As much as Mayor Bob Buckhorn would love to see a Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium built in downtown Tampa, he is not taking sides in the St. Petersburg mayor's race.
But someone else is.
Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda recently sent St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's re-election campaign a $100 check and a thank you note.
"I admire … your dedication to ensuring that contractual obligations are adhered to," Miranda said. That would include Foster's stance that the Rays play at Tropicana Field until 2027, as required by the team's lease with the city.
Foster welcomes the support, telling the Times in a text message, "I very much appreciate the chairman's contribution and his acknowledgement of my job performance in St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay."
Yet while Miranda said he believes Foster is the best candidate in St. Petersburg's Aug. 27 primary, his contribution is as much about politics in Tampa as in St. Petersburg. It sends a signal that he would oppose any deal that hinged on public support to bring the Rays to Tampa.
"I believe the taxpayers' money should be used for infrastructure and the needs of the citizens, which is where the tax money comes from," Miranda says. That includes, he says, the $100 million that Buckhorn's administration figures it could contribute to a project once the city's debt on the Tampa Convention Center is paid off in 2015.
If a stadium is such a good thing, Miranda says, let the few private individuals who will profit from it pay for it.
A wise-cracking populist first elected to the council in 1974, Miranda opposed taxpayer support for the construction of Raymond James Stadium in 1996. For months, he wore all-black clothing — black suit, black shirt, black tie — to City Council meetings to mourn "the burial of the taxpayer." The stadium got built after Hillsborough voters approved the Community Investment Tax in a referendum. Miranda has never set foot there.
Still, Miranda says he has no problem personally with Malcolm Glazer's family, which owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I have nothing against individuals with money," he says. "But when it comes to subsidizing a stadium … it's almost a conspiracy among the leagues to say we'll work with each other to get what we want from any city in the country. And we're too stupid to realize it."
So if Tampa ever begins a similar debate about the Rays, Miranda says he has three black outfits in the closet, and "there is no doubt that they will come out."
"I look at Miami," Miranda says. There, Miami-Dade's mayor was recalled after the public paid three-quarters of the $640 million needed to build the Miami Marlins' new stadium, only to learn later the team had been sitting on tens of millions of dollars even as it pleaded poverty and threatened to move to San Antonio, Texas, or Portland, Ore. "And what did Miami get for that stadium?" he asks. "I'll tell you what they got. They got screwed."
Told of Miranda's contribution and note to Foster, Buckhorn laughed.
"Really?" he said. "Charlie, God bless him. Has he got his black outfits ready?"
Buckhorn says that if Tampa ever gets a shot at the Rays, "the challenges would be pretty significant for a lot of reasons, mainly financial."
"I recognize that if we are presented with that opportunity, it's not without risk," he said. "Certainly emotions will be rising. There will be some on council that don't agree.
"Charlie, to his credit, has been consistent for the 25 years that I've known him, so that would be no surprise," said Buckhorn, who served on the City Council with Miranda during the 1996 Bucs stadium debate. "Charlie's feelings about major league sports and the funding of major league sports are firmly held and long-standing, and I don't anticipate them changing."
For his part, Buckhorn would not expect to support an increase in property or sales taxes to help pay for a baseball stadium.
"In this environment and this economy, taking something like that to the voters and asking for a tax increase is out of the question," he said. Buckhorn does not see the money freed up by paying off the convention center debt as a tax increase. It is already being collected inside the city's downtown community redevelopment area, and that means it can be spent only on downtown improvements.
Despite the prospect of being on opposing sides, Buckhorn says he and Miranda — "my buddy" — are close beyond words.
"Charlie and I have been together so long I can read Charlie's body language before he says anything," Buckhorn says.
He got some recent practice. In June, Miranda met with Buckhorn at the mayor's office where, among other things, he proposed that the city move the statue of Tampa native and baseball Hall of Famer Al Lopez from a park near Raymond James Stadium to a more visible spot downtown.
Despite his opposition to public funding for pro sports venues, Miranda, 72, loves and has lived Tampa's baseball heritage. In 1954, he and former major league manager Tony La Russa were co-captains on an Ybor City Optimist Club youth all-star team that played in Cuba. On a per capita basis, Miranda believes Tampa has produced as many great baseball players as any city in the nation, and he would like to see an effort to honor them, starting with Lopez.
Buckhorn brightened. He said the Lopez statue would look great outside a downtown ballpark.
Miranda looked at the mayor, then slowly shook his head.
Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, [email protected] or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.