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."
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."
"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.
"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."
As it turned out, she didn't even have to campaign; she ran unopposed. She took a class offered by the Colorado Municipal League to learn more about her new job and studied the home-rule charter that Sheridan was in the process of adopting. "I was just in awe of the responsibility I had," she says.
Her awe quickly turned to alarm. She was in office only four months when the city suddenly faced trouble on two fronts: Troy Lowrie and the police chief.
Early in 2001, Lowrie had applied for a modification of the liquor license issued to All Stars, seeking to exclude a portion of the building from the license. The odd request was similar to what he'd done with his Glendale club in order to bring in all-nude dancers; state law bans alcohol from all-nude clubs. When Sheridan councilmembers asked Lowrie if he was planning such a move at All Stars, he denied it.
The following year, however, Lowrie submitted a revised request to modify his building. The new plan was to create a VIP room for all-nude entertainment. The entrance would be manned by an employee who'd ensure that no alcohol would be brought into the nude club-within-a-club.
The plan didn't exactly wow Johnson and several other councilmembers. Live girls behind glass, exhibiting their private parts to furtive men in solitary booths, was one thing. Nude dancers in a bustling, large-scale nightclub, with alcohol served just a few feet away, was -- well, something else. On April 9, 2002, the same night that Lowrie's request was scheduled to be heard, the city council launched a pre-emptive strike, adding new restrictions to the public-indecency ordinance. In effect, the council banned all-nude dancing in Sheridan, a ban so complete that the council would have to tone it down a few weeks later in order to grandfather in the Adult Palace.
Lowrie's attorneys took the matter to court, arguing that the retooling of the ordinance had been done with the sole object of restricting All Stars' ability to do business. They argued that their all-nude scheme ought to be grandfathered in, too, since the city's definition of nudity seemed to include "buttocks with less than a fully opaque covering"; by their interpretation, that description also fit dancers in G-strings, so All Stars was already offering nude dancing. Eventually, Lowrie lost on all counts, but the legal maneuvering put more pressure on the council to reach some sort of compromise.
At the same time, potential lawsuits were brewing over the council's showdown with Sheridan's police chief, Ray Sample. A popular figure in Sheridan, Sample has repeatedly clashed with other city officials since he became chief in 1996. The matter came to a head two weeks after the nude-dancing flap, when Sample went to the city council to complain about alleged misconduct by the city clerk and Sample's own supervisor, an interim city administrator, claiming that they were downloading child pornography on their computers. He took the same charges to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Sample's accusations, which stemmed from the clerk's effort to investigate the Internet modeling business of James Grady, never resulted in any criminal charges. The case against Grady fizzled, too ("A Model Prisoner," August 14). Before the mess was cleared up, though, another purge was in the works. People found themselves locked out of their offices at city hall. Mayor Egan accused Sample of insubordination. Sample claimed he was being punished for blowing the whistle on bureaucratic perverts. The council voted four to three to fire Sample. Sample's supporters started organizing a recall campaign, targeting those who'd fired him.
Johnson was unprepared for the attacks that followed. "They really capitalized on our lack of understanding of how to campaign," she says. "Here I am, six months into office, and I'm supposed to be out there trying to save my seat and still keep up on the city stuff. It was a huge smear."
Last fall, Sheridan voters ousted Mayor Egan, Johnson and longtime councilwoman Aileen Marple. (A fourth councilmember who voted for Sample's termination, Dallas Hall, survived the recall.) They were replaced by Mayor Mary Carter (the fire chief's wife), Cliff Mueller and Chanele Beacham, all staunch Sample backers. Only a quarter of the city's registered voters bothered to vote, half of them by mail-in ballots. The recall of Johnson, who'd been in office only nine months, was the closest of all.
"I lost by eight votes -- nine, after the recount," she recalls. "I went home and cried. But I was up at three in the morning on my computer, trying to figure out why this happened."
Most people viewed the recall as a simple matter of whether citizens supported Ray Sample or Mayor Egan. But Johnson didn't see it that way. After the election, a clearer picture of the true forces behind the recall began emerging. Yes, it had been partly about Sample's firing -- but it was also about All Stars. The primary financial backer of the recall was Troy Lowrie, who was listed as donating $1,550 to the cause.
