It is very likely that there is no politician in Tampa Bay — not Pam Iorio nor Rick Baker, not even Ronda Storms — with higher name recognition than Joe Redner, a candidate for the Tampa City Council.
This is his seventh campaign for public office. He's lost every time.
But Redner's name recognition doesn't come from those efforts. Not even the last one, for Hillsborough County Commission, in which he spent $150,000 of his own money for television commercials and other campaign ads and finished second to incumbent Republican Jim Norman.
For the vast majority of people, the word-association test for "Joe Redner" doesn't produce the response "politician." It conjures up "strip-club owner." In politics, that kind of name I.D. is still, well, problematic.
For years, conventional wisdom held that Redner couldn't get elected dogcatcher. But 2006 was different. He came closer to victory; Redner actually beat Norman in precincts within the city limits.
So the question is flying around Tampa political circles: Can Joe Redner — small business owner, free speech advocate, atheist and strip club king — actually win this time around?
"I think," Redner said, "I can do a hell of a better job than the people who are in office now."
The one thing that many voters would be surprised to learn about Redner is that he really wants to be an elected official, that his two-decade quest for election has little to do with a desire to preserve zoning for adult establishments or to make a symbolic statement. He's not just raging against the machine. He loves civics; in fact, he borders on being a policy wonk.
"Joe is sincere," said Patrick Manteiga, the publisher of the weekly La Gaceta newspaper, which for years featured an ad from Redner's now-bulldozed Tanga Lounge. "He is very sincere in his desire to serve and his willingness to learn about the issues. I just don't think he is as sincere as a politician as he is sincere in being willing to serve."
Redner doesn't show much interest in being a politician, if that is defined as sucking up to everyone, kissing babies and fashioning compromises. He stands out on the campaign trail because he doesn't parse his statements or spin his positions. He is plain-spoken and direct and independent. It wins him applause at neighborhood forums from the same homeowners who would be up in arms if he were to try to open one of his clubs in their area. It also wins him the off-the-record respect of many journalists and some powerful civic leaders who voted for him instead of Jim Norman but would never make such an admission publicly.
Still, he has adapted to some of the ways of modern politics. When asked about a controversial plan to ban sex offenders from living within city limits, Redner says he doubts it would be constitutional and doubts it would stop predators, but adds slyly, "Given the current political atmosphere I would vote for it."
The Redner platform is all about growth paying for itself, from higher impact fees to requiring developers to build new roads, water lines and schools themselves. "I'm tired of paying taxes [to subsidize] people coming to Tampa," he said. "What's going to happen if we have a 50 percent increase in traffic?"
But once developers pay their full share, Redner would give them more freedom to build bigger. He favors more density in urban neighborhoods, both as a way to make mass transit more realistic and as a nod to his libertarian, get-government-out-of-the-way sensibility. "I'm the kind of guy that if a developer wants to develop, I'm going to let them," he said. That pro-development stance doesn't extend to government subsidies aimed at luring companies to Tampa.
Ironically, the greatest outsider on the ballot this year is among the most complimentary of Mayor Iorio's record. He differs with her about taxes, though, proposing to cut millions from the city's budget by lowering property taxes by an average $500 a house.
"I guarantee you, if growth paid for itself," Redner said, "you'd see all kinds of new money showing its pretty little head."
Like so many other Floridians, Redner was born somewhere else. Specifically, Hackensack, N.J. He moved here after his parents divorced, his mother working as a waitress and a nurse, he told Jeff Klinkenberg for a St. Petersburg Times profile in 1991.
He attended Chamberlain High School but dropped out. He worked in a canning factory. He worked in a carnival. He got married twice. Both failed. He's vowed not to marry again. He moved away, to Illinois. He moved back.
Redner eventually drifted into the bar business in Tampa. The bar added some nude dancers. Voilà.
Redner eventually built an empire of strip clubs. He got arrested dozens of times, mostly for operating the clubs against local zoning laws. All of the busts were thrown out of court. Along the way, Redner became more knowledgeable about First Amendment law than most local attorneys.
Today, he runs his business empire from a converted warehouse on Spruce Street. He owns several companies, including the Xtreme Total Health and Fitness gym in South Tampa ("It's my investment in being legitimate") and a video and film production/equipment company. He also owns more than $9 million worth of land in Hillsborough County; one tenant is the federal government, which houses an Internal Revenue Service center in a Redner-owned facility on Columbus Drive. But the nearby Mons Venus club remains his "cash cow," as he calls it, providing 50 percent of his companies' revenues, which he doesn't disclose.
As he walks to his desk in the Spruce Street office and prepares to talk about his campaign, Redner is slightly annoyed at the bright-blue cast on his left wrist, the result of a snowboarding accident that has made it impossible for him to lift weights. He is 66 years old and a health nut, a vegan and workout addict since becoming a teetotaler in the wake of his one serious conviction, a 1983 cocaine bust at a Tampa Bay Bucs game.
Redner's desk isn't sexy; it's all business, except for the lone copy of the February issue of Playboy, its headline reading "Secrets of the male sex drive." The walls of his spare office are covered not with pin-ups but with articles about the war in Iraq and other political issues. One sign says, "Reason and Common Sense."
He has mellowed, but there flashes of his old feistiness. He got a chair thrown at him on public access television last year after baiting another panelist with taunts about being fat. At a Creative Loafing Political Party panel in January 2006, Redner spent the evening in a virtual shouting match with evangelist Bill Keller. The topic? "Do politics and religion have to rip us in half?"
He's been arrested (and cleared) while protesting President Bush. He built a community park in West Tampa. When the Hillsborough County Commission voted to prohibit any county recognition of gay pride events, Redner was the one who sued them, in the process declaring that he himself was gay. His coming out was widely disbelieved.
"I don't know if I see Joe getting in the runoff," Manteiga said. "He seems to not be very consistent in his approach to politics."
Redner admits he's doing very little campaigning this time around. No TV ads. No door-to-door canvassing. A direct mail piece that hit mailboxes last week depicts him as a loving grandfather.
His plan is to coast on the work he did in 2006, hoping it carries him into a runoff with one of the four other candidates: incumbent City Councilwoman Gwen Miller, Randy Baron, Rick Barcena, Denise Chavez or Julie Jenkins.
Some think that Redner picked the wrong race this time, challenging a Democrat like Miller instead of taking on a Republican, as he did with Norman. But Redner says Miller has a lackluster record. And, he adds, the fact that she is African American will hurt her.
"I don't think a black person can win in an at-large district in a race against a white person," he said. "This is a shame. It's a frigging shame," he quickly adds, worrying that his assessment could be taken out of context. Miller won her citywide seat in 2003 in a race against another African-American candidate, and no African-American politician has won a citywide race against a white or Latino candidate in Tampa's history.
So with no entourage and little visible signs of a campaign, Redner shows up at all the candidate forums, a world-weary look on his face, his pony-tailed hair getting grayer, the lines in his face getting deeper. He's convinced he's the best person for the job. "Now," he said, "I just have to convince people of that."
In an earlier edition of this story, the name of Denise Chavez was inadvertently omitted from the list of candidates who, like Joe Redner, are running for the District 1 City Council seat. The omission has been corrected above.
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