if there is a legitimate reason for opposing her or if it's only because of religion. Think about that."

Armstrong, who is not a Scientologist, reminded his board colleagues - 44 of Clearwater's business elite - that the IRS had granted Scientology tax-exempt status in 1993. This was 2001.

Vote your conscience, he urged.

Slaughter was voted in handily. No chamber members defected. Now, so many Scientologists are active in the chamber, their church ties no longer are openly questioned, Meidel said.

For the Church of Scientology, it was yet another step in its long march toward acceptance in Clearwater. It also was another successful negotiation by the deft Armstrong, a noted real estate lawyer who, along with former political consultant Mary Repper, opened many doors for the church.

Hired as consultants, the pair worked independently and often behind the scenes, using their connections and influence to help Scientologists forge relationships with political and business leaders.

Increasingly, members of the long embattled and mistrusted Scientology community are finding a place at the table.

Some of the credit goes to a little-known Scientology public relations strategy called "safe pointing."

And some goes to Armstrong and Repper, who helped make it happen.

The Armstrong method

The church's first hire was Armstrong, one of Clearwater's favorite sons.

Once a star pitcher at Clearwater and Dunedin high schools, Armstrong earned a full ride to the University of Maryland, and after law school at Vanderbilt returned to his hometown. He became much more than a successful real estate lawyer. His deep connections and political savvy put him on the speed dial of office holders at Clearwater City Hall and the Pinellas Courthouse.

When Scientology hired Armstrong and his firm, Johnson Blakely Pope Bokor Ruppel & Burns, one of the most respected in Clearwater, in 1999, the church recognized it was hiring "a local institution," church spokesman Ben Shaw recalls.

"It brings a degree of respectability if you are seen to be a friend of those people," Shaw said. "Ed is well connected. I think that does go a long way."

The community raised a collective eyebrow, knowing Armstrong could deliver access to many of the most powerful people in Pinellas.

Armstrong, 47, shrugs. "That's why most of my clients hire me," he says.

Former Clearwater Assistant City Manager Bob Keller puts it this way: "I think Ed Armstrong has done two things. He turned parts of the relationship between the church and the city into a business deal. He would make sure the church was dealt with fairly and squarely. No. 2, he makes it (interacting with Scientologists) acceptable among the opinion leaders. "If Ed could do it, so can I.' "

Armstrong didn't come cheap. The church will say only that it pays him his standard rate, which other lawyers put at about $400 an hour.

His behind-the-scenes work is part of the "safe pointing" strategy. Wooing opinion leaders is a community relations tactic outlined by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Shaw describes a "safe point" as "an environment where one is known and understood and where friendly relationships have been established with the community and thus one is "safe' to conduct one's affairs free from prejudice and misunderstanding."

An epitomizing event was the church party on Jan. 26, 2002, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Fort Harrison Hotel. The guest list was a who's who of Pinellas' political and power elite. Since then, politicians have been much more comfortable attending various church events.

State Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and state Sens. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Dennis Jones of Seminole sat through a seminar last fall about a Hubbard-inspired crime and drug rehabilitation project.

Fasano, City Council member Hoyt Hamilton and Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne helped kick off the church's Christmas-themed Winter Wonderland last December. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judges Linda Allan and Linda Babb toured, and later praised, the Narconon drug treatment program based on Hubbard teachings.

Political candidates quickly learn that Scientologists can be willing campaign contributors and represent a sizable voter bloc.

Civic leaders have found Scientologists to be not only joiners but big spenders on charitable causes.

The church was one of 30 "gold level" contributors pledging at least $200,000 to Tampa's failed bid to land the 2012 Olympics. Last year, the church paid $50,000 to become a charter member of - and the only church in - the Tampa Bay Partnership.

Individual Scientologists contributed to Clearwater's YMCA, new public library and Marine Aquarium.

Scientologists run blood drives, participate in Paint Your Heart Out and participate on boards such as the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and Citizens for a Better Clearwater.

It's time, Armstrong says, for folks to become more accepting.

"I think the community needs to be more tolerant of people with different racial, religious beliefs and lifestyle choices," he said. "I think there is bigotry in the city against the Church of Scientology."

The matchmaker

As Madonna's Material Girl blared, state Rep. Kim Berfield of Clearwater made a splashy entrance in a black ensemble. She strutted down the runway, stopped and twirled.

Minutes later, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, modeling a hot pink party dress and a feather boa, posed before groupings of tables.

The event: a $50-a-plate fashion show organized by the Clearwater Community Volunteers, a nonprofit organization founded by Scientologists. It raised $19,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs and the church's Winter Wonderland.

Other models included the wives of Clearwater Vice Mayor Frank Hibbard, Chief Pinellas Sheriff's Deputy Jim Coats and Pinellas Public Defender Robert Dillinger.

Out came Repper in a black dress, dancing to Hot Stuff. The mastermind of scores of successful political campaigns on both sides of the bay, Repper retired from that work last year and was hired by the church as a community relations consultant.

Many have wondered, as Clearwater's Scientology community grew: Have Scientologists been elected to public office?

The answer is no.

But as the fashion show attests, there are plenty of powerful politicians Scientologists can rely on.

And often Repper was the matchmaker.

For more than two decades, Repper, 61, of Clearwater, was the go-to campaign chair for many politicians. She led the campaigns of most Clearwater City Council members and Pinellas county commissioners, many judges, the Pinellas sheriff, public defender and supervisor of elections. She estimates having run more than 100 campaigns.

For years, she had this advice for clients when it came to the Church of Scientology: Stay away. Political suicide.

Repper's epiphany came years ago after a Scientologist friend related how frustrated and confused she was by the hostility in the community toward the church.

Repper, an advocate for such causes as women's rights, felt like a hypocrite. She began telling candidates, "If you feel okay with it (support from Scientologists) you should do it."

The church had solicited her services for years, but she saw a potential conflict of interest while actively running campaigns.

For years, Scientologists have opposed and supported candidates, especially in Clearwater. Mayor Brian Aungst remembers meeting with church member Slaughter in 1999 during his campaign to unseat then-Mayor Rita Garvey, an outspoken church critic. Aungst said Slaughter told him she could galvanize Scientologists to support him and raise as much as $60,000. But Aungst declined, noting that a previous mayoral candidate lost to Garvey after it was revealed he had heavy support from Scientologists.

"I said . . . the idea is to get elected not to see how much money you can raise and get defeated," Aungst said.

Vice Mayor Hibbard recalls having to choose between Slaughter and his pastor, Bill Anderson of Calvary Baptist Church, a longtime critic of Scientology. Both ended up on his host committee. One had to go. He sided with his pastor. Slaughter was angry, he said, when he broke the news.

Scientologists no longer are the strangest of bedfellows, Repper and others say. Nor is it such a political liability to take money from them. Many candidates do, she says.

Latvala, one of the first and most prominent political leaders to attend church events, says that while a stigma still surrounds the church, Scientologists have proven to be good community citizens.

"They get the credit," Latvala said, "whether people want to give it to them or not, for beautifying and redeveloping some very ugly areas."

In the past year, Repper has used Scientology's celebrities to form bonds. She hosted dinner parties with Tom Cruise and an array of elected officials including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. And she arranged for John Travolta to visit Tampa's Italian Club.

What does all this "safe pointing" accomplish?

"It is helpful to have people who will take your phone call," Repper explains.

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