D.C. Did It

Tampa owes a debt to Davelis Goutoufas, and not just for his unique cigar shop.

Davelis Goutoufas was 21 years old when he first ran for City Council, a Tampa boy who grew up in this city's most politically influential neighborhood and went to its most socially connected high school. He is the great-grandson of a pioneering Greek who helped settle Tampa in 1887.

It's a great backstory for a campaign. But it wasn't enough in 1991, nor did it propel Goutoufas to victory four years later, in his second race for a council seat.

His youth was clearly a disadvantage in a game where age is valued over enthusiasm. But he knows, just like everyone else who watched those campaigns, what the real reason for losing was: Tampa wasn't ready for a deaf politician.

Newspaper accounts detailed his "blurry" speech; voters asked if he "just doesn't speak English well?" The headlines focused on his impairment: "Deaf man will seek Council seat." Despite the fact that he was the first deaf graduate of the University of Tampa.

Goutoufas got the message. He put aside his ambition for politics (while keeping his love for it). And he began trading that dream — with its smoke-filled back rooms — for a different vision, turning his attention from the deal-making to the smoke.

They call him "D.C.," his friends, business partner, employees and customers do. One day last year, he got a telephone call from an old friend, a real-estate agent. The friend had bought a small store on West Shore Boulevard in South Tampa that used to house a UPS package business, with rows of mailboxes and a place where a metal barrier came across the middle of the store and allowed customers to pick up their mail after hours. Goutoufas' new dream was to open a cigar shop. Would this building do?

Goutoufas drove over and took a look. "I was thinking," he remembers, "if mail boxes are there, why not turn them into cigar lockers?"

So he did. Goutoufas found a partner, a former marine engineer named Stanley Pinder, a friend from the freemasons. They replaced the "What can brown do for you?" vibe inside the building with dark woods, overstuffed leather chairs, vintage black-and-white photos of Tampa and HD flat-panel television sets. A cigar bar sits at the center of the shop, across from a small but impressive selection of stogies, including top-of-the-line brands such as Diamond Crown.

Gaspar's Cigars opened on the Fourth of July. Goutoufas threw a pig roast for his friends and supporters. Three hundred people turned up.

"The shop isn't just about cigars," he says. "It is an embodiment of something that is uniquely American: the freedom to do and become whoever and whatever you want."

After hours, cigar shop employees slide a metal fence into place, closing off the bar and the merchandise. The rest of the shop remains open 24/7 for members who pay a fee for humidified locker space. A keypad allows them to come in, grab a cigar and relax at any hour of the night or early morning. A closed-circuit camera keeps trouble away.

It's the adult version of a treehouse.

"This is like a home away from home," Goutoufas explains.

"We have liberals and conservatives. We have Republicans and Democrats. We even have non-smokers who just hang out."

He continues, "I remember the days when politics were about the city, county, state or country first, and then your party. You could think what you wanted, heck, even fight for it. But at the end of the day, they came together, had a meal or even a cigar.

"Tampa used to be that way. My Tampa will always be that way as long as those doors stay open."

Goutoufas turns 40 this week. He lives next door to the house he grew up in, across the street from the elementary school his daughter attends. He lost his hearing at age 4, after fluid built up in his ears. He doesn't remember the last sound he heard.

It's a lot easier for him to get along without hearing these days, with his Blackberry in hand to text-message friends or instant chat on computers for newspaper interviews.

It wasn't like that when he first ran for public office. At 21, he was fresh from the accomplishment of having convinced city and county leaders to provide closed captioning for the telecasts of their weekly meetings. Before that, hearing-impaired residents had been shut out.

Today, reporters regularly turn to online transcripts of those closed-captioning sessions to research stories. Activists scour them for ammunition against politicians or policies they don't like. Former Mayor Dick Greco recently told Goutoufas that he appreciates closed-captioning more and more as he gets older.

D.C. Goutoufas might not have a political office, but he has a legacy. And that's not just blowing smoke.

Check my blog, thepoliticalwhore.com, for breaking political and media news or to leave a comment about this column.

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