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Scientology: an election issue?

In 2 campaigns, voters hear hints of connections to the church.

By ROB FARLEY and CURTIS KRUEGER
Published August 19, 2006



In a campaign season dominated by worries over insurance and property taxes, an unlikely issue has surfaced in two Tampa Bay legislative races: the Church of Scientology.

In the Pinellas-Hillsborough District 16 state Senate race, Republican Frank Farkas is mailing a flier that says the "controversial Church of Scientology" considers his opponent, Kim Berfield, "a key ally."

In a state House race centered in Clearwater, Scientology's spiritual headquarters, Republican candidate Ed Hooper said someone suggested in phone calls to voters that he is supported by Scientologists. His Republican opponent, Nancy Riley, denies any involvement.

Farkas said he is not criticizing the church but revealing that a political committee with ties to Scientologists might spend big on Berfield's behalf.

The mailing lists several interest groups - Farkas calls them shadow groups - he says are supporting Berfield, including the insurance and medical industries. It also cites a group called Florida Citizens for Social Reform, whose advisory board he says is comprised of key Scientology leaders and is helping to fund Berfield's campaign.

The mailing states:

"Key leaders in the controversial Church of Scientology make up the advisory board of this group which also helps directly fund Ms. Berfield's campaign. Ms. Berfield has a history of visiting and participating in church events and fundraisers, often praising their efforts, so expect them to return her many favors. They are counting on her as a key ally in their current ambitious expansion plans across Tampa Bay."

Ed Armstrong, a Berfield supporter who also is an attorney for the church, said Farkas "obviously thinks it will put Kim in a negative light and I think he's desperate. ... I don't think it will be effective."

Berfield said Farkas' comments amount to "an outrageous fabrication, and I think it is a way for a desperate politician to try and gloss over his own problems."

The focus on Scientology comes as more and more political leaders are interacting with the Church of Scientology and its members.

Scientology has been a hot-button issue in Clearwater since late 1975 when the church arrived covertly and purchased a city landmark, the Fort Harrison Hotel. Two years later, church documents seized by the FBI revealed plans to "take control" of Clearwater and discredit its "enemies" - political leaders, local police, newspaper editors and reporters.

Strained relations between Scientology and the community began to thaw in recent years. A watershed moment occurred in 2002 at the church's 75th anniversary party at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. The guest list was a virtual who's who of local political, civic and business leaders. Since then, politicians have grown comfortable attending church events and taking Scientologists' political donations.

And in May Gov. Jeb Bush apologized for calling Scientology "some weird little group."

Farkas said in an interview that he wanted to raise the question of "why leaders in the church are working and supporting Ms. Berfield's campaign and why Ms. Berfield is supporting Scientology."

He bases the question on these assertions:

* Berfield appeared in a fashion show organized by Scientologists. Part of the money from the show went to Scientology's Winter Wonderland, a downtown Clearwater Christmas event.

Berfield said she was asked to participate as board member of the Boys & Girls Clubs, which also benefited from the event, and she'd do it again.

"It's a tragedy that someone who proclaims to be such a family-oriented man would intentionally harm a children's organization like the Boys & Girls Clubs ... in hopes of harming me."

- That some Berfield supporters are closely affiliated with Florida Citizens for Social Reform, a nonprofit group formed by local Scientologists that promotes drug treatment and education programs based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The group's advisory board members include Nancy Watkins, who also is Berfield's campaign treasurer; Akshay Desai, who once paid for Berfield to attend a presidential fundraiser in Washington, D.C.; and Armstrong.

- He believes the Social Reform group, which gave Berfield $250, plans to spend big on Berfield's behalf. Joanie Sigal, the group's chairwoman, denied that. "He's got this whole thing made up in his mind and we just kind of look at it and go what?"

- That Berfield has made supportive statements about Scientology, including this in Scientology's Freedom magazine: "As long as we continue to work together with the focus and goal to make our community stronger and a better place where more people will want to come and visit, we can only grow from there."

Farkas also sent an automated phone message about Berfield's support from insurance interests and Scientologists, which prompted a strong reaction from Scientologists. "It's outrageous someone would say that," church spokesman Ben Shaw said. "He is obviously trying to play to people's prejudices."

In the Ed Hooper-Nancy Riley Republican primary in House District 50, Hooper says several voters got phone calls from a purported pollster asking if they knew Scientologists supported Hooper and that he might support Scientology legislation.

"It was a real hammer job," said voter Jim Stevens of Safety Harbor.

"I resent the fact that people think it's being done by me," Riley said. "I can win without doing that."

She stopped short of condemning the calls.

While some debate the relevance of religion in a political race, some say the tactic could prove effective.

Someone viewed as cozy with Scientologists is likely to be viewed skeptically by a voter who considers Scientology a cult, said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida government professor.

"It was designed to be a wedge issue, and I suspect it will probably work with a certain audience," said Scott Paine, an associate professor of communication and government at the University of Tampa.

Armstrong and former campaign consultant Mary Repper, both of whom do work for the Church of Scientology, are convinced Farkas has miscalculated.

While such a tactic might have gotten traction in years past, Armstrong believes the relationship between the community and Scientology has improved.

"Frankly, I think he overplayed his hand," Repper said.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said some voters are swayed by perceptions that a candidate is friendly to Scientologists. On the other hand, there are a lot of Scientologists, and they vote.

Which camp is bigger?

"I'm sure everyone would like to know that," Hibbard said.

[Last modified January 12, 2007, 10:38:58]


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