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Ybor City, dominoes and porch politics: Charlie Miranda is Tampa old-school

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda is the dean of his city’s politics.

The Tampa where Charlie Miranda grew up is slowly disappearing.

It’s a world of domino tables and cigar shops and gathering spots filled with old men who grew up in Ybor City and West Tampa, natives long outnumbered here by newcomers.

Miranda is one of Tampa’s most recognizable political faces — a couple of unsuccessful mayoral runs only raising his profile. Now, nearing 80, Miranda has embarked on a record eight terms as a City Council member.

These days, he’s as likely to deliver a history lesson from the dais as opine on current events. The sleepy port city that he knew growing up has been replaced by one with its eye still on becoming America’s Next Great City, but also plagued by economic inequality, racial discord and rising sea levels.

Perhaps Miranda’s appeal, certainly his significance, especially for those who remember how things were, lies in that balance between present and past.

Former mayor Bob Buckhorn met Miranda when he arrived in town as a young Penn State grad eager to make his own political mark. Buckhorn quickly surmised he needed to learn the way politics was practiced in West Tampa if he wanted to succeed.

Miranda, Buckhorn said, is the master.

“Charlie is Tampa," Buckhorn said. "He embodies this city.”

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It wasn’t a fast track to success. The son of a Cuban father and a mother born in Ybor from Spanish parents, Miranda grew up in public housing near Ybor City, the Ponce De Leon Court, in a melange of working-class families.

He grew up speaking Spanish as well as English. His accent has been noted as one of the pure examples of the old Tampa way of talking. Even today, he frequently quizzes Spanish-speakers who come before City Council for zoning changes or neighborhood complaints in their native tongue, often to the consternation of the paid translators and the city lawyers worried about violating quasi-judicial rules. He considers himself Latin, the way many older Cubans, Spanish and Italians in Tampa refer to themselves.

In this world, he learned to love the game of dominoes — the sound of the tiles smacked down on tabletops as men played at the Cuban Club. He spent his evenings, like so many Tampeños, on his front porch, gossiping with the neighbors and watching the small world pass by.

Charlie Miranda with sisters Yvonne and Olga in Ybor City, 1944. [ Courtesy of Charlie Miranda ]

And there was always baseball.

Miranda played nearly every afternoon at Cuscaden Park on the fringes of Ybor City. As a teen, he competed on a league team that traveled to Havana in 1954 to play a series against Cuban players supposedly their same age. As it turned out, Miranda recalls, some of their opponents sported mustaches.

In 1954, the Tampa all-stars get ready to board the flight to Cuba from Tampa International Airport. Miranda, closest to the open plane door, played left field. Standing in front of him, with a cap, is Tony La Russa. [ Charlie Miranda ]

Miranda’s youngest teammate was the shortstop and best player. Injuries would later curtail Tony La Russa’s major league playing career. Success would come instead as a manager, and with it, a plaque in Cooperstown.

Miranda was a left fielder and pitcher with a talent for getting on base. He made a surprise start in the series’ fifth game. He got two strikes on the first batter before being ordered to throw a fastball inside, a rarity for Miranda, who preferred off-speed pitches.

Decades later, at a 2006 World Series game, Miranda’s son would ask La Russa, then managing the St. Louis Cardinals, what happened next.

La Russa’s answer: “I think that ball is still going.” Miranda chuckles at the memory.

You don’t talk with Miranda long before baseball comes up. And baseball often veers into politics.

“My coaches used to tell me this about hitting: you take what they give you,” Miranda said, assuming a batting stance in his modest West Tampa home. He demonstrated how fellow Tampeño Wade Boggs shifted his stance depending on the pitch, flicking his wrists to serve a ball into the opposite field.

For Miranda, waiting for the pitcher to make a mistake isn’t all that different from keeping political rivals off balance. Political insiders know him as someone with steadfast values, but his tactics can surprise.

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Miranda bused tables at the Columbia Restaurant while attending Jefferson High School. Sports stars like Yogi Berra and Jack Dempsey and every local politician came through the doors of the Ybor City institution. Miranda has so many stories from those days that Columbia owner Richard Gonzmart Jr. recently sent a videographer to record his reminiscences.

In the early 1960s, Miranda spent his summers as a waiter at a resort in upstate New York. [ Courtesy of Charlie Miranda ]

After high school, he took a series of jobs, often two at a time, sometimes 18 hours a day. Miranda married at 21, and he and his wife, Shirley, quickly had three children: Yvette, Danette and Frank.

Among other jobs, he supported his family calculating payoffs at Tampa’s Jai Alai fronton before computers were around to do it. Later, in his 30s, he earned a criminal justice degree from the University of Tampa.

