The city government of Clearwater, Florida, home of Scientology’s main global campus, voted in April 2016 to buy land from the Clearwater Aquarium, thwarting Scientology’s offer to acquire the property for substantially more than the city paid. More recently, Pastor Willie Rice of Calvary Baptist Church, the city’s oldest church, has gone into attack mode, rallying his congregation and trying to rally other pastors to oppose Scientology openly. Why is the power structure in Clearwater now opposing Scientology so openly?
We believe the city council and others now understand that Scientology is a paper tiger that can’t affect the outcome of elections, the political currency that matters most. They can only lobby ineffectually and skulk around and attempt to harass after the fact, a modus operandi that is increasingly often exposed, and which thus backfires on the cult.
Clearwater is Scientology’s “spiritual” home, with the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Super Power building (the so-called “Mecca of Technical Perfection”), and myriad other facilities to cater to Scientologists coming from all over the world.
Many Scientologists choose to make Clearwater their home, to be close to all that wonderful “theta.” Heck, if you’re an OT VII, and you haven’t made Clearwater your home, you should probably just up and buy a place there, because the annual mortgage on a basic condo (around $100,000) is about what you’d have to spend on 2-3 weeks’ accommodations at the Fort Harrison when you come to town for your twice-yearly sec checks.
Trouble in Clearwater: The Failed Land Deal
Despite its massive property holdings downtown, the cult has been unsuccessful in getting the city to further its interests recently. Normally, the biggest employers or property owners will have a good relationship with their city governments
The most significant Waterloo so far is the failed attempt to block the sale of land owned by the Clearwater Aquarium to the City in April 2017. This 1.4 acre parcel was coveted by Scientology for some sort of facility to serve members coming to Flag for courses.
That failure came in the wake of a significant lobbying and public relations effort. I’m sure David Miscavige thought he had a slam dunk: he offered $10 million more than the city offered the Clearwater Aquarium for this land, and there isn’t a non-profit in the country that thinks they have too much money in the budget. Miscavige, various Scientology celebrities and others met with the city council members individually, and yet the council voted to buy the land by a 4-1 margin.
Clearly, the Aquarium was unafraid of Scientology as well. Selling the land for 1/3 of Scientology’s offer could have been the subject of litigation for breach of fiduciary duty, as the church implied in the wake of their defeat. I think, however, that fiduciary duty can be defined more broadly, as improvement of the broad tourist infrastructure could be shown to bring more tourists to the city and ultimately bring in more revenue and profit than the larger proceeds from selling to Scientology.
Scientology’s efforts to affect the vote on the land deal before the fact failed. So they fell back to their old playbook: trashing those involved after the vote went against them.
Trouble in Paradise: The Pastoral Revolt
In mid-2017, the religious community began to oppose Scientology openly. The days of silence in the name of religious unity appeared to be over. Pastor Willy Rice of Cavalry Baptist Church, the city’s oldest church, became active in speaking out.
Here’s a January 2018 video from Pastor Rice that does a pretty good job of summarizing the history of the cult’s presence in Clearwater, what Scientologists believe, and why he considers Scientology offensive to not only Christians but all people of faith:
This video appeared after Pastor Rice was subject to a Scientology “fair game” smear campaign, which he predicted in his initial wave of activism. Pastor Rice was clearly not intimidated by the cult’s opposition, since he’s back and bigger than ever.
How Many Scientologists Are There in Clearwater, Really?
When I analyzed the locations given in comments for people signing the August 2017 Change.org petition to cancel Leah Remini’s “Aftermath,” I discovered the majority of Scientologists in the Tampa Bay area live in the town of Clearwater. There were 187 respondents who would be served by the Clearwater org and/or Flag, and 143 of those (76%) gave the name of their city as Clearwater. And the Clearwater area population was the biggest cluster of signers of the petition, with 187 out of 966 US-based signers, or 19.4% of the US total.
I have assumed that the signers of the petition did not include any significant number of staff, and especially not any current Sea Org members, as Scientology would be unlikely to allow those people access to the Internet to sign the petition. It also follows that Sea Org and staff would not be likely to vote, even if they’re American citizens (recall that Scientology is the biggest user of R-1 religious worker visas).
If we apply that 19.3% share to the US Scientology membership population, which we estimate to be about 9,000 public (a number that doesn’t include staff and Sea Org), then we’d expect about 1,742 Scientologists in the greater Tampa area, and 1,324 in the city of Clearwater itself. When translated into the political realm, that 1,324 number is approximately the number of potential voters (i.e., people that are registered to vote or could register). But not everyone votes in an election. I looked up the data on voter turnout in Florida, and in 2016, 65.7% of potential voters cast ballots. Applying that to our estimate of the number of Scientologists, we can estimate that 870 Scientologists cast ballots in Clearwater in the 2016 election.
