Conway says he will pull out of the Dunedin contest because of family illness and questions about his affiliation with the Church of Scientology.
DUNEDIN – He’s a Scientologist. No, he’s not. Then, yes he is, sort of.
He’s running for mayor of Dunedin. Then he’s not. Or maybe he is. At press time, he said he was out.
John T. Conway’s bid to be mayor of Dunedin has seen a dizzying series of reversals this week.
By the end of Thursday, Conway said he would send a formal notice of withdrawal to the city clerk. He said he was ending a history-making candidacy because of an illness in his family. Earlier, he said it was because of questions raised by the Times about his affiliation with the Church of Scientology.
Assuming that Conway follows through and does withdraw, City Commissioner Bob Hackworth will become mayor. Hackworth said he was shocked and didn’t know how to react. His campaign was just kicking into gear, he said. He spent Wednesday night knocking on doors.
“It’s kind of anticlimactic,” he said. “This is a real jolt. I guess I’m happy if it means I’m going to be the next mayor. I just wish it had happened a different way.”
It all began with a link that someone posted on Hackworth’s campaign Web site that suggested Conway is a Scientologist.
If so, Conway, 60, would have been the first Scientologist to run for public office in the Tampa Bay area, a milestone given the sometimes contentious relationship the church has had with the community since it made Clearwater its worldwide spiritual headquarters 30 years ago.
But when the Times called Conway, his story changed by the day.
“I’m not a Scientologist,” Conway said Monday. “Who told you that?” Conway was emphatic that he had never been a Scientologist, had never taken a Scientology course and only ever walked into the church’s Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater six years ago for an open house tour.
On, Tuesday, he called back.
“So you are real,” he said to the reporter who spoke to him the day before.
Conway said he had no way to verify he was actually talking to a reporter the day before. Due to the link on Hackworth’s Web site, he said, he had gotten several strange phone calls and so he was untruthful to protect his privacy.
In fact, he said Tuesday, he has taken several Scientology courses.
He was introduced to Scientology about nine years ago, he said, when he was an iron worker at a nuclear power plant in Miami. Due to conditions at the job site, he said, he began getting sick and had trouble sleeping.
It lasted for several years until someone recommended he try Scientology’s purification rundown. It is a process that purports to remove harmful toxins through vigorous exercise followed by several hours in a sauna in conjunction with a regimen of vitamins, minerals and oils. Conway said it got the radiation out of his body.
“It worked,” he said. “I got my life back.”
He took two courses at the Scientology church in Miami and then moved to Dunedin. He took just one Scientology course in Clearwater six years ago. His brother was diagnosed with cancer and was told he had six months to live, he said. Conway said he took a course at the church’s Ft. Harrison Hotel on touch and nerve assists. He taught the techniques to his brother’s wife, he said, and his brother is still here six years later.
“If that makes me guilty of being a Scientologist, then I guess I am,” Conway said.
Does he consider himself a Scientologist?
“I like their courses, so maybe I am,” he said.
But he said he hasn’t taken a course in years.
“I guess you could say I’m not still practicing,” he said.
On Thursday, Conway called the Times to say he was dropping out of the race.
“This whole thing has taken a turn for the worse,” he said.
Conway said he went on the computer and looked up Times stories about Scientology and concluded the paper had a vendetta against the church.
“I think you are going to use me to attack them (Scientologists) and I’m not going to be a party to that,” he said. “I’m not going to be used as a pawn in your war against these people.”
Later, Dunedin City Clerk Jerie Guegan said an official in her office called Conway Thursday afternoon and Conway said he hadn’t decided what he was going to do. Without written confirmation that he is dropping out of the race, Guegan said, the city will move forward with him on the ballot.
Then Conway called the Times again late Thursday afternoon. He said he was going to send a letter to the city formally dropping out of the race due to an illness in the family. He said his sister suffered from dehydration and a collapsed kidney and he needed to take care of her.
Contacted earlier in the week, Ben Shaw, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology in Clearwater, said he found it offensive that the Times was considering a story about a Scientologist running for public office.
Shaw noted that several Scientologists have served on the Downtown Development Board in Clearwater, a position elected by downtown business owners. In addition, he said, there are many Scientologists who hold public office in other countries.
The link on Hackworth’s site is to a profile on Scientologists Online. Shaw confirmed the Scientologists Online profiles are for Scientologists only. He noted that John T. Conway created his profile in 1998, so Shaw said he has no idea of Conway’s status with the church now. Conway said the profile isn’t his. The information doesn’t match his life, he said. And he resents Scientology being raised as a factor in his race.
“They aren’t playing up my opponent’s religion,” he said. “I just don’t see where it applies.”
Hackworth said he never figured religion would be an issue in a municipal campaign either. He said he is a Christian and used to be a member of the Episcopal church in Dunedin, but he is no longer a regular churchgoer.
Conway said identifying him as a Scientologist “would scare people.” Many people in the area are convinced Scientologists are “going to take over the area.”
“These people (Scientologists) were wonderful to me,” he said. “If I’m going to bring them heartache and headaches by running for office, I’m not going to do it. I don’t want to cause trouble for these people. I may want to go back there someday.”