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Unorthodox gestures Miranda's strong suit

Look in any copy of Tampa's yearly budget and you'll find color photos of Mayor Dick Greco and all the members of the City Council.

Except for one.

Check the wall in the lobby of the council's office and you'll see 8-by-10 studio portraits of every council member.

Except for one.

Charlie Miranda, who represents west and south Tampa, says he doesn't believe in using taxpayer money or city facilities to promote himself as a politician.

Still, it's hard to miss Miranda these days. After all, this is the guy who wears black suits, black shirts and black ties to council meetings to protest what he calls the burial of the taxpayer.

As Hillsborough County's referendum Sept. 3 on a proposed half-cent sales tax increase approaches, it will get harder to overlook Miranda. With his outspokenness and outlandish sense of theater, he has emerged as the champion of those who oppose spending public money on a new stadium for Tampa Bay Buccaneers' owner Malcolm Glazer.

To Miranda, the mixed bag of new schools, road improvements and other public works projects that the 30-year tax increase would finance is window dressing for a multimillion-dollar giveaway to a private business.

"A rose by any other name still smells sweet," he said. "A community investment tax by any other name is still a stadium tax."

Cynics could question the sincerity of an official who keeps his picture out of city publications but dresses like Johnny Cash for television cameras every Thursday. To people who know Miranda, though, that's just Charlie being Charlie.

"Even though I don't always agree with Charlie, I respect what he is and the way he is," said Greco, who grew up with Miranda. "He's very blunt about what he has to say. You never have to guess. . . . I rather appreciate that more than I do somebody who never makes up his mind or tells you one thing and does another."

Greco said it would be a mistake to write off Miranda as a gadfly.

"A lot of times you think he's just clowning around, and he's not," Greco said. "He's serious. He relates well to his constituents, and many times he's just relating what they think and feel."

West Tampa roots and baseball

It should come as no surprise that Miranda, 55, is in tune with his constituents, especially those in west Tampa.

The oldest of three children, he was born at the old A.A. Gonzalez Clinic in Ybor City. His father, Carlos, was a Cuban immigrant who waited tables at Ybor's Los Helados restaurant and the Barcelona restaurant on Nebraska Avenue. His mother, Edelmira, was one of 16 children, which means Miranda has nearly 50 first cousins, most of whom still live in Tampa.

From the time Miranda was 11, his family lived in the now-decaying and crime-ridden Ponce de Leon public housing project. In the 1950s, however, the buildings were newer, and the society was simpler. Miranda, for example, doesn't recall his family ever needing a car.

Growing up, Miranda spent all the daylight hours he could playing baseball at Cuscaden Park at 15th Street and 21st Avenue. Little League did not exist, but Cuscaden Park fielded a team that played teams from other city parks. Miranda pitched and played outfield. Frank Permuy, now Gaither High School's baseball coach, played first base. Tony La Russa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and a World Series-winning manager with the Oakland Athletics, played shortstop.

Cuscaden's team won enough games that, at the age of 13, Miranda found himself pitching to a Cuban team before a crowd of nearly 30,000 in pre-Castro Havana.

With the first batter, he threw two curveballs for strikes, then catcher Billy Varges called for a fastball _ not his best pitch. The batter sent it over the centerfield fence.

Miranda walked the second batter on four straight pitches. Once the guy was on first base, Miranda checked him twice to keep him from stealing second. When he glanced over his shoulder a third time, the runner was gone. Looking over his other shoulder, Miranda found the man on second base.

"I knew then we were in for a long afternoon," he said.

Miranda loved the game, but he did not play baseball at Jefferson High School, from which he graduated in 1959. That's because at Orange Grove Elementary School he did not dress for gym one day. As a punishment, the coach made him hold two bricks at arm's length and smacked him with his whistle strap every time his arms dropped.

After a few smacks, Miranda whacked the coach with the bricks and ran home. He managed to escape with little other punishment, but when he arrived at Jefferson, he found that the gym teacher now was head baseball coach.

His baseball career over, Miranda increasingly turned to work. At 12, he began delivering La Gaceta, Tampa's trilingual weekly, for the father of its current publisher, Roland Manteiga. At 14, he started busing tables at the Columbia Restaurant. And at 16, Miranda left for the first of six summers of work at the Sagamore Hotel on Lake George in New York.