In between all the jobs, Miranda learned Tampa politics.

After two unsuccessful runs for county commission and supervisor of elections, Miranda won his first City Council race in 1974. He made a point of showing up at the gates of cigar factories and the American Can Company during shift change.

“I would hit all three shifts to see them eye to eye and shake their hand,” Miranda said. “Nowadays, you can’t do that. It’s all media. They used to have fish fries and 400 people would show up. Now, you can’t even get people to go to a spaghetti dinner.”

Miranda as a political candidate in 1972. [ Courtesy of Charlie Miranda ]

Miranda, a lifelong Democrat with “a liberal heart and a conservative mind.”, won seven more times for the non-partisan office after that 1974 campaign. And, he lost: mayoral races to Bob Martinez in 1979 and Pam Iorio in 2003.

It was a late-night bit of inspiration that led to his signature slogan: “Miranda Cares,” which he still uses.

“I was taking a shower about two in the morning after doing all the signs, and back then you had to go knock door to door. I was tired and I thought to myself, ‘Who cares?’ ” he said.

Miranda hopped out of the shower, sat down at his kitchen table and wrote a radio ad that he credits with his win. Recently, as the street lights came on outside that same kitchen window, Miranda recited it from memory.

City Council candidates Charlie Miranda (left) and Bob Buckhorn (right) chat outside of Precinct #139, St. Mary's Parish Episcopal Church in south Tampa. [ Times (1999) ]

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Many longtime Tampa residents remember Miranda’s first big public splash: when he protested taxpayer money going to build Raymond James Stadium in the 1990s. His decision then — to wear mourning black for months after the controversial vote authorizing the tax — generated headlines. He still has never set foot inside the stadium, which is blocks from his home.

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda was the only no vote on the proposed deal to pay for improvements to Raymond James Stadium at the City Council meeting Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. He wore all black, like he did in the 1990's to mourn "the burial of the taxpayer." JAMES BORCHUCK | TImes (2015)

When Mayor Jane Castor met Miranda, he was still in his “Man in Black” phase. Then a high-ranking police officer, Castor appeared before City Council to discuss police business. Miranda was chairman.

“So he walked in, and I said, ‘Who’s Johnny Cash?’” Castor remembers whispering to a colleague, who explained Miranda’s sartorial choice.

For all his love of baseball, Miranda is a staunch opponent of using taxpayer money to build a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa. It’s a matter of principle. He says wealthy professional sports owners are more than capable of building their own stadiums.

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A sense of Miranda’s personal West Tampa brand of politics — who you know, who your family is — lingers at Cacciatore and Sons. The Italian-Latin grocery and restaurant on N Armenia Avenue is one of many spots Miranda has frequented for years. He strolled in one lunch hour in March and a table of older men immediately started razzing him.

Miranda gave as good as he got.

“You can’t beat him. He’s too fast,” said Sam Castellano, who has known Miranda for, well, “too long.”

From left: George Palios, of Tampa, Sam Castellano, of Tampa, and Joe Diaz, of Tampa, visit with Charlie Miranda (standing) while meeting for lunch at Cacciatore and Sons Italian market and deli in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

As Miranda tucked into a plate of seafood stew over yellow rice, the men traded stories and mock insults with the easy familiarity of old friends. They talked about old places, like Palios Brothers Fried Chicken & Seafood on MacDill, once owned by George Palios, who sat at the end of the table, an oxygen tank at his elbow.

Nearby, two women looked on. Once the restaurant talk died down, one leaned toward Miranda and said she’d never met him but admires him.

You know what I love about you? Everything. You’re a stand-up guy,” said Juanita Padilla, a Tampa native, and you can see she means it.

This is a typical Cacciatore and Sons lunch, he said. As he left, everyone said goodbye as if Miranda were Norm and Cacciatore’s his Cheers. Except that, according to legislative aide Mary Bryan, who has worked at the city even longer than Miranda, Cacciatore’s is just one of many stops on the Miranda lunch tours.

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Miranda’s tendency to link past and present has led some to write him off as an old-school anachronism. During his 2003 mayoral run, a Tampa Bay Times columnist declared Miranda’s “time has passed.”

Eight years later, up for re-election to City Council, a forum crowd jeeringly chanted “old school,” to juxtapose the then-septuagenarian Miranda against a much-younger candidate.

A candidate that Miranda proceeded to wallop without a runoff.

Last year, Miranda won another citywide, four-year council term. Again, without need of a runoff.

Miranda doesn’t Tweet. And he’s not much of a presence on Facebook, making him an anomaly among social media-savvy colleagues. His old-school political style involves driving home each night on a different route, checking for code violations. Piled high on his kitchen counter is a stack of mail from constituents.

