Tensions rise at the forum as Clearwater’s No. 5 nominees press charges

Candidates in the city’s virtual voting forum on Wednesday took moderator Al Ruechel’s warning seriously not to make personal attacks.

“I’m not going to let that happen,” said Ruechel, a retired Bay News 9 anchor.

But tension between fifth city council candidates Aaron Smith-Levin and Lina Teixeira still oozed during responses to Ruechel’s questions on everything from Clearwater’s so-called “good old boy” network to their closing statements.

In the campaign leading up to the March 15 election, Smith-Levin, 41, and Teixeira, 52, have fought each other and left the third candidate, Pastor Jonathan Wade, 66, out of the fray.

VIDEO: Watch the video of the Seat 5 Candidates Forum in Clearwater

As Smith-Levin challenges the Church of Scientology’s growing influence on downtown real estate, he has targeted Teixeira’s activism in downtown business groups, claiming her work with parishioners makes her too friendly to Scientology. In a video posted to Smith-Levin’s YouTube channel last week, he called her “Scientology’s Trojan Horse,” which Teixeira called false and defamatory.

Last week, Teixeira fought back with a mailer that blasted Smith-Levin’s conduct in two bar incidents in the past two years, in which law enforcement responded despite no charges being filed. In 2020, he received a trespassing warning after “calling” two women, attempting to provoke their friends into a fight and throwing carnival beads at the group, according to an incident report from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. In September, Smith-Levin said a man hit him on the head at a bar on Clearwater Beach after he called the man’s girlfriend “crazy,” according to police camera footage. Smith-Levin admitted to calling the woman “ct” after the fight, although police tell him two witnesses said he used the word before the fight.

“I’ve been the target of a very organized online smear campaign for the past six months,” Teixeira, who is not a member of Scientology, said during the forum. “I was trying to do the Christian thing. I kept turning the other cheek over and over and the punches just kept coming, so two weeks ago I decided enough was enough.”

Teixeira’s second negative mailer hit voters at home this week. In this case, the Teixeira campaign used two photos of Smith-Levin from a slander website about him owned and operated by the Church of Scientology. Teixeira said her freelance graphic artist pulled the images from Google and she “didn’t realize it came from a website the church designed.”

“My campaign had no contact with the church or its staff or supporters, who were in no way involved in this mailpiece or any other promotion of my campaign,” Teixeira said Tampa Bay Times in an opinion.

At Wednesday’s forum, Smith-Levin mentioned the website as a way in which Scientology has “continuously attacked with lies and exaggeration” since he left the organization in 2014 after growing up in the church.

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“Voters are focused on the issues,” Smith-Levin said. “They want to know what you’re going to do for our neighborhood and what you’re going to do for Scientology… Talking about a city council candidate’s ties to Scientology and David Miscavige is not a personal attack, it’s addressing the core issues facing constituents in this community campaign are important.”

Wade, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church and longtime attorney in the North Greenwood neighborhood, said he’s running on a platform to advocate for more affordable housing and to represent the needs of neighborhoods, especially in the face of undesirable developments.

“I believe there are communities that have been marginalized, left behind and didn’t have a voice at the negotiating table,” said Wade, a retired licensed clinical social worker. “So I believe I can bring a voice to the table that not only cares about those who are being disenfranchised and left behind, but that can also speak to the larger community.”

But when Ruechel asked if the perception of a “good ol’ boys” club in Clearwater was real, all three agreed. Wade, who is black, said the network discouraged some people of color from running for office, noting that it had been 30 years since an African American had served on the city council.

“Now is the time to have some diversity and people who look like me and are equally qualified to lead the city in this year of 2022,” Wade said.

Smith-Levin said the “good old guys” were “afraid of losing control of the city council,” especially after the election of council members Mark Bunker, another Scientology critic, and Kathleen Beckman, the most socially and environmentally progressive council member in 2020 years. He alluded to the support Teixeira has received from “establishment” figures such as business owners, developers and elected officials.

“That’s why this campaign has become so evil,” Smith-Levin said. “They’re so keen to win they resort to tactics they wouldn’t normally use and the solution is to get rid of them.”

Teixeira said that while “the network exists just like many others,” she had to fight for her place to be heard as a “5-foot-2-little Latina woman who’s an artist.”

But when it comes to Scientology, which Ruechel dedicated two questions to, all three candidates indicated that the church’s growing influence downtown was a problem.

Wade noted that local residents he spoke to said downtown was an “eerie” place, but he said the church was a “force that we need to work with in some way.”

All three agreed that the city should continue talks with Scientology leader David Miscavige about reviving vacant church-controlled lots, but Smith-Levin warned the city not to trust an organization like Scientology that honestly talk about their plans.

Teixeira said sharing the city with “a company that has great needs that don’t match those of the city” is challenging, and that Scientology’s tremendous hold on downtown real estate is “unhealthy and crippling us” .

“Therefore, it really should be a priority for certain city leaders to do things now that will in the future result in Scientology’s tax-exempt status being revoked,” Smith-Levin said, “so that they don’t have the authority to bully us the way they do.” were.”

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