Clearwater — Mark Bunker, who has spent the last two decades advocating against what he calls fraud and abuse in the Church of Scientology, narrowly won a historic victory on Tuesday over four opponents for City Council Seat 2.
But his victory was clouded by health concerns: Bunker has been quarantined at home since Monday, awaiting test results for COVID-19.
In a city where Scientology arrived in 1975 under a false name and deployed a conspiracy to infiltrate the government and civic offices, few politicians have been willing to speak critically of the church, even as it has acquired an unprecedented amount of downtown real estate.
“This clearly shows that Scientology does not have the power they think they do,” said Bunker. “Scientology has been leading by intimidation for decades, frightening politicians into being silent for fear they will be called a religious bigot. It’s not bigotry to talk about the actions and abuses of the organization.”
Gabe Cazares, who served as mayor when Scientology arrived 45 years ago, raised the alarm about the secretive organization and paid the price with a campaign by church officials to destroy his reputation and personal life.
The City Council held a week of hearings in 1982 where witnesses discussed alleged financial crimes occurring in the city. But after a proposed ordinance that would have given the city power to scrutinize Scientology’s finances was overturned by the courts in the 80s, few have been willing to criticize the church publicly.
However, Bunker has more immediate concerns. He said he was recently experiencing shortness of breath and coughing. So his doctor had him tested for the coronavirus. Bunker is now quarantined at home, awaiting test results that his doctor says should arrive in three to five days.
Bunker secured 27 percent of 22,745 votes cast, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.
He earned 6,163 votes, besting business owner Mike Mannino by 260 votes. Fashion designer and wine bar owner Lina Teixeira earned 20 percent. Retired sheriff’s technical supervisor Eliseo Santana had 15 percent of the vote while attorney Bruce Rector garnered 12 percent.
“Clearly Scientology is on the mind of a lot of voters,” Bunker said. “I’m trying to help Scientologists by reforming the abuses to make the church actually act decently instead of being this paranoid, vindictive organization.”
Bunker first came to Clearwater in 2000 to work as a filmmaker with the Lisa McPherson Trust — a nonprofit established in the name of a woman who died in 1995 while under the church’s care in Clearwater — to advocate against alleged fraud and abuse by Scientology.
Bunker’s presence in the race elevated campaign conversations about the controversial church’s influence to levels not seen in decades. In past elections, candidates were hesitant to even say the word Scientology.
Between 2017 and 2019, the church and companies tied to Scientology bought nearly 100 properties in the center of downtown. The effort has given the church indisputable control over the success of the city’s ongoing revitalization efforts.
Bunker campaigned for the city to demand transparency from church leaders and for the city to encourage the IRS to revoke Scientology’s tax exempt status for alleged fraud and abuse.
He said Tuesday he wants the city to hold public meetings to discuss Scientology’s complex financial and cultural structures. That includes educating the Clearwater Police Department on Scientology policies, which includes prohibiting members from reporting crimes to law enforcement.
The suspicion about Scientology’s influence in this election is so strong that one of his opponents, Teixeira, took to Facebook on Jan. 28 to address it. She posted a video telling residents there are business owners like herself who are not Scientologists who are trying to revitalize downtown on their own — not to benefit the church.
The election drew an unprecedented field of candidates: 13 running for the three seats. Almost all of them acknowledged that Scientology is one of the top issues all voters raised during their campaigns.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday.
Bunker said the results show a new direction for the city, one where the issue of Scientology’s influence is addressed head on.
Bunker’s $18,732 in campaign contributions far trailed Teixeira’s $55,907. But his support came from all over the U.S., including many former Scientology members now speaking about alleged abuse from family disconnection to sexual abuse.
Mike Mannino, a Clearwater native and owner of an athletic event business, centered his campaign on uniting what he calls a fractured community grappling with disconnected neighborhoods and the upcoming retirement of longtime city manager Bill Horne, a shift that will require renewed city vision. Mannino earned the endorsements of the Suncoast Sierra Club and the police and fire unions.
Eliseo Santana, who worked as a civilian technical supervisor for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years before retiring, campaigned on affordable housing and small business support. In several election forums this year, Santana chastised Bunker for his criticism of the Church of Scientology.
Bruce Rector, an attorney for a sports advisory firm, pitched his 30-year background in leadership, including serving as president of Junior Chamber International, as proof he can build a responsive city government, grow the tax base and reduce traffic.
The candidates elected to three seats on Tuesday will be sworn in to office the business day after election results are certified, which is expected no sooner than March 27, according to City Clerk Rosemarie Call. Council members earn $22,955 annually and serve four-year terms.
What effect did COVID-19 have on turnout in this election? Election data shows that across Pinellas County, turnout was 36 percent. That is down from the 50 percent turnout level from the March 2016 election. Clearwater turnout in this election was not available late Tuesday.
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