BY DAN SULLIVAN
Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER — You might call Charles LeCher the accidental mayor. Though he was interested in politics and worked on local campaigns, the longtime Clearwater resident never envisioned himself in the city's top job.
So when his phone rang the night of April 12, 1978, and a city commissioner told him he had been selected to replace Gabriel Cazares, who had resigned the mayorship days earlier, LeCher was speechless.
But in the years that followed, he took naturally to the position. He wasn't Clearwater's most memorable mayor, but the legacy he left upon leaving office in 1983 helped shape the city into what it is today.
His tenure saw the annexation of the Countryside area, which greatly expanded the size of the city; the introduction of cable TV to Clearwater; and a high-profile battle with the Church of Scientology.
"He took things generally at ease," said former Circuit Judge George Greer, a longtime friend of LeCher's. "Really he was a very decent man. Everything he did, he tried to do right."
LeCher died Saturday of heart failure. He was 75.
Born Dec. 28, 1937, LeCher grew up in Winfield, N.J., but his family later moved to Florida. He was in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve before joining his brother Noel LeCher in running Belleair Fabrics, the family's Clearwater drapery business. The brothers, both Republicans, got interested in politics and worked behind the scenes for local candidates.
Clearwater city commissioners endured 10 days of political infighting before appointing LeCher to serve the remainder of Cazares' term.
He was elected to the post in his own right the following year, and reelected in 1981. Colleagues remember him as stubborn but practical — a man who genuinely wanted what was best for the city and, in later years, became capable of compromise.
"He was an interesting man to serve with," said former Mayor Rita Garvey, who became a city commissioner during LeCher's tenure. "It started out that he didn't like me ... but we basically ended up friends."
In 1982, LeCher led the commission's series of lengthy hearings on the Church of Scientology, which focused on alleged abuses by the organization and saw critics debate whether it was a bona fide religion.
In 1982, LeCher lost his third mayoral election to Kathleen Kelly. At the same time, he ran for Congress and lost to Mike Bilirakis.
He spent the rest of his career in business, but made two unsuccessful attempts at a mayoral comeback, in 1987 and 1992.
In recent years, LeCher still ran into people who recognized him. He was a familiar face at Bob Heilman's Beachcomber restaurant on Clearwater Beach, where people still wanted to shake his hand, his family said. When they saw him, the greeting was always: "Mr. Mayor."