According to Johnson, other monies spent on the recall never showed up on any campaign reports submitted to the state. She went to court to try to get more disclosure; a thorough accounting eluded her, but the head of the recall committee did concede that many of the group's materials and services were paid for by a Lowrie employee.
"Thousands and thousands of dollars were spent on the recall," Johnson says. "There was mailing after mailing. A bus taking people to vote. T-shirts. We saw Lowrie's people hauling boxes of materials."
Candidate Radke, who was active in opposing the recall, remembers talking to a political consultant who wanted $25,000 to launch a counter-campaign: "I told him, 'We're a small city. We don't have that kind of money.' And Mayor Egan refused to go to businesses for that kind of money because he felt they would want something in return. So we went at it from a grassroots level. The other side did T-shirts, water bottles, surveys, fliers, a trolley they took around the neighborhood -- there was huge money behind that. And after it was over, we couldn't find a record of any of that money."
It didn't take long for the revamped Sheridan City Council's agenda to materialize. In March, Lowrie appeared before the group to urge the passage of a new ordinance that would solve everybody's problems. The proposed measure would change the city's definition of nude dancing so that All Stars could be recognized as an all-nude business that had been operating in Sheridan before the ban on future nude enterprises took effect. In other words, All Stars' all-nude show would be grandfathered in, and history would be rewritten to state that the club had always featured nude dancing, even though it hadn't. 8?dd$rie presented himself as a bighearted businessman -- he's donated $150,000 to a Sheridan elementary school and stock worth at least that much to the campaign to build a new library at Columbine High School -- whose pursuit of happiness and free-speech rights had been trifled with. "I don't think there's anybody that can say there's been a deleterious or negative effect that All Stars has had on this community," he said.
He told the council that the dismissal of his lawsuit against the city was just a technicality. He reminded them that a battle over one of his clubs in Louisville, Kentucky, had resulted in a $260,000 judgment against the town fathers of that burg. "That's the last thing I would want to do with this city," he said. "But the fact is, it's going to be a long, drawn-out fight if it's going to continue."
The new city attorney, Jim Windholz, agreed with Lowrie. Even though Sheridan had won every round so far, settlement with Lowrie would be cheaper than continuing to fight him, he said. Windholz was also of the opinion that councilmembers Don Smith and Chanele Beacham need not recuse themselves from voting on the ordinance, even though both had sons who worked for Lowrie. Legally, their participation wouldn't constitute an ethical violation, Windholz explained, because the city hadn't yet adopted a formal code of ethics.
Smith moved for passage of the new ordinance. Beacham seconded the motion. The measure passed, four to three.
Johnson and Radke had argued strenuously against the move. As they saw it, the new ordinance did nothing to protect the city from the threat of lawsuits filed by other club owners who might want to offer nude dancing in Sheridan; it might even invite such suits, since it had so clearly been tailored to Lowrie's demands. At the next council meeting, which was devoted largely to finalizing a settlement agreement with Lowrie, the two women were joined by dozens of other protesters.
"You're proposing to grant a special favor to one business and overturn the Colorado courts," Johnson told the council. "You're attempting to settle a case that's already been settled.... [Lowrie] is collecting on his investment. Tell me this isn't a payback."
They told her no such thing. Instead, amid many noble statements about the sacred constitutional protections of free expression, they approved a settlement in which All Stars agreed to drop its litigation and keep its signage discreet, so as not to "advertise or give notice to the public of totally nude dancing at its premises," in exchange for passage of the public-indecency ordinance that Lowrie had requested. Tit for tat, as it were: The city would pretend All Stars already had its permission to go bottomless, and All Stars wouldn't make too much noise about the holy mysteries to be found within its walls.
Chuck West, one of the councilmembers who voted against the new ordinance, told the audience that Lowrie had attempted to buy every member of the council, including himself. Asked recently to clarify his remarks, West explains that Lowrie had approached him on an earlier occasion with a vague offer -- something like, "Anything you need, just let me know and I'll take care of it."
