February 23, 2011

District 6: In West Tampa race, council candidates' differences are stark

By Justin George, Times Staff Writer

TAMPA - The race for District 6 is clearly defined.

Incumbent City Council member Charlie Miranda, 70, has served for 17 years over three decades.

"In order to look at the future, you have to look at the past," Miranda says.

Challenger Kelly Benjamin, 35, a neighborhood activist, is tired of revisiting the past and says it's time to push toward a new future.

"I've been represented by Mr. Miranda for most of my life here in Tampa," he said, "and I think there's no urgency in Tampa to move issues forward, to promote viability to promote livability."

It's a clear old school vs. new school battle for the seat that represents neighborhoods around West Tampa, including parts of Seminole Heights. Miranda unabashedly admits that he doesn't really use computers and focuses on bricks-and-mortar campaign issues such as roads, water lines and sewers. Benjamin is well-versed in social networking and champions a variety of ideas popular these days such as mixed-use redevelopment, light rail, more bike paths, community gardens and "green collar" jobs.

Benjamin spends a good amount of time criticizing Miranda, and his barbs are often personal.

"My opponent has been in office since the Nixon administration," Benjamin wrote in a letter posted on his blog. "He has a requisite knowledge of procedure and protocol but zero vision for moving this city forward and facing the challenges of the 21st century."

Miranda, on the other hand, will not talk about his opponent. He even turned down an opportunity at a debate to question Benjamin.

"The only opponent I have, and I've said this before, is myself," he said.

Besides focusing on infrastructure, Miranda said he offers voters "common sense," a tight-fisted budgetary approach and a track record of passing projects such as a water plant expansion, increased water storage capacity, new senior centers and miles of new sidewalks.

"Without bricks and mortar, you let the infrastructure for streets crumble, you let the sewer lines break across the city, and I tell you who gets votes and who doesn't get votes," he said. "The city is just like owning a house. You have to maintain it. You have to paint it. You have to redo the roof."

He has voted against a council pay raise and given himself a voluntary pay cut. He takes pride in never having used his City Council travel budget. More than a decade ago, he voted against the tax that funded Raymond James Stadium and hasn't set foot in the stadium since, saying it doesn't stimulate the economy enough for the cost taxpayers are footing.

While admirable, Benjamin said many of Miranda's sacrifices are symbolic when the city needs a council member who understands Tampa's root problems. He questions Miranda's thriftiness when he voted in 1996 for a financing deal for emergency service projects, including a new police headquarters, that will cost taxpayers an estimated $70 million in interest.

Miranda responded by saying the vote went toward paying for several crucial public safety improvements, including police substations and fire engines.

"I voted to make sure the police department had a place," he said. "What they had on Tampa Street was dilapidated and full of rats, and no humans should be working there."

Miranda points to being an expert on water storage and savings, but Benjamin said he doesn't recognize that growth is behind a stressed water supply. Tampa lacks a strong mass transit system and has ranked poorly in national studies in pedestrian and bicycling safety, he said.

"We need a lot more than what is being done," Benjamin said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

[iCopyright] 2011 St. Petersburg Times.

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