The Scientology membership is graying, but so is the population of Florida, so I don’t think we need to correct this estimate for age-related effects. That can often be important in voter polling, as older voters tend to turn out at much higher rates than Millennials and other younger groups.
Can 870 Clearwater Scientologist Voters Affect Election Results?
If there were “tens of thousands of Scientologists in Clearwater,” they would completely control the Clearwater municipal government as Scientologists could be elected to every single council seat and opponents could not dislodge them.
Taking over the government? It’s “scripture.” Those not familiar with Scientology might think this discussion is bizarre. Why would a church want to take over a government? The idea of Scientology taking a place over is not just a nightmare for the citizenry, it’s enshrined in policy – recall Hubbard’s laughable assertion that Scientologists should be the ones that decide what’s legal or not. And recall that, in the 1960s, Hubbard thought he could waltz in and take over the government of Rhodesia by offering them a thrown-together constitution and small quantities of his sage wisdom. A few years later, the Sea Org’s motley navy was thrown out of multiple ports as Hubbard tried to ingratiate himself with governments by licensing Scientology’s e-meter to help secret police forces root out dissidents.
After Hubbard’s death, the fantasies of taking over governments continued: in the late 1980s, as Communism fell, a group of Scientologists hatched a plan to go into the Balkans and, via a hastily cobbled-together package of instruction in Western business methods (hello, WISE!), take over the whole region and bash it into a single country called “Bulgravia,” an amalgam of Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece. Never mind that differences in language, culture and religion would make it an ungovernable mess. But I digress…
There is certainly precedent for this in other groups. The Rajneeshees tried to take over the small town in Oregon where they were trying to build a utopian commune. Many gurus in various cults in India have been able to establish deep relationships with a succession of prime ministers, enriching themselves.
How to take over a city completely: Clearwater’s city council is elected to staggered 4 year terms; the mayor is a city council member. There are 5 at-large seats, so the entire city votes on them, in the spring primary election of even-numbered years. In the 2014 and 2016 elections, each of the three seats whose election results I found had a total of between 22,168 and 22,843 votes cast for the winner. Votes cast in the non-presidential 2014 primaries were almost the same as in the 2016 presidential primary which is very different from how most state-wide and congressional elections go. Margins of victory in all three races I looked at were about 500-700 votes, not all that close, but close enough for something to upset the equilibrium.
If Scientology had the 20,000 members in Clearwater that it claims (i.e., a plural of “tens of thousands”), the cult could run five of its own candidates as independents and be completely certain that all of their candidates would get elected as the D’s and R’s would each get around 10,000 votes for each of their candidates, and a unified Scientology bloc would get 20,000. They would get a clear majority and would be invulnerable even in an election process that held a runoff to ensure that the winner got 50%-plus-one of the vote. In other words, if Scientology actually had the claimed member count, they would absolutely own all five seats on the Clearwater city council. They could do whatever they wanted and nobody could do a damned thing.
But let’s say they were exaggerating by a factor of two. If the cult actually had 10,000 members instead of 20,000, they could do one of two things. Running as a third party could work, especially in a “first past the post” system (where the winner doesn’t need a majority but just needs to get the most votes), though success would not be guaranteed. But in that case, Scientology would simply need to win three of the five seats to get a majority on the council that would enable them to always prevail on their agenda.
Failing that, Scientology could endorse one of the existing candidates in a race and, if that made a critical difference to the result, they’d have leverage over all five candidates as the council members would obviously infer that the cult could do the same thing to them when they’re next up for re-election.
Let’s say Scientology is lying about membership by a factor of 7x. With as few as 3,000 Scientologist voters in Clearwater operating as a unified bloc, the cult becomes a classic swing faction, with enough firepower that they have reasonable odds of electing at least 1-2 of the D or R candidates they endorsed, making it highly likely that they could have driven approval of deals such as the recent Aquarium land purchase would go their way.
To my knowledge, an admitted Scientologist has never even run for city council much less been elected. I have to believe that Mayor Cretekos and the council have figured this out. I’m sure they would never talk about this, even off the record because of fears of being accused of religious discrimination. In other words, this is why they’re no longer afraid of the cult. There can be no electoral consequences to opposing Scientology and the council knows it.