"I told him I take care of the finances myself, and that way I don't owe anybody," West says. On another occasion, he adds, he met up with Lowrie after a council meeting and suggested that there were at least three votes on the council he couldn't buy. According to West, Lowrie replied, "I got rid of the ones I needed to, and I can get rid of the rest if I have to."
A veteran Sheridan official who once ran for mayor, West is leaving his post at the end of this year to spend more time with loved ones. He says he's troubled by the influence Lowrie now wields in Sheridan and the refusal of Smith and Beacham to recuse themselves. "If Troy Lowrie really cared about this city," he says, "then he wouldn't threaten to bankrupt us because he can't have nude dancing."
Others observers insist that the settlement with Lowrie made good economic sense, allowing the city to focus on more important issues. But even some who've defended the arrangement in principle admit to having misgivings about the way it was handled.
"They're fighting over a G-string," says Jim Sidebottom, the former city manager who was summarily dismissed last month and now works for the city of Centennial. "But there's also a perception that part of the council is bought and paid for, and that's more troubling than whether there is nudity in Sheridan. The council cut the best deal they could to save money, but it looked bad."
The potential for conflicts of interest on Sheridan's current city council are more extensive than most people realize. Consider the case of Don Smith, who has been Lowrie's most vocal defender on the council for some time. Smith not only has a son working for Lowrie, but he's been steadfast in his attacks on Johnson, writing a letter to the Denver Herald Dispatch to castigate her ("Vicki Johnson has created nothing more than a hostile environment and divided our city") and buying an ad himself urging voters to defeat her efforts to repeal the pro-Lowrie ordinance.
In recent weeks, Smith, who is self-employed, has been observed visiting PT's and All Stars in the early morning, before the clubs open for business. He's been seen unlocking doors, hauling in electrical equipment, even tidying up the parking lot.
Smith, who earns $300 a month as a member of the Sheridan City Council, says he's done maintenance work as an independent contractor for Lowrie for "quite a while" -- a relationship he's never disclosed to Sheridan voters. Asked whether he was doing work for Lowrie at the time he voted on the settlement with All Stars last April, Smith replies that his contract started a few weeks later, in May. He discussed his work for Lowrie with the city attorney, he says, and was advised that there was no legal problem. But even if he'd been working for Lowrie at the time of the vote, he adds, "I probably would have still voted the same way. It's an issue of the First Amendment."
Mayor Carter, City Attorney Windholz and Troy Lowrie did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.
The last time Vicki Johnson actually talked to her nemesis was during a break in a court hearing a few weeks ago. Lowrie had sued the City of Sheridan for breach of contract, arguing that putting Johnson's referendum on the ballot was a violation of the deal he'd struck with the council. (Arapahoe County District Judge Marilyn Leonard subsequently threw out his suit, noting that Lowrie could refile his claim if the ordinance was repealed.)
According to Johnson, Lowrie approached her outside the courtroom and proposed that they try to find common ground. If what she was really worried about was other clubs coming in, he suggested, then he could show her how to close the loopholes in the current ordinance.
"So you want a monopoly," Johnson replied.
Johnson knew she shouldn't have been talking to Lowrie at all. A few weeks earlier, Lowrie had filed a defamation suit against her, claiming that she'd made numerous false assertions about his business in various written and oral statements. Johnson had accused him of violating liquor laws and "using All Stars to corral and employ prostitutes," Lowrie complained. She'd also insinuated that he'd "gained control of the members of the council." All of this had damaged Lowrie's reputation, driven patrons away and inflicted severe emotional distress, his complaint alleged.
Much of the suit relied on two pieces of evidence: a four-page open letter to the city council that Johnson wrote back in January, and a flier distributed by Johnson's Sheridan Cares Committee, citing research on the negative socioeconomic effects of sexually oriented businesses. Johnson's attorney has argued that both documents are protected under the constitutional right to petition and that Lowrie's suit is so groundless as to constitute a "blatant and unabashed example" of a SLAPP case -- short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. (SLAPP suits, which are usually brought with the sole purpose of stifling a speaker's right to participate in a public debate, have been dealt with harshly by many courts.) Johnson has filed counterclaims of her own, alleging abuse of process, malicious prosecution and outrageous conduct; she's seeking damages and attorney's fees.