One evening in early March, he picked up an email, printed out for him by Bryan, from a woman concerned about a 5G cell tower near her home. Miranda decided to go knock on her door, if only to explain there isn’t anything the city can do — those towers are the sole purview of Tallahassee.

Miranda says that legwork — not locally viral tweets — is how you win in Tampa politics.

“And you do that? You’re gonna be all right,” Miranda said. “They want to know. I don’t try to be glamorous, because I’m not that."

He drifts back to baseball, for reference. Explains how he was never a fastball pitcher, he was “a finesse guy.”

One recent afternoon, Miranda stopped at West Tampa’s Vincent & Tampa Cigar Company on N Howard Avenue. In back, chickens foraged for scraps near the domino tables before being chased outside. Men took turns placing their blue and white tiles while trading barbs and laughs.

From left: Antonio Roman Jr. (hands, left), Roland Alvarez (black t), Tony Cancio (red t), and Eric Fulgueira (hands, right), (all) of Tampa, play dominoes with Charlie Miranda, center, at Vincent & Tampa Cigar Company in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Oh, no, papi, you just made a mistake,” Miranda murmured after one man’s play.

After the game ended, Eric Fulgueira, the owner, assessed Miranda’s skill.

“He’s not bad. He’s a .500 player,” Fulgueira said. “But he’ll go on a streak every now and then.”

“It relaxes my mind,” Miranda said. “And it keeps me sharp.”

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The day after Miranda was born, the Tampa Morning Tribune ran a front-page story on the legal problems involving a racing permit for Tampa Downs. It’s now Tampa Bay Downs and the same Oldsmar horse track where Miranda works four days each week during race season as steward. It’s a position he’s held since 1988, making sure the races are on the up and up.

Association steward Charlie Miranda, left, works the phones with association steward Dennis Lima, 74, of Oldsmar (brown suit), association steward Edward Cantlon, 67, of Dunedin (black suit), and clerk of scales Dennis Petrucelli, 74, (yellow) during a recent day at the races at Tampa Bay Downs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

Horses figure large in Miranda’s life. In 1957, at 16, he traveled to upstate New York for the first of seven summers he’d work in the restaurant at the Sagamore Hotel. His duties included driving guests to the famous horse races at Saratoga Springs and hanging around while they played the ponies.

In the decades since, he’s owned horses, traveling the country training them and judging races.

He even found his West Tampa home while on horseback. In the early 1960s, Miranda and some friends had been racing in an area now dominated by St. Joseph’s Hospital and Raymond James Stadium when he noticed a For Sale sign at a nearby house. Hitching his horse to a telephone pole, he took a look, liked what he saw and bought it.

At Tampa Bay Downs, he typically spends the morning in a cramped office with fellow stewards Edward Cantlon and Dennis Lima. The pace is hectic, with a constant stream of questions. One man wandered in, asking in Spanish about taking a test to become a horse trainer. The jockey coordinator stopped by with the roster of riders.

Cantlon and Lima rarely miss an opportunity to needle Miranda. Before Miranda had a chance to respond, Lima deadpanned that his colleague’s real role is: “Bulls--t artist.”

“When I go to council on Thursdays, it’s like a vacation,” Miranda said, grinning.

It went on like this all morning in early January until Miranda, binoculars in hand, walked up to the judges’ area above the finish line as the first race neared. Miranda pushed a button on the wall as soon as the gate opened for each race, closing off the betting.

A full day of races lay ahead, but the grandstand was mostly empty.

Association steward Charlie Miranda searches for a trainer between races on Jan. 8, 2020 at Tampa Bay Downs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

Miranda grows melancholy when he talks about his passion for horses. Each year, fewer foals are born. The same winner-take-all dynamics that have shaped many aspects of American life in the past several decades hasn’t spared the horse racing industry. The skyrocketing price of buying, training, caring for and racing have nearly eliminated the “mom pop” owners, a group to which Miranda once belonged.

“Before too long there are not going to be enough horses for the race tracks," he said. "The industry’s got to reinvent itself.”

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One knock you hear about Miranda: he holds a grudge.

Consider Mike Suarez. The two-term council member frequently talked baseball with Miranda. Then in 2015, Suarez voted against him for chairman.

Mike Suarez during his time on the Tampa City Council. [Times (2011)]

“He stopped talking to me about baseball,” Suarez said, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year.

Miranda hasn’t spoken to Suarez for years. Suarez, he said, would often tell him how great a chairman he was.

