TAMPA — Could a former "pimp" be Tampa's next City Council member?
The man behind the fur-coat wearing, gold-chain sporting and little-person toting "White Chocolate," host of a notorious public access TV show, has made the March 22 runoff election.
Charles "Charlie" Perkins says he is no longer the potty-mouthed provocateur who televised raunchy videos on the county channel. He says he's not the same guy whose First Amendment feud with then-Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms was described as vile and offensive.
We all grow up, said Perkins, now 35.
"The truth is, everybody did something stupid when they were young," Perkins said. "At the time, I was fighting for my free speech."
He will face Lisa Montelione in the March 22 runoff for the District 7 seat.
Perkins characterizes the race as rich vs. poor, New Tampa — where she drew her support — against north Tampa, where he received the most votes.
But the race is just as much about his notorious past and whether voters will get behind a guy whose resume includes the creation of a colorful pimp-like character.
In 2002, after his Happy Boy show on public access television was pushed into a later time slot, Perkins lashed out by creating a vulgar and raunchy spectacle. When he aired video of a nude woman fondling herself, Storms was outraged.
She lobbied the state attorney to charge Perkins with a crime, but the host's actions were protected by the First Amendment. However, county commissioners voted to cut the station's funding, triggering a lawsuit.
The public access network is still trying to recover from the public relations disaster, Speak Up Tampa Bay executive director Louise Thompson said. The organization spent more than $100,000 in legal fees and many shows were forced off the air during that time.
She was used to producers apologizing and falling back in line after drawing a rebuke from the County Commission. Perkins had a different agenda.
"Charlie had more self-interest in gaining some type of notoriety and didn't look at the implications of what his actions had done and were doing," Thompson said.
He announced he was running for County Commission at the height of his battle with Storms. He backed out a few months later, saying he wanted to pursue a career making adult videos. (He never actually got into porn, Perkins said recently.)
He ran for a citywide council seat in 2003 and then for the District 7 spot in 2007, failing to make the runoffs both times.
This year, voters sent him to the second round with 32 percent of the vote, compared with Montelione's 36 percent.
Media types are the only ones who continue to bring up his "White Chocolate" persona, Perkins said. Voters are more concerned about reducing crime, repairing sidewalks and paving streets.
"These people know me," he said. "This is my neighborhood."
His daily uniform now consists of shorts and sandals, maybe a three-piece suit if he thinks he's going to meet someone important that day.
Where his hair once fell in waves to his ears, it now stays slicked back and in place.
He and his wife sell antique toys on eBay, he said, and care for their young son. He is an active Mason and says its religious and community-based principles guide his efforts.
"I go to church. I'm normal," he said. "I do my business. I spend time with my family."
Like President George Washington, a fellow Mason, Perkins said he will refuse his salary if elected. Instead, he will donate paychecks totaling $40,250 a year to Crime Watch programs.
"I care about where I live and I don't want to be paid to do that," he said. "I just want to make the neighborhood nicer."
Not everyone is convinced that a kinder, gentler Charlie Perkins exists.
Famed strip club owner Joe Redner has had his own issues with Storms. But he never approved of Perkins' flamboyant costumes, weird cast of characters and flashy approach.
"He did things like that to draw attention," Redner said. "That's not my style."
The two went into business together, but their differences came to a head again and they parted ways.
Since then, Redner hasn't heard much from or about Perkins, even during the campaign season. Redner attended forums that the other District 7 candidates attended. Perkins was a no-show time after time.
"I couldn't be for or against him," Redner said. "But I don't think anybody knows because he doesn't go to any of these debates."
Perkins admits that he skips out on the countless meet-and-greets that fill a candidate's schedule. Though it is assumed that he devotes most of his time going door-to-door in north Tampa, he is coy about his campaign strategy.
"Seven herbs and spices," he said. "You can't give that KFC recipe out to everybody."
Name recognition is high for Perkins after appearing on the ballot three times. He, as well as the other candidates, also may have been boosted by a strong anti-incumbent sentiment in the district.
Current District 7 council member Joseph Caetano finished third in Tuesday's election. A series of personal financial setbacks made for a rocky term, and he was unpopular among many north Tampa residents, who said he did little for their neighborhoods.
Perkins drives down those same streets pointing out potholes and boarded up homes. He rails against the city's decision to increase fees for parks and recreation services and says it's a shame that dirt roads exist within city limits.
"You see stuff over here that you never see in New Tampa," he said.
The passion that propelled Perkins to take on the County Commission will serve District 7 well, Clearwater lawyer Luke Lirot said.
"I have talked to him about this race," he said. "He's robustly sincere and I think he has all the right qualifications to make a great City Council member."
Lirot represented Perkins during those First Amendment battles and described his client's tactics as showy but effective. Back then, "White Chocolate" was a means to an end, and Perkins was an actor playing a role.
"He was serious, sincere," Lirot said. "I thought he was very intelligent. He was pretty disciplined in his approach."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.