So what about the current reality? With an estimated 870 active voters in Clearwater, it’s possible that Scientology could affect the outcome of an especially close race. If the Scientologist vote is equally divided between the two candidates before Scientology unified them to vote for a single candidate, then a decrease of 435 votes for one, which then becomes an increase of 435 voters for the other, is sufficient to decide a close race. Thus, a mathematical analysis shows that Scientologists could win. And a politician who only makes a mathematical analysis could conclude that they would have to keep even the tiny population of Scientologists in Clearwater happy in order to keep her job.
However, politicians also do the political calculus, which involves thinking about the landscape very differently from the mathematical analysis. Politically, the landscape has shifted and opposition to the cult is now in the open. Pastor Willy Rice’s challenges to them are the most visible evidence of this, along with the opposition that spoke at the April, 2017 hearing on the Aquarium land deal. A reasonable politician would conclude that Scientologists are no more than 3% of the voting population and thus that it should be relatively easy to mobilize the far more numerous Scientology-haters against a candidate who supported them. And it wouldn’t be necessary to catch a candidate actively endorsing pro-Scientology initiatives as campaign platform planks. It would be sufficient to expose their receipt of large donations from wealthy Scientologists. So even if it’s mathematically possible for Scientology to sway a close vote, the political calculus probably makes it fatal for a politician to accept support from the cult in order to win an election.
Lobbying versus electioneering: Essentially, lobbyists give money to candidates and operate on behalf of them with the veiled threat that “if you oppose me, I’ll support your opponent and you might lose.” But if a candidate knows that the bloc that the lobbyist represents isn’t actually numerous to cost him an election, then the threat is moot and the candidate can support contrary positions that will appeal to a larger voting bloc.
It appears that the “scorched earth” campaign in the wake of the loss of the land deal was wholly ineffective. The city council turned down an application by Scientology to stage a street fair in Clearwater on March 24 (though it also turned down a similar request for March 10 from Scientology opponents Aaron Smith-Levin and Mike Rinder). The city was clearly not cowed by ringing condemnation from Scientology and attempts to involve the state Attorney General in an investigation.
Did Scientology Ever Have the Mojo to Take Over Clearwater?
I think that Scientology had enough votes to take over the city at one point, probably in the 1980s. Several things were true then that aren’t true now. First, there were more “public” members in Clearwater. Second, staff and Sea Org were not subject to the same draconian conditions that they endure today. Back in the day, staff had a choice of living in “berthing” or living independently, and they were not sheltered so completely from the outside world. Today, Sea Org slaves essentially live in a bubble and are isolated from even incidental contact with reality. It’s inconceivable that today’s Sea Org would receive a couple hours of “liberty” and a shuttle ride to the polling place to go vote. Also, back in the day, a much higher percentage of staff/Sea Org were Americans who would be able to vote.
If the cult were really serious about taking over political power, they could have easily mustered somewhere north of 1,000 voters to hit the polls. The real number could have been 2,500 or more back then. That would have been enough to give all five city council seats (including the mayor’s job) to candidates that were now obligated to support at least part of the cult’s agenda. They may have even been able to run a slate of Scientology third-party candidates and get at least one elected.
Recall that the population of Clearwater when the cult slithered ashore was far lower than it is now. The 1970 census pegged the city at 52,100 residents; by the end of the decade, it had exploded to 85,200. So in 1975, the population would have been something like 65,000, implying a winning vote tally of about 12,500 ballots in a city council election. If there were 2,500 registered voters, they definitely could have powerfully and unambiguously affected the results. That would have been true from 1975 until numbers started to fall off in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
But they didn’t even try to get anyone elected back then despite all their bluster about being destined to rule the world.
I suspect the lack of attempts to take over is because Scientology correctly assesses that they could make enemies quite quickly if they actually got elected to office. They may also understand that merely running for office will galvanize critics against them.
Scientology management probably understands that trying to take over the city and failing would be a major disappointment to members, many of whom stay in the cult because they believe it gives them superhuman powers. Scientology events carefully layer in a false narrative of unbridled success. And for this cult of success to fail at the seemingly simple task of winning an election in a small city despite its cash and its track record for intimidating opponents, would betray one of its key raisons d’être.
Instead, Scientology will probably continue to do what it has always done: skulk around quietly behind the scenes to advance their agenda, where there’s less chance of discovery and less chance of creating opposition. They prefer to scuttle around in the background like cockroaches. But everyone knows what happens to cockroaches messing around in the middle of the kitchen floor when the lights come on. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.