Several of Johnson's statements at issue in the case could be considered matters of opinion; their truth or falsity is subject to interpretation. Her open letter to the council, for example, stated that Lowrie "plays on people's low self-esteem -- especially with the girls he hires to dance." In an interview with Westword three years ago, Lowrie acknowledged that many of his dancers suffer from low self-esteem. That's why "it feels good to have guys throwing money at you," he explained.
Johnson's letter went on to warn that Lowrie "will draw the biggest pool of potential employees...from our children." The fact that Lowrie has already hired the offspring of two members of the Sheridan City Council would seem to support that assertion, her lawyer contends.
Most of Johnson's broadsides, though, have nothing to do with All Stars specifically. They cite surveys involving a broad range of adult-entertainment venues, including porn arcades and bookstores, that suggest such businesses bring an alarming increase in crime and a decrease in property values. Johnson's statistics are questionable (e.g., a 340 percent increase in "pandering"), and you can see how the owner of a classy gentleman's club might take exception to being lumped in with the raincoat crowd; still, there's no denying that there's a downside to having a strip club in your neighborhood.
Evidence of the possible "negative effects" of erotic-dance emporiums can be found even in the not-so-distant history of the Lowrie family business. At the time of his death, in 1994, Hal Lowrie, Troy's father, was under indictment in Illinois, charged with money-laundering, pimping and racketeering. A local police chief admitted taking bribes from Lowrie's strip-club operations in exchange for ignoring a prostitution ring.
Troy Lowrie has always maintained that his father was innocent of the charges. His own clubs have generally clean records, with the exception of an occasional fine for the misbehavior of an isolated employee or two; veteran cops in Sheridan say they've had less trouble with All Stars than with bars in which people keep their clothes on. And Lowrie has fought fiercely to protect his own reputation. In addition to filing suit against Johnson, Lowrie attorney Daniel Foster also fired off letters to the two other leaders of the Sheridan Cares Committee, Cynthia Radke and Lorrie Lunnon.
"Please take this letter as your only notification that further slanderous or libelous activity will not go unchallenged," Foster wrote. "Understand that this letter is not intended to stop you from engaging in the political process, it is only intended to stop the malicious abuses against my client. The next piece of libelous literature you publish will force legal action."
If the letter was supposed to be a friendly reminder, the women of Sheridan Cares didn't see it that way. "I became unconflicted when I got that letter," Radke says. "It was a threat. It angered me. They'd acted like they wanted to compromise, and then I got this. And then Mr. Lowrie disavowed any knowledge of that letter."
"My first reaction was, 'I don't have the money to fight this,'" Lunnon recalls. "But then it was, 'He's not going to intimidate me.'"
The nude-dancing controversy could cost Sheridan dearly in next week's election. At a time when questions about conflicts of interest and imperious behavior abound, the city is trying to persuade voters to okay a new head tax and a use tax. Last month, with little prior notice, Mayor Carter called for the resignation of Jim Sidebottom, ostensibly as a cost-cutting move -- despite objections from three councilmembers, who said that Sidebottom had been an excellent city manager. Johnson sees Sidebottom's removal, and the resulting lack of supervision of Sample and Carter's husband, as a violation of the city charter.
"She's hired a part-time manager who's only dealing with a few issues," she says of Carter. "The police and fire chief are going to be in charge of the budget. That was her objective, to let the police and fire chief and her run the city."
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While Sidebottom has no wish to "badmouth" his former employer, he finds the timing of his dismissal troubling. "They really didn't need all this turmoil right before the election," he says. "If people are concerned, they tend to vote no on taxes, and the revenue increases that are on the ballot this year are crucial."
At times, Johnson gets discouraged over all the sniping in her town. "But I'm not quitting now," she says.
Her supporters admire her tenacity and fearlessness. "I'm more cautious," says Radke. "Vicki goes for it. It aggravates me sometimes. She can be pretty assertive and forceful. But our effort would never have got this far if it wasn't for her."
"She's a housewife who wanted her street fixed," Lunnon says. "But her heart is in this 100 percent. She doesn't want to see the city go down the drain. She sees, like I do, someone coming in and taking over. Governments aren't run this way."