He's the ultimate outsider
City Council election: Gwen Miller vs. Joe Redner.
By JANET ZINK
Published March 25, 2007
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Joe Redner, right, says the Pledge of Allegiance during a Tiger Bay Club of Tampa political forum at Maestro's. Redner is making his sixth run for office; reaching the runoff against Miller has been his biggest success.
TAMPA -- Joe Redner has overcome poverty, learning problems, alcoholism and drug addiction and won the affection of his children after a less-than-stellar performance as a father.
Now a millionaire health nut, he hopes to overcome his reputation as a nude-club owner with a criminal past and win election to the Tampa City Council.
"That's where my next step is taking me," Redner said. "I have a contribution to make."
It's his sixth run for office, with failed attempts dating to 1983. His biggest success came March 6, when he defeated four others to land in a runoff against council veteran Gwen Miller.
During a recent interview at Joe Redner Enterprises, where his ex-wife, two daughters and a daughter-in-law work or maintain offices, he reflected on where he is now.
"It's beyond my wildest expectations," said Redner, 66.
He says he'll surprise people if given a chance in public office.
"I don't think there's any limit, if I live long enough, to what position I can get to in the government," he said. "I'm smarter and have better solutions to problems and can deal with them better than anybody from the president down to the friggin' City Council."
People expect the grandiloquence. He goaded police into arresting him and his employees over outlawed lap dances; declared he was gay and sued the county for banning sponsorship of gay pride events; and drove a talk show guest to throw a chair at him. Among Redner's taunts: "You called me a liar. I'm not a liar. I called you fat. You are fat."
But some of those who best know Redner describe him as shy, honest, generous and kind.
"Normal people don't see that side of him. They see the side of him that's very in your face, boisterous," said Toni Derby, Redner's director of operations, who has worked for him since 1985.
Bishop Randy White, who heads Without Walls International Church, said Redner has "a heart for the people."
"Joe is a great, great man and person of integrity," White said.
Lorelei Jackson, Redner's wife for seven years in the 1970s, said he wasn't much of a husband. But she's worked for him for the past 10 years.
"He's probably the best boss I've ever had," she said.
Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said Redner is bright and cares about issues affecting the city.
Her administration battled Redner in court, but Freedman said whenever she ran into him, he was friendly and gentlemanly.
"He's just a nice guy," she said.
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Joe Redner was born in 1940 in New Jersey, the second child of William and Agnes Redner.
A few years later, Agnes left her husband and went to work at a children's home, living there with Joe and his older brother, Bill.
When Joe was about 8, the family moved to Tampa. Agnes took a job working as a waitress at a downtown drugstore.
"We survived on her tips. It was like $5 or $6 a day," Redner said.
Summers, he played in the Hillsborough River, he and his friends riding beds of water hyacinths like rafts downstream.
In school, Redner struggled.
"It takes more repetitions in order for me to put facts in my head," he said. "My self-esteem was very low because I couldn't learn like the other kids."
He quit at 16 and joined his mother, stocking shelves at the drugstore.
A series of jobs followed - terrazzo company laborer, canmaker, carnival worker, furniture salesman. He tried unsuccessfully to launch a pavement sealing and striping business.
A pivotal moment came after he was hired to manage the Deep South, a go-go bar where girls danced in pasties and G-strings.
"I was driving home one morning at 3:30 or 4, and I heard on my radio that the Supreme Court had just ruled that nudity was content of speech, that it was protected by the First Amendment," he recalled.
The case related to an outdoor movie theater that showed glimpses of nudity. But Redner said he figured, "If they meant what they said, why couldn't a dancer on a stage be nude?"
The owners of the Deep South didn't buy Redner's argument. So in 1976, he invested a bit of money into a bar and opened his first nude club, Night Gallery.
City officials recoiled.
In that first year, Redner was arrested 36 times. He persevered, claiming First Amendment rights.
In 1982 he opened the Mons Venus. "And the rest is history," he said.
Although Redner has owned as many as four nude clubs at once, today the Mons is his only adult entertainment business.
"It's a signature piece," he said. "It's world famous."
It's also his biggest moneymaker, though Redner owns a film production company, a fitness club and residential and commercial properties, including an office leased to the Internal Revenue Service.
His net worth of $18-million allows him to help care for the many people in his life, including his brother, who has Parkinson's disease and lives with him.
"He's a very giving person," said Redner's daughter Joy, a Stetson University law student. "He'll do anything for you as long as you help yourself."
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Other big changes occurred in Redner's life shortly after he opened the Mons.
In 1983 he was arrested for cocaine possession. Later, sitting in jail for a zoning infraction, he began to question his drug use.
"I was beating my head on the walls and said you know, are you going to let drugs control you? You don't let the government control you. You don't let anyone control you," he said.
He said he quit alcohol, cocaine and cigarettes. He switched to a vegan diet, filling up every day on the salad bar at Sweet Tomatoes. He now exercises two hours a day.
He threw himself fully into study of the law. The intellectual exploration made him feel better about himself, and his interest in free speech issues expanded.
In 2002, he protested a police crackdown on distributing political literature in Ybor City. He sued in 2003 after he was arrested for protesting outside a designated area when President Bush visited Tampa.
In 2002, he built a park in West Tampa using money he won in a lawsuit against the city.
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Redner's critics call him selfish, dishonest and immoral.
Adele Ida Walter met him in 2002 while dating his brother.
"When I first knew Joe, I almost liked him," she said. "He even took me to lunch once at Sweet Tomatoes to talk about his brother, but he ended up talking about himself."
Walter said Redner overstates the care he gives his brother, and claims she tends to Bill most.
"He's very busy," Bill Redner said. "But he's helped me a lot."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair calls Redner a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
Blair, a former owner of fitness centers, said Redner told him he wanted to open a gym up north and quizzed him on the industry.
"I opened my books to him and had my manager spend time with him and gave him a great education," Blair said.
Redner opened a fitness center just blocks from one of Blair's.
He says the story isn't true: "I never talked to Brian Blair about opening a club."
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Redner knows that some people will always disapprove of how he makes his living.
But with a fat bank account, a healthy lifestyle and, at the very least, a near political win, he has confidence.
"I'm not the stupid person I thought I was," he said.
After decades of thumbing his nose at convention, he has hinged his campaign on being an independent thinker.
He takes no campaign contributions. Fliers show him opening his coat to reveal no special interests in his pockets - only lower taxes, efforts to bring mass transit to Tampa, protect the environment and help schools.
"I want to go into government because I think I can do a better job and help people and raise their standard of living," he said. "I'm not doing this for me. It's to help people."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.
Joe Redner's five points of disagreement with Gwen Miller
1. Should Tampa adopt a green building ordinance?
2. Much of the city has an old, failing sewer and water system. Should utility fees be hiked to rebuild, expand and improve the system?
Yes, absent other funding sources.
3. Do you agree or disagree with the policy that mandates eviction for someone in public housing if a member of their household is arrested?
4. Should the city increase transportation impact fees?
Needs more information.
5. Should the city require developers to build affordable housing, provide incentives, or let the market set supply and price?
[Last modified March 25, 2007, 08:39:41]
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