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Miller fights back challenge by Redner

The incumbent easily holds onto her City Council seat in a runoff.

Published March 28, 2007

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Gwen Miller, left, celebrates with friend and supporter Janet Rifkin at the Italian Club in Ybor City.

TAMPA - Soft-spoken retired schoolteacher Gwen Miller on Tuesday defeated brash strip club owner Joe Redner in a City Council runoff race.

And she made a little history in the process, becoming the first black politician to be elected twice in citywide votes.

The race thrust the demure Miller into the national spotlight when Redner offered free admission to his nude dance club to anyone with an "I Voted" sticker, a stunt some say cost him votes.

While her supporters celebrated from the moment absentee and early vote totals came in, Miller held her cheers until every precinct had reported.

"First, I would like to thank the man of my life," Miller said, hugging her husband and campaign manager, Les Miller, at her victory party in Ybor City's Italian Club.

"I will make sure everybody knows who Gwen Miller is because she will be out there working hard," she said.

This marks the sixth time voters have rejected Redner, a self-made millionaire who built a business and real estate empire on the success of his strip clubs.

"Once again people have said we don't want him representing us. We're willing to tolerate him going on and on about the First Amendment, but that doesn't give him license to serve," said political consultant Bob Buckhorn, who defeated Redner in a 1999 City Council race.

As Redner was being interviewed by reporters, he declined an overture from his campaign consultant to call Miller and concede.

"I ran against Gwen Miller because I didn't think she was doing a good job. I'm not going to call her and act like I expect she's going to do a good job in the future," he said. "That would be hypocritical."

Miller has served on the City Council for 12 years, first as the representative for East Tampa. In 2003, she became the first black politician elected to represent the entire city.

Also on Tuesday, hair salon owner Joseph Caetano defeated real estate agent Frank Margarella in North Tampa's council District 7.

Tuesday's polling and vote count appeared to go smoothly.

About halfway through the vote count Tuesday, Mayor Pam Iorio called Miller to congratulate her.

"She had a tough race and she did very well," Iorio said. "I look forward to continuing to work with her. She and I have a great relationship."

Critics say Miller, 72, has been too quiet in her years on the council. She can't recall putting forward any new legislation for the city, and on the campaign trail this year she changed her mind several times about whether to cut property taxes.

Supporter Joseph Capitano encouraged Miller at her victory party to spread her wings.

"I want you to holler and yell and kick," he said. "You come out of that shell. Don't be afraid. You won this tonight. You become the new Gwen Miller."

Redner, 66, campaigned on the theme of making growth pay for itself, along with promises to cut taxes, protect the environment and push for mass transit. He took almost no campaign donations, and positioned himself as an independent thinker, beholden to no one.

He defeated four other candidates in the March 6 primary to face Miller in the runoff.

But his antiestablishment stance sent campaign contributions from builders, land-use lawyers and business leaders flowing into Miller's camp in the weeks before the runoff.

That helped pay for direct mail pieces and phone calls to voters noting that Redner has been convicted for cocaine possession, battery and allowing a lewd act, and charging that he has made his millions exploiting women.

"She made a point of reminding people who her opponent is," said Scott Paine, a political science professor at the University of Tampa and former City Council member. "There were a lot of people who came out and said no to Joe Redner."

Redner also made critical errors in his campaign, said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus.

Offering free admission to Mons Venus reminded people of his nude club background, and remarking that he is "more black" than Miller was a big mistake, she said.

Redner explained the "more black" statement to mean that he would do more for the poor community than Miller has.

But Paine called the comment deadly.

"What's the basis of that claim? What extraordinary involvement in civil rights movements for racial minorities can he hold up?" Paine asked.

Miller, on the other hand, has accomplished some things for predominantly black East Tampa.

"It may not be a long list. But it's there. And you can't take away the fact that she was the first African-American elected citywide," he said.

The election intrigued voters, with a bit more than 15 percent of Tampa's registered voters casting a ballot. The primary election March 6 drew nearly 16 percent of the electorate. Typically, turnout drops by about 50 percent in runoffs.

Paine called the runoff response "incredible."

"That is a sign of a runoff election that generated a remarkable amount of public interest," he said. Yes, it was only 15 percent, he said, but compared to voter participation in most runoffs, "that's extraordinary."

Buckhorn said the Redner-Miller matchup had all the elements of a compelling election: "You've got sex. You've good versus evil. You've got black versus white. You've got incumbent against challenger. You've got good media coverage."

Does the loss mean Redner should shelve his political aspirations?

"Joe Redner can win under the right set of circumstances," Paine said.

He did well against Miller because she has an unremarkable record and some people were looking for another option, Paine said. But no one was eager to vote her out of office either.

"If you had a situation where Joe Redner was running and his opponent was someone who was tainted by scandal or someone who had really upset constituencies that could contemplate voting for Joe, he could win," Paine said.

MacManus said Redner would win in the right district.

Just after his loss Tuesday, though, Redner said he didn't know if he would try again.

"I'm disappointed now," he said. "Maybe 16 to 18 months from now, I won't be disappointed."

Miller and Caetano will join former county Commissioner Tom Scott, newcomer Mary Mulhern and returning council members Linda Saul-Sena, John Dingfelder and Charlie Miranda on the City Council.

Times staff writers Bill Varian, Kevin Graham and Rodney Thrash contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at or (813) 226-3401.


Here's what some voters had to say Tuesday about the Tampa City Council race between Joe Redner and Gwen Miller:

North Tampa

"I am bothered by Redner. He's sued the city several times. It's not the image we want for the city of Tampa."

Diane White, 56

"I want a change, someone who's going to make a difference than the same ol', same ol'. Redner would make it entertaining."

Andrea Selner, 35

East Tampa

"Redner is always giving back to the neighborhoods. I don't see anything Gwen Miller has done in the time she's been on City Council. The only time we see her is election time."

Morris Scott, 52

"You vote for the character of a person. Therefore, I'm not voting for Joe Redner. I believe marriage is sacred. Those kind of businesses demean that sacredness."

Rodney Blake, 53

South Tampa

"I sense that (Redner)'s going to be a little more of an advocate for making sure that when new development occurs, we account for it not just in terms of physical infrastructure but social infrastructure, like schools."

William Goodwin, 43

West Tampa

"I like the fact that Joe Redner is independent. (But) the fact that he's an atheist, I don't share his religious views and that's important. A lot of the sideshows that he's going to bring, we don't need that. They'll spend their time talking about the Pledge of Allegiance rather than, 'Are you going to widen this street?"

Nelson Brown, 55

Compiled by Dong-Phuong Nguyen, Elisabeth Dyer, Bill Varian and Janet Zink

[Last modified March 28, 2007, 05:41:00]

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District 1

Votes %
Gwen Miller 15,383 56
Joe Redner 11,857 44
First Name (only)

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