Mayor won on critics' turf
Election results show Frank Hibbard captured the beach vote.
By Mike Donila, Times Staff Writer
Published February 19, 2008
During his campaign, Mayor Frank Hibbard took a lot of flak from his challenger, who accused him of playing a major role "in tearing up the beach."
Opponent and former Mayor Rita Garvey said Hibbard and the rest of the City Council were shortsighted and gave in to big development on Clearwater Beach.
During his first term, beach residents were frequently critical of Hibbard, chastising him and the council members for planning to consolidate a library and recreation center and failing to eliminate many of the short-term rental operations in affluent areas.
In the end, though, Hibbard captured one of the most important sections of the city when he resoundingly won the Jan. 29 election: the beach.
Political observers say Hibbard's position as an incumbent, as well as his large campaign war chest - at least $51,000 to Garvey's $6,100 - helped him win. But even some who criticized beach development say Hibbard is progressive and popular and moved the city forward during the past three years.
Overall, the mayor captured 43 out of 49 precincts where registered voters cast ballots. Hibbard nabbed 15,508 votes to Garvey's 10,208, according to the official results released late last week by the city.
"I'm not going to take anything for granted; I really believe you have to earn the trust and credibility on a daily basis," Hibbard said, "and in retrospect I'm happy for the election because it's really energized me."
Hibbard did especially well along the city's western shoreline, winning 2,290 votes to Garvey's 1,385 in the Clearwater Beach, Sand Key and Island Estates precincts.
And while city turnout overall was at 39 percent, these three key precincts garnered between 45 percent and nearly 60 percent on Sand Key - the most anywhere in the city.
Of 30 or so voters interviewed on election day at the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center, almost all said they thought Hibbard would do a better job. They said they didn't like the laid-back, slow-growth approach associated with Garvey's administration.
Mark McCrary, 45, a property manager who lives on Clearwater Beach, said, "I think Rita would take it backwards."
Anne Garris, a beach resident and frequent City Hall critic, said she simply didn't know why Garvey lost the beach.
"I just don't know; it surprised me," she said Monday.
Two years ago, no one would have predicted Hibbard could prevail in Sand Key, where residents wanted to secede from the city and rallied against officials during 2006 budget hearings.
But City Council member George Cretekos of Sand Key said most of the people who complained weren't full-time residents. He said most permanent residents appreciate the mayor's dedication and work ethic.
Last March, beach resident Paul Gibson won a seat on the council on a campaign of change. He said after talking to nearby residents he felt "there's a deep-seated anger out here with regard to spending and taxes."
But he said he wasn't shocked Hibbard won the beach.
"He's a formidable campaigner and opponent and a good guy who works hard for the city," said Gibson, who has often butted heads with the mayor. "I don't think some people realize how hard he does work for the city."
Garvey won six precincts: five on the west side of the city and one on the east. She took South Greenwood, where she was well-liked during her 18 years as a city leader, 12 of them as mayor. She also took three precincts along Douglas Avenue, which are mostly modest neighborhoods north of downtown.
On the east side, she defeated the mayor by one vote -133 to 132 - in an area just north of Drew Street and west of McMullen-Booth Road that's made up of residential homes, aging mobile homes and low-income apartments.
Garvey declined to comment.
Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong, a Hibbard supporter, who keeps his finger on the city's political pulse, said the mayor has a very broad geographical base, "really reaching out to a lot of different neighborhoods."
He said he wasn't surprised that Garvey won in the predominantly black South Greenwood area, saying it's a "testament to an excellent relation that spanned more than two decades with the African-American community."
But the bottom line, he said, is that Hibbard "had significant support in virtually every neighborhood in the city."
When Mayor Frank Hibbard resoundingly won re-election in late January, he did so with strong support from the three beach precincts - areas where some political experts thought he wouldn't do so well.
Here's a look at how he did on the city's western shoreline:
-Island Estates: 831 to 537
-Clearwater Beach: 626 to 420
-Sand Key: 833 to 428