Skin City

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

"It seems to me that she's hit a nerve, and that's why they're being so vicious about it," says Cynthia Radke, who's campaigning with Johnson to repeal the ordinance and is also running for a council seat. "They have to attack her because they can't attack the issue."

There are people in Sheridan who believe that Johnson is on a moral crusade against nudity -- a crusade that their cash-strapped, largely blue-collar community can ill afford. The city, an almost invisible enclave of 5,600 residents tucked in among auto shops and bars and surrounded by Englewood and Denver, has a long history of financial troubles and is currently pushing for new taxes to offset declining revenues. To some, Johnson's campaign seems like lunacy. She doesn't understand the Constitution, they suggest, or court decisions that say strippers have a First Amendment right to engage in "expressive" nude dancing; better to let Lowrie have his way and focus on the real problems Sheridan is facing.

That kind of argument doesn't sit well with Johnson. True, she's a Christian, an affiliation she proclaims with a "Jesus" fish on the back of her Saturn. True, she's concerned that the current ordinance may open the door for more nude clubs, which she doesn't consider the kind of business that a family-oriented town like Sheridan needs. But she insists that the issues involved are much larger than whether G-strings are optional at All Stars.

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.
Bare agenda: All Stars owner Troy Lowrie wanted 
all-nude dancing.
Anthony Camera
Bare agenda: All Stars owner Troy Lowrie wanted all-nude dancing.

"It has nothing to do with the moral issue at all," she says. "If we let Mr. Lowrie have his way like this, he's basically going to be a special interest controlling our government. The effect would be hugely devastating to our city."

When she was first elected to the city council, Johnson had no objections to Lowrie's topless club or the city's one all-nude establishment, Adult Palace, a shack on Santa Fe Drive that's been offering "live girls" behind glass for thirty years. But that was before Lowrie tried to convert his club and threatened the city with lawsuits. Before the recall and the new council's quick cave-in to Lowrie. Before Mayor Mary Carter fired the city manager and appointed police chief Ray Sample (whom Carter had brought back after he was fired by the previous mayor) and fire chief Ron Carter (the mayor's husband) as interim city managers, leaving their departments with little oversight.

Sheridan is at a crossroads, Johnson says. Its image, its leaders' credibility, its economic future are at stake. And no matter what happens on election day, she's not planning to leave town -- as former mayor Jim Egan did after last year's acrimonious recall.

"It was tough for me to figure out what had happened," she says. "But I couldn't just cower away. I figured my best bet was to stay right in there fighting."

Three years ago, all Vicki Johnson wanted from Sheridan officials was to get her street fixed. If that had happened, it's possible no one would be making anonymous attacks on her today. But in a town plagued by purges and recalls, cash crunches and bare-knuckle politics -- a town that has had four city halls in the past four decades and lost control of the current one for months because it couldn't make payments on it -- life is rarely that simple.

Johnson and her husband, Kevin, have lived in Sheridan for fourteen years and raised two sons there. For the better part of a decade, she waited patiently for someone to resurface her street, which has no gutters or sidewalks. Then she started asking questions. She found out that grant money allocated to upgrade the streets in her neighborhood had run out before it reached her block -- but not, it seems, before it paid for improvements on her councilman's block.

She started going to city council meetings to see what could be done. "I couldn't figure out what the process was," she recalls. "In the end, they did what they called an 'overlay' on our street -- well, half our street. But the street guy was new, so he didn't do a very good job."

Her frustration prompted Johnson to run for council herself in 2001. "I don't know where I got the courage," she says. "I didn't know a thing about politics, but I knew I could do better than these guys."

It was a bold step for a part-time housecleaner with an almost paralyzing case of shyness. One of seven children, Johnson lived in a series of group homes around Denver from the time she was thirteen until she finished high school; her mother simply "gave up" on the family, she says. She emerged a timid, self-deprecating girl with little confidence in her abilities.

Years ago, when she was a single woman living in Capitol Hill, Johnson was held hostage for several hours in her apartment by a stranger with a gun. The man told her he'd just robbed a Jack-in-the-Box. He drank her wine, smoked her cigarettes and finally left. But even that experience was less terrifying, she says, than the prospect of being a councilwoman. "I had no self-esteem," she says. "I didn't recognize my strength until I started getting involved in city council."

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