Skin City

Is Vicki Johnson an enemy of free speech -- or the last person speaking freely in the fight over who runs Sheridan?

After hours of walking the streets of Sheridan, hiking up driveways and picking her way through trailer parks, Vicki Johnson has this part down. She knocks on the door, rings a bell if there is one. Another knock; if there's no answer, she rolls up the flier and wedges it expertly in the door.

It's mid-afternoon on Columbus Day, and a surprising number of voters are home.

They answer the summons cautiously, peering through a screen or security door -- which, more often than not, has a sticker that says "NO SOLICITING."

The bottom line: Ousted city councilwoman Vicki 
Johnson says her colleagues are "selling out" 
Sheridan to strip clubs.
Anthony Camera
The bottom line: Ousted city councilwoman Vicki Johnson says her colleagues are "selling out" Sheridan to strip clubs.
The bottom line: Ousted city councilwoman Vicki 
Johnson says her colleagues are "selling out" 
Sheridan to strip clubs.
Anthony Camera
The bottom line: Ousted city councilwoman Vicki Johnson says her colleagues are "selling out" Sheridan to strip clubs.

Johnson flashes a tight smile, offers a flier. "I'm distributing information about the strip-club issue," she says. "The wording on the ballot is kind of confusing. If you don't want any more nude clubs in Sheridan, you need to vote yes to repeal the ordinance."

"Not interested," says one T-shirted resident who appears to have been roused from his nap.

"I don't vote," says a frizzy-haired young woman.

But most people accept the flier politely. Some nod approvingly, adding a go-get-'em or two. In 45 minutes, Johnson covers sixty houses. At 31 of them, nobody's home. Ten residents say they're definitely voting to repeal the nude-dancing ordinance that Sheridan's city council passed last spring, despite scorching criticism from Johnson and several other opponents. Another seventeen take the flier without much comment. (When children open the door, Johnson folds the flier into a discreet packet and asks them to give it to the voters in the house.) Not one respondent says he's voting against the repeal -- unless you count Mr. Not Interested.

As Johnson sees it, this is good news, especially since the pro-nude forces have already hit this neighborhood with their own fliers. At a house with mail and newspapers piled at the door, one of their missives is flapping in the wind. "VOTE NO," it urges, warning that a repeal would mean "further lawsuits" costing the taxpayers of Sheridan "a minimum of $250,000 and a maximum of $1 million."

The flier comes courtesy of Concerned Citizens Against Repeal of Council Ordinance 7-2003, a group that Johnson has never heard of. But she suspects it's backed by Troy Lowrie, owner of the All Stars Sports Cabaret, the strip club at the center of Sheridan's ongoing tussles over all-nude dancing.

"They're trying to scare people," Johnson says. "If he could win in court, would he be going to all this other trouble?"

The question of whether Sheridan's strippers should be able to remove their G-strings was not one Johnson had given much study two years ago. But in recent months, the seemingly simple proposition has taken on enormous and disturbing implications, leading Johnson into a series of legal and political quagmires and dividing the town. Last year, Lowrie, whose family strip-club empire includes PT's in Denver, PT's Gold in Glendale and several clubs in other states, attempted to convert part of his All Stars property into an all-nude club; it was a marketing strategy he'd already pioneered with PT's Gold ("The Daily Grind," April 13, 2000). Johnson was a member of the city council that turned him down. Lowrie took the city to court and lost.

Last fall, Johnson was one of three Sheridan officials, including the mayor, who lost their seats after a recall campaign that was primarily financed by Lowrie. The new council was more amenable to Lowrie's plans -- two of the members, in fact, have relatives who work for Lowrie -- and promptly okayed a revision to the city's public-indecency ordinance, allowing All Stars to feature all-nude dancers. Johnson struck back, launching a petition drive to repeal the ordinance; she's also running for Sheridan City Council again. Lowrie has responded by unsuccessfully challenging the petitions in court and by suing Johnson personally, claiming that she's defamed him in public statements about his business.

"It was meant to intimidate not just me, but our whole community," Johnson says of the defamation suit. "All of a sudden we couldn't get donations, and people were afraid to speak out."

Johnson knows she's fighting an uphill battle. The resources lined up against her are so formidable that at times it seems as if next Tuesday's vote is a referendum on her rather than nude dancing. In addition to the blitz by Concerned Citizens Against Repeal, a group called Voices of Arapahoe County has sent out mailings urging a "no" vote to "save hundreds of thousands of Sheridan taxpayer dollars" and has taken out newspaper ads endorsing her opponent for the council seat. Another, anonymous mailing was even more strident:

"The next time you see the ousted city councilwoman Vicki Johnson, remind her why she was thrown out the first time. The times of fleecing Sheridan are over...SAY NO TO VICKI JOHNSON!"

If anyone's fleecing Sheridan, Johnson responds, it's the current city council, which spent thousands of dollars hammering out a settlement with Lowrie (despite his inability to prevail in court), then voted to change the ordinance (despite admitted conflicts of interest). "They're selling out our city to the strip clubs because they think people don't care," she says. "They're willing to let it become another Glendale, but we don't want that."

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