There, Miranda worked as a busboy, waiter and dining room captain, waiting on New York's vacationing rich. He eventually started driving some of the hotel's guests to the racetrack at Saratoga, where he picked up tips on and fell in love with horse racing.

Restaurants and racetracks

Today, Miranda works as a one of three state stewards at the Tampa Bay Downs racetrack from December to May. He and his fellow stewards have the authority to fine or suspend jockeys, trainers, handlers and owners.

Besides his work at the track and the City Council, which pays $25,000 a year, Miranda works as general manager at Cafe Pepe, a lunch spot frequented by lawyers, politicians, executives and guys Miranda knows from Cuscaden Park.

Although he works three jobs, Miranda lives simply. He and his wife of 35 years, Shirley, live in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom stucco house in the Glen Oaks subdivision in west Tampa. He drives a 1982 Honda Prelude or a 1984 Cadillac.

Miranda, who received a degree in criminology from the University of Tampa in 1977, has worked at Cafe Pepe since February. Like his father and uncles, most of whom were waiters or cooks, he's spent most of his adult life working in restaurants.

He was a managing partner in Cafe Pepe during the 1980s and served as comptroller of the Sea Wolf Restaurant during the 1970s. Miranda left that job in 1979, two years before Sea Wolf owner Gene Holloway faked his own death, underwent plastic surgery and unsuccessfully tried to collect $16-million in life insurance.

It was not, however, before Miranda could see that the Sea Wolf, which served as many as 2,200 dinners a night, was a delicately balanced operation with a brilliant and frequently unreliable skipper.

"He would tell you, "I'm going to New York, and I'll be back in three days,' " Miranda said of Holloway. he said. "Three months later, he was still gone."

Miranda doesn't claim to have seen Holloway's demise coming, but it didn't necessarily surprise him.

"When you start spending more than you make . . . the day of reckoning's coming," he said.

"I'm not anti-sports'

During the 1970s, Miranda also was elected to the City Council twice and ran unsuccessfully for mayor once.

"I don't know if politics have changed or the people have changed," he said of the difference between the 1970s and today. "People are much more demanding."

They no longer drop by just to be nice, he says. They drop by to be nice and ask for something.

Miranda also said that politics preoccupies itself too much with money today. One of the political accomplishments he's proudest of is his 1972 lawsuit challenging Florida's system of requiring candidates to pay a qualifying fee to get their names on a ballot.

Miranda didn't like the idea of those who could not afford it being shut out of the process and resented that political parties, which get a big cut of the fees, could use candidates' own money to campaign against them.

He won, and, as a result, candidates now can pay a qualifying fee or circulate petitions among registered voters to get their names on a ballot.

The preoccupation with money, Miranda said, doesn't stop with campaigning.

During his first council term, he proposed a 25-cent user fee on Bucs tickets, which then sold for no more than $12. He said then-owner Hugh Culverhouse refused.

Today, Miranda says, the fees would have accumulated and could have helped pay for the new stadium that Glazer is demanding.

For more than a year, Miranda has complained that Glazer and the NFL are trying to shake down the city for money no private business deserves. He began in May 1995, when the Bucs demanded a two-year ticket-sales guarantee that could have cost the city $85,000 a year.

When Miranda saw that the Bucs would hint at moving if they didn't get $85,000, a fraction of the $192-million Glazer paid for the team, he had no doubt that the demands would escalate.

"I'm not anti-sports," said Miranda, who has sold about 50 season tickets for the University of South Florida's football program. But government should not take care of "ills of private enterprise."

As a result, Miranda has attacked the intentions and integrity of the NFL and the Glazers almost every week for months.

One of his typical pronouncements: "When you give the Glazers the key, you better change the lock."

Through a Bucs spokesman, the Glazers declined to be interviewed for this report.

And while most of Tampa's political elite lines up behind the proposed half-cent sales tax increase _ which would, after all, build schools and roads in addition to a stadium _ Miranda condemns the logic behind the referendum.

He says city, county and school officials don't care what else anyone wants, because their attitude is, "as long as you give me my share and my take, it's all right."

While he is not organizing any opposition, Miranda does promise to campaign against the sales tax increase. He has no doubt about how it will turn out.

"I'm in the process of trying to find a white suit," he said. "That would be for the Thursday right after the election."