TAMPA - Tampa. Strip clubs. The two are often mentioned together, like New York City and the Statue of Liberty. Or San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Or St. Louis and the Arch.
More than sunshine, cigars or the roller coasters at Busch Gardens, Tampa is known for its naked ladies.
And the man in the thick of this spectacle is Joe Redner, who almost single-handedly made Tampa's adult entertainment world famous. He's a wiry 72-year-old with a bemused smile and skeptical brown eyes who owns what is arguably the most notorious of Tampa's all-nude clubs: Mons Venus.
The club -- located less than 6 miles from where the Republicans will gather to nominate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate -- isn't much to look at. The blue-and-purple building sits on a busy stretch of road next to a Taco Bell and near where the NFL champion Buccaneers play home games. There's a sign outside that says "Home of the Most Beautiful Women in the World," and another: "Live NUDE Shows."
"I don't expect the RNC to be as busy as Super Bowl," Redner said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I don't think those people are coming to party."
Redner started the club 30 years ago. Back then, according to him, his main pursuits were "drinking, philandering and snorting cocaine."
He knew nothing about business or politics. But over the decades, he stopped drinking and doing drugs, became a vegan, a businessman and a politician. Like-minded progressive activists have called him a "folk hero," while his enemies have called him a "pimp."
Over time, he's opened three other nude clubs (he no longer owns them), a fitness club (he sold that too), and has run for various local offices nine times (he's never won, although he did offer free lap dances to anyone who showed up at The Mons with an "I Voted" sticker as part of his campaign). At one point, the Tampa Bay Times reported that he was worth $18 million. He has a deep box of yellowing newspaper clippings from around the world, chronicling his outspoken, and some would say outrageous, views.
"The clubs in Tampa wouldn't have notoriety if it wasn't for Joe," said Don Kleinhans, the co-owner of 2001 Odyssey, a strip club across the street from Mons Venus that's notable for its large, silver spaceship where patrons can obtain expensive, and more personal, lap dances. "He just has strong beliefs in his rights and his freedoms."
Redner says his biggest accomplishment has been in the battles he's waged against local, state and federal governments -- some successful, others not. After opening his first strip club -- Redner prefers the term "adult entertainment" -- he was arrested 36 times on obscenity charges by officials. He claimed that it was his First Amendment right to operate the club.
In 2000, Redner vehemently opposed the so-called "six-foot rule," a county ordinance preventing adult entertainers from coming within six feet of their clients. The rule is still on the books, but isn't enforced.
In 2005, when Hillsborough County commissioners voted to ban the county from participating in or acknowledging gay pride events, Redner filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city. He also dropped a bombshell within the lawsuit, which required him as plaintiff to show a personal connection to the case: He is gay. The lawsuit was settled in 2007, and the county reworded the policy so it shall not "be construed to prevent citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights in an appropriate forum."
Earlier this year, Redner was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. He thinks it's from all the marijuana he's smoked over the years, a habit that he says he's quit. Radiation was successful, he said, showing a reporter before and after X-rays of a spot on his lung.
He never worried about dying, he said. People would tell him that they were praying for his recovery. His answer: don't bother.
"They say there are no atheists in foxholes," he said. "I'm one."
The only visible casualty of his illness was his long, grey ponytail; now, his hair is short. Sitting in his office at Redner Enterprises -- a warehouse he shares with his son, who runs a well-known brewing company -- he looks like what he is: an older businessman, albeit one who is surrounded by adult entertainment industry magazines and snapshots of his various skirmishes with local government.
He's still involved in community issues. He goes to county commission meetings and recently, stopped in to an ACLU meeting about the RNC. He's worried that protests will get out of hand and that police will use too much force on demonstrators -- especially since he's letting some Occupy Tampa members camp and protest 24/7 on a private lot he owns west of downtown. Redner's been in the news for that, lately, as well; residents of the area are fed up with the campers and are worried the RNC will draw thousands of people to the neighborhood.
Redner doesn't talk much about the actual Republicans coming to town; he
considers himself a very liberal progressive. He doesn't like the Republicans' politics, but is hopeful that will bring money into the community. His club's business is down by 50 percent since its heyday in the late 90s, he said. Tampa is in a recession.
Jason Lange, an adult industry promoter, agrees with Redner that Tampa-area clubs probably won't receive a windfall because of the RNC.
"A lot of people are thinking it's going to be a super home run, but it's not," said Lange, who has booked some private parties for RNC-goers and is bringing in porn stars as entertainers at certain clubs during that week. "The Mitt Romneys aren't going to go into adult entertainment clubs."
Nonetheless, police have cracked down on strip clubs recently. During a recent sting at several area strip clubs, Tampa officers arrested 16 women on prostitution charges at area strip clubs. A news release said officials were trying to deter prostitution and human trafficking during the upcoming convention. No one was arrested at Redner's Mons Venus club.
Other strip club owners in Tampa are more optimistic than Lange about seeing more customers; 2001 Odyssey's Kleinhans said he's put in a VIP area for the RNC, complete with a private entrance around the side of the club, so anyone who wants to sneak in unannounced can do so.
Redner refuses to do that for his customers.
"I can't play to that part of human nature," sniffs Redner. "If you gotta hide from what you're doing, you shouldn't be doing it."
Folks have been wondering what Redner will do during the RNC. Will he protest and get arrested, like he did when President George W. Bush and his brother, Jeb, held a Tampa rally in 2008? Will he offer some outrageous promotion at The Mons? Tip reporters off if a famous politician comes into the club?
Nope. None of that.
He's going to be in Vegas, for a gentlemen's club expo. He's the keynote speaker.
"I went back and forth on whether to go," he said. "But really, my presence isn't necessary."
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush .