Former Clearwater mayor dead at 86

Gabe Cazares was a civil rights activist and vocal enemy of the Church of Scientology.

St. Petersberg Times/September 30, 2006
By Mike Donila and Robert Farley

Clearwater — Former Clearwater Mayor Gabe Cazares, a civil rights advocate, champion of the disadvantaged and arch-enemy of the Church of Scientology, died Friday (Sept. 29, 2006). He was 86.

As a politician, Mr. Cazares led the local Democratic Party and won public office at a time when few Hispanics even lived in Pinellas County.

As a community activist, he worked to help the poor and build bridges in Clearwater during the early years of integration. But after the Church of Scientology came to town in late 1975, Mr. Cazares became an outspoken critic, prompting Scientologists to hatch plans to smear him with sex allegations and a phony hit-and-run accident.

Mr. Cazares questioned the church’s motives, its quiet purchases of downtown property and the way its security guards carried billy clubs and Mace.

“I am unable to understand why this degree of security is required by a religious organization, and my concerns are shared by many other citizens,” Mr. Cazares said in January 1976.

Within months, Clearwater was enveloped in a hostile, polarized environment marked by spying, sharp rhetoric, protests and smear tactics — some of them targeting Mr. Cazares.

Federal investigators later found Scientology internal memos outlining plans by church leaders to control public opinion in Clearwater, concoct a sex smear campaign against Mr. Cazares and infiltrate the local media and other institutions.

Scientology documents also revealed that church members had staged a phony hit-and-run accident with Mr. Cazares in an attempt to discredit him.

The criminal investigation led to prison sentences against 11 high-ranking Scientologists for breaking into federal offices in Washington.

When the smoke eventually cleared, a $1.5-million defamation lawsuit filed by Mr. Cazares and his wife against the church was settled out of court in 1986. It was one of several suits between Mr. Cazares and the church over the years.

“Gabe saw Scientology as a threat to the city and very aggressively pointed those potential problems out to the electorate,” said Ron Stuart, a former editor of the Clearwater Sun, who was also targeted by Scientologists.

“He quickly got on the Scientologists’ enemy list,” said Stuart, now the spokesman for the Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuit. “That was the atmosphere in the city at the time. Gabe didn’t let it faze him. He stayed on it.”

In the end, Mr. Cazares’ work as a civic leader will be his legacy, family and friends say.

“He was just part of the community — wherever he was,” said Mayme Hodges, who worked closely with Mr. Cazares over the years.

“When you get involved in causes and people, you don’t look at anything but the cause. You’re thinking about the good of the community and the good of people. Period. And I think that’s what Gabe was focusing on.”

Mr. Cazares mingled with everyone he could, from marching in the poorer North Greenwood area to honor Martin Luther King Jr. to chit-chatting with the affluent.

“No matter where we went, his hand was always there to give a shake,” said Clearwater police Lt. James Steffens, who became Mr. Cazares’ godson in 1974.

“He was a giant amongst men who chose to be humble,” Steffens said. “I’m going to celebrate his life. He’s the real deal.”

Mr. Cazares once gave a key to the city to a Florida State University student who had been taunted with racial remarks. And he always supported farm workers.

“Gabe, he just kept going on forever,” said Norm Bungard, who worked with Mr. Cazares through Pinellas Habitat for Humanity projects. “Causes for the downtrodden, the poor — Gabe was there.”

Mr. Cazares collected food, clothing and personal hygiene items and distributed them by the carload to migrant workers in Dade City in rural Pasco County.

“I don’t think very many people knew about that,” said his longtime friend and former attorney, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walt Logan.

Gabriel “Gabe” Cazares was born on Jan. 31, 1920 in Alpine, Texas, one of nine children, and reared in Los Angeles, where he worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

At Los Angeles City College, which he attended on a track scholarship, he set a record for the junior college 2-mile run that stood for 11 years.

He also studied at Fresno State College and Texas Christian University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and the University of Maryland. He received a master’s degree in business management from Jackson College in Honolulu.

Much of his college work was done in the military. He joined the Army Air Forces in 1941 and rose to lieutenant colonel, retiring from service in 1966 to become a stockbroker. He moved to Clearwater a short time later when, as he once said, “you could count the number of Hispanics on one hand.”

“Stockbroking was a way for him to make a living at the time, but caring for people has always been his life,” said Anne Garris, a reporter and editor for the Beach Views newspaper during the 1970s.

Mr. Cazares met with white and black leaders throughout the city “to show compassion for anyone who was underprivileged,” she said.

“We never had a real racial rupture in Clearwater and I think that was because of the work Gabe did,” Garris said. “Gabe and the other leaders in the community were always talking.”

For more than two decades he was a major public figure once described as an anomaly in conservative Pinellas County. He was a Democrat in the Republican courthouse and a Hispanic in a county where minorities had trouble winning elections.

In 1975, Mr. Cazares jumped into the Clearwater mayor’s race, drawing support from civic associations and organized labor. Although he was untried in politics and his chief opponent was a veteran city commissioner, Mr. Cazares surprised many people with a resounding victory.

He ran for Congress twice, losing in 1976 to U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, and in 1986 to Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs.

Mr. Cazares resigned as mayor in April 1978, but he was back in public office from 1980 to 1984, this time serving as a county commissioner. He lost a bid for re-election to George Greer, an opponent of the plan to build the Florida Suncoast Dome stadium in St. Petersburg. Mr. Cazares had supported building the stadium now known as Tropicana Field.

At one point in his career, Mr. Cazares claimed membership in 20 major community organizations, ranging from the Gray Panthers to the NAACP to the Fraternal Order of Police. He was one of the first men to belong to the National Federation of Business and Professional Women.

In recent years, Mr. Cazares scaled back his involvement in the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, but he remained vocal about the welfare of minorities, especially Hispanics.

In October 2005, for example, he spoke out after watching CNN break away when Gov. Jeb Bush began issuing warnings about Hurricane Wilma in Spanish. Mr. Cazares saw that as showing disregard for Spanish speakers in Florida.

It was not the first time he had taken a stance on such issues.

In 1998, his complaints against a Taco Bell commercial featuring a talking Chihuahua were quoted around the world. Some people found the commercial demeaning to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

Mr. Cazares saw the ad as a tongue-in-cheek way to raise awareness of the poor.

“He told me: 'Any time I can raise a fuss and call attention to the plight of the farm workers, I’m going to do it,’ ” said Bungard. “That was his purpose.”

Mr. Cazares is survived by his brother, Arturo Cazares; nieces Gloria Romero, Lee Jennings, Cynthia Cruz, Tiffany McConnell, Xoch Tuck, Cookie Hotard; nephews Ed Pawlack, Greg Albino, Johnny Pawlack, Chris Cazares; godson James Steffens; goddaughter Larri Gerson; 12 great-nieces and -nephews; and 12 great-great-nephews and -nieces.

His wife Maggie died in 1989. His wife Velma died of cancer in 2004 while he was undergoing heart surgery. Moss Feaster Funeral Home in Largo is handling arrangements.

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