“Don’t tell me I’m the best and then stick a knife in my back because I’m never going to forget. That’s how I was taught,” Miranda said.

Another long-running feud is with Albert Fox Jr., an advocate for improved relations between Cuba and the United States and adviser to the late mayoral candidate David Straz.

Albert Fox Jr. is a longtime advocate for improved relations between Cuba and the United States and was a political advisor to the late mayoral candidate David Straz. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2016)

Fox has little good to say about Miranda.

“Everything he’s ever done, it’s about Charlie. That’s not a public servant,” said Fox.

Miranda denies feuding with Fox, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006.

He got a pill in his throat (after his congressional defeat)," Miranda said. "I don’t hold grudges, I really don’t.”

But he’s not afraid of a fight. Miranda has been Tampa’s representative on the regional water utility’s board for decades. The last few years, he’s butted heads with St. Petersburg officials over Tampa’s plan to convert highly treated wastewater into water for showers, dishwashers and, yes, drinking.

St. Petersburg officials discussed a similar path in late 2017 and early 2018 before abandoning the effort. St. Petersburg council member Darden Rice emerged as the leading opponent of what critics dubbed “toilet-to-tap.”

Miranda and Rice don’t get along. That’s obvious to anyone who watches a Tampa Bay Water meeting. To Miranda, the bay area’s second-largest city isn’t treating its larger neighbor fairly. And that fits a pattern.

Miranda illustrates his point by recalling former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker saying that Tampa had gotten a good deal on the regional water pact. Miranda took offense. In his view, Tampa bends over backward for St. Petersburg on water.

So Miranda took a dig at the Sunshine City’s old rep as a last stop for the aged.

“I want to apologize; what people are saying about you is not true," Miranda recalls telling Baker. "The old people live in Ft. Lauderdale, their parents live in St. Pete.”

Rice said she respects Miranda, but his political outlook can be too parochial.

“Charlie is Tampa or die,” Rice said. “Yet it is a regional board."

St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice. [MONICA HERNDON | Times (2016)]

Being on the receiving end of Miranda jabs at meetings hasn’t been fun, Rice said, although she doesn’t take it personally.

“He has earned the right to say what he wants. He tends to hold court quite a bit now on the dais. I think I’ve heard the same stories three or four times.”

Miranda didn’t please LGBTQ advocates, either, when he voted against protections for transgender people in 2009, saying it would be disruptive for people to come to work one day dressed as a man and the next as a woman.

In recent months, many younger activists involved in racial justice protests have sneered at Miranda in social media posts and at meetings.

“I think they have the right to protest. They don’t have the right to burn buildings and destroy buildings and that kind of behavior," Miranda said. "Protests are part of American life. If it wasn’t for protests, we’d still be a part of England.”

In September, council member John Dingfelder proposed an ordinance to make it easier for homeowners to add front porches. Back in the day, Miranda said, everyone sat and chatted outside.

Now, he said, people don’t know their neighbors. “You know the color of their car. That’s it,” Miranda said.

As he spoke, Miranda looked resigned, his voice a little sad.

The coronavirus pandemic and a summer of protests against racial injustice and police brutality have also taxed Miranda.

He clearly shows little patience for protesters' demands for Police Chief Brian Dugan’s resignation, vowing to resign if Castor gives in. And a Miranda image from an online meeting, where he read a Publix newspaper insert during public comment about police reform, drew strong online condemnation.

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On a March evening at his home in West Tampa, Miranda contemplated a life that he says may not last much longer.

“I’ve probably got another five years,” he said, mentioning actuarial tables he’s consulted recently.

He talked about his family. Significant dates tumbled out of him like dominoes onto a table: 1961, the year he married his beloved Shirley when she was 18. They were married for 48 years before she succumbed to cancer in 2009.

His children, successful professionals, all live close by. He dotes on his eight grandchildren, rarely missing a chance to brag on their accomplishments and talents.

But he lives alone now. His second wife recently moved out in the midst of divorce proceedings. He’s been preparing his will. At his house, a large pile of dress shirts on a couch waits to be hauled off to charity.

He has aches and pains now that he didn’t before. He played baseball until he was nearly 70 but had to give it up after serious complications from a torn diaphragm in 2004 and 2011. Recovering from his second health setback, he got out of his sick bed and went to council chambers to cast a crucial vote on panhandling in 2011.

“The greatest compliment I ever received in my life was from Shirley," Miranda said. "When she knew she was in the last hour, she asked everybody to leave the room. She wanted to talk to me. The last words she told me was if there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as you.”

Miranda’s eyes filled with emotion.

“She said everything you did was like going to the park. Like going to the beach. You loved it. And you never had to punch a clock.”

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