TAMPA — Civic activist Denise Layne says she could have won her last race for the Hillsborough County Commission, if not for strip club owner Joe Redner.
Layne took 41 percent of the vote in 2004 running as a Democrat against Republican Mark Sharpe, who won with 49 percent. The other 10 percent went to Redner, a perennial office seeker running without party affiliation.
And those are votes Layne believes would have gone mostly to her had Redner not been in the picture.
"I totally got Nadered in that Sharpe race," said Layne, referring to former Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, still blamed by some Democrats for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000 by taking votes from him.
Redner and Layne are sparring again for the County Commission this political season. But this time Redner says he can no longer be dismissed as a spoiler, simply taking votes from others.
"That's why I'm not running as an independent anymore," he said.
Redner, 68, is running in a Democratic primary against Layne and political newcomer Kevin Beckner. Together they are competing to see who faces Republican Brian Blair in the at-large District 6 race.
Blair has his own primary fight against car sales manager Don Kruse.
Redner is coming off two relatively strong showings in contests since he last battled with Layne. He took 40 percent of the vote as the lone Democrat running against Republican commission incumbent Jim Norman in 2006.
He followed that with a 44 percent showing in 2007 against Tampa City Council member Gwen Miller in a nonpartisan contest.
Some blamed that loss in part on his last-minute offer of free entry to his Mons Venus strip club for people wearing an "I voted" sticker. The stunt served to remind people of Redner's strip club ties, which he has long sought to downplay.
Redner also didn't help himself in that race when he claimed he was more black than Miller, who is African-American.
Still, many political observers say he should not be overlooked in the Democratic primary.
"It could absolutely be Redner who wins," said Democratic consultant Patrick Manteiga, who runs the La Gaceta newspaper. "I look at this as being a tossup. I couldn't tell you who is going to win."
As the lone woman, Layne could enjoy a strong showing among female voters, Manteiga said.
Manteiga said Redner has built a base of support over time and could get the nod from voters who simply pick a name they recognize most.
Beckner has been campaigning for about 19 months and has raised more than $100,000, impressive for a first-timer, but he is still relatively unknown. He is running as an openly gay candidate, which could give him an edge with that Democratic constituency and its vigorous network of local activists.
Republican political consultant Todd Pressman largely agrees that name recognition built by Redner over time cannot be taken lightly in local campaigns.
"Anybody who is on the ballot and pulling 40 percent of the vote is a serious candidate," Pressman said. "Good or bad, right or wrong."
Redner is making his eighth run at winning elected office. Through the years, he has also diversified his business holdings to include a gym, a historic hotel and several other commercial properties.
In his first few attempts at winning office, he was largely waved off as a fringe candidate best known for colorfully undressing his opponents. He still wields a sharp tongue, recently describing Blair as a twit.
But he also has polished a message that includes support for environmental protection, stronger growth management and better transportation planning.
Those are areas where he says Blair has failed, but he and his primary opponents largely agree on those are topics. So what is his distinction?
"You need somebody in there who is a fighter," Redner said. "Who is willing to point out the issues."
Beckner, the newcomer, says he's not that awed by Redner's recent campaign improvement. His own analysis says a 40 percent showing is the low end of what any losing Democrat has done in a countywide race.
He said voters should consider whether Redner will be able to get anything done on the off chance he is elected, given his penchant for picking fights.
"I think he would put up walls and that's not what we need right now," Beckner said. "I think a lot of his colleagues may dismiss him."
Democratic political consultant Bob Buckhorn says he won't dignify Redner with a comparison to Nader. Buckhorn's father, a newsman, once wrote a biography of the legendary consumer advocate.
As a Tampa City Council member seeking to clamp down on strip clubs, Buckhorn sparred with Redner. Buckhorn also lost a commission bid against Blair.
He said he wants to see a Democrat take the seat, and thinks Redner's presence only forces his primary rivals to spend money unnecessarily, depleting their resources for the general election contest with Blair.
"Redner's role will not necessarily be winning, but being a spoiler by damaging Democrats in the process," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.