Strip clubs' naked ambition to oust Bush

By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles

24 May 2004


The interests of the morality-toting Bush administration are not exactly in harmony with those of the United States' 4,000-odd strip clubs. And now the clubs are doing something about it, by registering their patrons to vote in between floor shows and agitating openly to boot the President out of the White House in November.

Voter registration forms are being distributed in clubs in at least three states - Ohio, Wisconsin and North Carolina - and the political rhetoric, from an industry usually noted for its deep reluctance to stick its head above any parapet, is growing ever more vehement.

"We must do everything within our power to help ensure that Bush and his ultra-conservative administration are removed from the White House,'' the president of the industry's Association of Club Executives, Michael Ocello, wrote in a recent letter to his members.

"If we are to survive, we must act now.'' In Ohio, where the association's chapter president describes the Bible-thumping Attorney General, John Ashcroft, as "the American Taliban", 2,000 new voters have been registered in the past few weeks.

In southern Wisconsin, club owner Jim Halbach has begun canvassing clients and dancers, arguing that if President Bush wins a second term it could be the end for all of them.

"I'm actually fighting for my survival,'' he said. "That's the way I look at it." The odd thing is that the administration, while making no secret of its disapproval, has launched no specific crackdown against strip clubs.

True, pornography was one of the items on Mr Ashcroft's priority list when he came into office in 2001 - a list also notable for its omission of counter- terrorism. His Justice Department has spent millions of dollars pursuing obscenity cases in the broader sex industry.

The Federal Communications Commission has also tightened up its definitions of indecency on the mainstream airwaves, following Janet Jackson's infamous prime-time breast-bearing at January's Superbowl, the climax of the American football season.

For now, the strip clubs have had to endure morality initiatives only at a lower level of government - an anti-lap dancing ordinance passed by the city council in Las Vegas, for example, and attempts at similar legislation in Los Angeles. There are, however, intimations of deeper trouble on the horizon.

One club owner, Michael Galardi, has been under federal investigation for corruption of politicians in Las Vegas and San Diego - an inquiry that has relied, in part, on provisions of the anti-terrorist 2001 Patriot Act, written by Mr Ashcroft's Justice Department.

It may well be that the strip-club owners see a troubling change in the equilibrium whereby the politicians were prepared to turn a blind eye as long as the money generated by the industry benefited everyone.

Naturally, that is not how their political campaign is being sold. Industry advocates have instead raised red flags about Christian fundamentalism and what they see as their right to free expression. "At what point," asked Angelina Spencer, ACE's executive director, "is the country run under the New Testament or under the Constitution?"