Name recognition may aid Bubba the Love Sponge Clem's bid for sheriff in Pinellas County, a political scientist says.
By MICHAEL SANDLER
Published October 3, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG - The autographed guitars, photos with professional wrestlers and framed newspaper stories hanging on the walls of his home office all but scream it.
Bubba the Love Sponge Clem was a star behind the microphone.
There is even a framed, handwritten letter from the politician who was grateful for the opportunity to reach Clem's radio listeners in 1997. A few months later, Jeb Bush was elected to his first term as governor.
"P.S. Please say hello to your mother," Bush wrote.
Like him or not, Clem had an audience - about 130,000 weekly listeners in Tampa Bay last year. Then Clear Channel fired him for crossing the line into indecency. With the microphone gone, Bubba the Love Sponge is looking for his next role.
Clem, 38, recently became a Democrat and has challenged Chief Deputy Jim Coats, a Republican, in November's election for Pinellas County sheriff.
There couldn't be two more opposite candidates.
Coats, 60, spent half his life with the department and has been endorsed by just about every member of the local public safety community. He is quiet, somewhat media shy and far from a household name.
Clem has no law enforcement experience. But he does bring something rare to politics. He's unapologetic, straight-talking, sharp-tongued, even crude.
And man, can he talk. He's got name recognition. And he is running at a time when entertainers are popular with voters.
"That's what makes this process so great, that I can be on the ballot," Clem said. "The naysayers who don't think I'm legitimate will have their right to vote. The people who think I'm no-nonsense will have their say, too."
Born Todd Clem, he changed his legal name to Bubba the Love Sponge Clem to include his radio station persona. (He'll be listed as Bubba Clem on the Nov. 2 ballot).
Clem says he is serious. But the Love Sponge will have to do more than say it. He must overcome his lack of credentials and raunchy reputation to convince voters he should be the county's top law enforcement officer.
The Democratic Party is skeptical. Uniformed law enforcement unions have criticized his campaign. Many question his motives, wondering whether he's keeping his name alive so he can someday return to radio.
"I'm not quite sure why he decided to run for office other than a publicity stunt," said Tom Steck, chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee.
But political scientists say his name may prove to be a factor, especially on the ballot during a presidential election.
Could this outlaw of the airwaves really become the law of the land?
Clem is the first to acknowledge he lacks experience. But he says he sees that as an advantage. He said he wants to prove someone outside the political process can run for public office.
Clem, who earned nearly $1-million last year, said he would finance most of his campaign with his own money, perhaps $40,000 to $50,000. He's spent $10,000, raising just $750 in outside contributions.
Coats has already raised $180,000 in contributions and in-kind donations. Clem said he is troubled by the amount of money politicians raise for campaigns.
"I entered this race to be the anti-politician politician," Clem said. Sure, Bubba sells a CD with songs titled Bubba's Big Nuts and The N-Word Song. But that's "theater for the mind," merely a role, he said.
"Jesse Ventura didn't body slam his children. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't kill his children in real life," he said.
His morning radio show, aimed at a male audience, was crude. Clem referred to women as "bitches." Cast members imitated Scooby Doo and Shaggy trading sexual favors for crack cocaine. Clem faced animal cruelty charges after broadcasting the slaughter of a pig. He was acquitted.
The FCC fined his station $23,000 in 1998 when Clem faked giving a sidekick a milk enema on the radio. Then it levied the $755,000 fine in January against four Clear Channel-owned stations, including his station WXTB-97.9 FM (98 Rock), that aired his material. One month later, he was kicked off the air.
The story made national news. Scot Schraufnagel, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, said such infamy may work to Clem's advantage. A serious scandal might destroy his campaign, Schraufnagel said. But limited controversy actually boosts popularity.
"That threshold is not easy to put a finger on," Schraufnagel said. Being on the ballot during a presidential election, when less educated voters come to the polls, helps, too.
"A lot of people go into voting booths having not done their homework," Schraufnagel said. "A lot are going in voting for Kerry or Bush, then they go down and look for a name they recognize."
Though this is Coats' first run for office, Clem has attacked him as part of an established political system that turns out "career politicians." Clem said he would clean up the "good old boy network."
Without providing evidence, Clem claims anonymous deputies have told him about a pattern of corruption. Clem said he has hired a private investigator to look into their allegations, and he has promised a full report before the election. He has also hired a budget expert who is reviewing the sheriff's spending habits.
As sheriff, he says he would create a more productive force by making deputies happy. He would hold a three-day conference to let them vent their concerns. He talks about setting up a 24-hour day care center for their children. And he says he would ride with deputies and carry a gun.
That wouldn't be new for Clem, who has a Florida concealed weapons permit. He carried a loaded handgun in his black fanny pack when he met with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, showing it off to board members after his interview.
Clem said he would appoint a competent chief deputy and convene an executive committee to help him make decisions.
"Having no experience arresting people is hogwash compared with having experience making people happy," Clem said.
Clem depends heavily on his former producer, Brent Hatley, now his campaign manager. Hatley schedules Clem's appearances, sits in on interviews and takes many of his calls.
"Had Bubba not run, Coats would have been (automatically) elected into office," Hatley said. "Clearly, it would have been a free ride for him."
Leap of faith
Hal Alterman signed Clem up to speak to residents at On Top of the World, a well-known senior community, on Oct. 28.
"Hey Bubba, tell us why" people should vote for you, Alterman said. "Give us a reason. I think it's incumbent on him to make that case."
Clem has interviewed with some local groups, but has yet to pick up any significant endorsements.
"There is no way he can make himself a serious candidate," said Bill Laubach, executive director for the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association, which represents 350 patrol and detention deputies with the Sheriff's Office. "You cannot run an agency the size of the Sheriff's Office without some law enforcement background."
The PBA endorsed Coats, as have the Fraternal Order of Police, the Pinellas County Council of Firefighters, Sheriff Everett Rice and State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
When Clem participated in a candidate forum at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, he told the audience he would make sheriff's Capt. Cal Dennie his chief deputy. Dennie was in the audience and nearly choked on a macadamia nut cookie.
"I'm not qualified to be chief deputy," Dennie said, adding that his only contact with Clem was pulling him over for speeding. Dennie said he let him off with a warning.
"To me, I think this is a ploy to get the black vote," said Dennie, who is black. "I don't like being used."
Clem dismissed such setbacks.
"I don't need any of their endorsements to be able to exercise my rights to run as a political candidate," Clem said. "I'm running on the aspects of an average man."
There has been widespread speculation among critics and local political observers that Clem's real interest is landing a contract on satellite radio, where listeners purchase a special receiver and pay a subscriber fee.
Clem said he isn't negotiating such a deal now. He's focusing his time on becoming sheriff. But if a deal came his way, Clem said he could do both jobs. He would go as far to install an emergency phone into his radio studio so he could be contacted by his deputies.
"People would know I would have to leave," Clem said. "They could run tapes."
Otherwise, he said he could do the morning drive time, then arrive at work at 10:30 a.m. for a full day of law enforcement.
"Radio has been my career," Clem said. "Could I do both? Probably. Would I do both? Probably not. My No. 1 priority is to be the sheriff of Pinellas."