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    A few neighborhoods tip tight contest

    Hoyt Hamilton beat Rita Garvey with a push from Scientology-dominated and beach precincts.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK and DEBORAH O'NEIL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- In the closest race of Tuesday night's Clearwater election, the swing votes that catapulted Hoyt Hamilton to a win over former Mayor Rita Garvey came from beach neighborhoods, affluent suburban enclaves and a Church of Scientology-dominated precinct.

    A St. Petersburg Times analysis of precinct vote breakdowns shows Hamilton's 614-vote margin of victory was cemented with strong support from Island Estates, Sand Key, Countryside, Harbor Oaks, Coachman Ridge and the Scientology-owned Hacienda Gardens housing complex, where church staff members live.

    Hamilton said he wasn't surprised by winning votes on the beach, where his family has been in the restaurant and hotel business for much of the past century. Garvey's support, he said, came from an older constituency, while his came from areas that had "more progressive thinking."

    Those residents "understand the need for progress for the city," he said.

    He downplayed the effect of Scientology votes in his win for Seat 3 on the commission.

    "I won by 600 votes citywide," Hamilton said Wednesday. "The reason (Garvey) lost is because the city is ready to move forward, and the voters spoke very clearly. Now that I've been elected, I'm looking forward to serving all of Clearwater."

    Garvey, meanwhile, won the neighborhoods of North Greenwood, South Greenwood, Skycrest and along Kings Highway -- all less-affluent areas with minority communities where she has a lot of friends.

    She also bested Hamilton in College Hill, a neighborhood that approved her criticism of plans to build a spring training stadium nearby.

    Garvey said she was disappointed that she failed to carry more votes in Clearwater Beach, Island Estates and Sand Key.

    A longtime critic of the Church of Scientology, Garvey also noted that nearly a third of her margin of defeat could be attributed to church members in Precinct 518 in central Clearwater.

    "Fifteen or 20 years ago, (the church) said they were going to take over City Hall," Garvey said. "They don't have to run candidates to do that."

    During his campaign, Hamilton told the Times he was comfortable accepting support from Church of Scientology members. He said he had spoken to local Scientologists about his campaign and felt the church's presence should be accepted.

    Then he wrote a letter to the Times stating he was not soliciting church votes.

    Tuesday's elections results showed he got the votes anyway.

    In Precinct 518 at the Clearwater East Branch Library on Drew Street, 271 ballots were cast -- 175 of them from residents of Hacienda Gardens, the church's staff housing on Saturn Avenue, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office.

    The final tally was 226 votes for Hamilton and 42 for Garvey. Hamilton's margin of victory there -- with 84 percent of the votes -- was his best showing in any city precinct.

    "It doesn't bother me, nor does it surprise me," Hamilton said of the Scientology support. "They have a right to vote just like anyone else if they're citizens of the city."

    Precinct 518 also gave exceptionally high support to newly elected Commissioner Whitney Gray and unsuccessful candidate Frank Hibbard, who like Hamilton expressed support for downtown redevelopment.

    Last July, the precinct was one of only six among the city's 50 precincts that approved a $300-million referendum to redevelop downtown.

    Church of Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church encourages its members to vote and provides transportation to the polls in church buses and vans. But, Shaw said, the church does not tell members whom to vote for.

    Still, he wasn't surprised to hear Precinct 518's results.

    "(Hamilton) had a pretty progressive view compared to Rita," Shaw said, particularly about sparking redevelopment downtown, where the church has invested millions in its worldwide spiritual headquarters. "The vote is a response to who had the most positive view toward all the citizens of Clearwater."

    In the other two commission races, support for the winners was more equally distributed across the city.

    Gray beat former Commissioner Lee Regulski by decisively winning a hodgepodge of neighborhoods, including Old Clearwater Bay, Sand Key, North Greenwood, Skycrest and portions of Countryside.

    Bill Jonson defeated three competitors with a similarly broad base of support. He won precincts from Sand Key, to most of central Clearwater, and posted huge wins in Countryside, where he lives.

    Opponent Hibbard carried Harbor Oaks, which is his neighborhood, Precinct 518 and a few other areas. Meanwhile, Lucile Casey took her own neighborhood in Del Oro Groves, and College Hill. Jeralne Burt won South Greenwood and tied for the win in North Greenwood.

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