Business has been brisk for Brandon J. Van Every, a paid signature gatherer who now spends his days trolling the streets of Seattle, a neon-green sign that says "Keep the Strip Clubs Sexy" hanging from his shoulders and a sheaf of petitions in each hand.
"I don't like fascists," said one of his eager customers, Jay Williamson, 41, as Van Every handed over a petition for Williamson to sign on a cool afternoon last week.
Van Every, 35, is a veteran of several popular statewide signature-gathering campaigns, but he's never had it as good as with this new campaign, an effort to let the citizens of Seattle vote on whether or not to strictly regulate strip clubs.
"This is the easiest measure I've ever had," he said.
The Seattle City Council and Mayor Greg Nickels may have thought the controversial question of what to do with the city's strip clubs had been settled earlier this month when the council voted 5-4 to essentially regulate Seattle's strip clubs out of business. The new law, signed by Nickels on October 10, requires dancers to stay four feet from patrons, clubs to install waist-high railings around their stages, and all strip-club business to be conducted under the unsexy glare of bright lighting.
But the new regulations made Seattle something of a Puritanical anomaly among major American cities, most of which allow strip clubs, and attracted condescending news coverage from as far away as Newfoundland (there, the St. John's Telegram noted that Seattle had developed an "unexpected prudish streak" with regard to its "gentleman's clubs"). And rather than end the discussion here, the new regulations reinvigorated a debate over the direction of the city under Nickels, who has been criticized for putting the interests of developers, who might not like strip clubs next to their condos, ahead of the interests of those who care about making the city's character more cosmopolitan, not less.
Now a group calling itself Seattle Citizens for Free Speech hopes to have the last word on the strip-club issue. Backed by the city's major strip-club owners, the group has spent more than $50,000 so far on a campaign to force a referendum on whether to let the new regulations stand.
"We believe Seattle is a tolerant city, and if given an opportunity to decide about this, Seattle voters will reject it," said Gil Levy, the lawyer for Rick's, perhaps the best-known of Seattle's strip clubs. Through a company called Lake City LLC, Levy said, the owner of Rick's alone has contributed more than $30,000 to the campaign.
By offering $1.50 a signature to people like Van Every, the "Keep the Strip Clubs Sexy" guy, the Free Speech coalition hopes to gather 14,000 signatures by November 8, which would trigger a city-wide vote on the issue sometime next year.
"It's a matter of survival for my client," Levy said. "If this ordinance remains unchallenged then my client is likely to be out of business."
The mayor maintains that his opposition to strip clubs grew out of fear for the quality of life in Seattle's neighborhoods, especially after the city's 17-year-old moratorium on new strip clubs was ruled unconstitutional in September. "The concern, of course, was that you'd see a proliferation of these things opening up in neighborhood business districts," said Marty McComber, a spokesman for Greg Nickels. McComber repeated the mayor's support of voters' right to repeal laws by petition and referendum, but said the mayor will vote "No" if the referendum to repeal his strip club regulations makes it onto a ballot.
However, like 82 percent of respondents in a recent online poll by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, most of the people signing Van Every's petition didn't seem to agree with the mayor's concerns, and in explaining their positions, they offered a microcosm of the debate over the issue.
Williamson, the man who said he didn't like fascists, explained his problem with the new law: "It's just silly," he said. "It's just fun between consenting adults. What's the big deal? I always thought this was a more liberal city."
Only two passers-by refused to sign. Randy Bowles, 56, said he wouldn't add his name to the petition because he is "just so sick of the exploitation of women," and at strip clubs, he said, "women are just reduced to body parts."
His girlfriend, Linda Logan, wasn't so sure about the feminist arguments against strip clubs, offering an argument that was more NIMBY than women's-rightsy. "Whether it exploits women or not, I don't care," she said. "I don't want it in my environment." And she recognized her beliefs on the issue were a bit contradictory: "I don't like censorship either, so it's kinda funny."
Shortly afterward a man from Wenatchee walked by, sporting a mullet, tight jeans, and wraparound sunglasses. He wanted to know where to sign. "Gotta keep 'em good," he said. A woman who appeared to be his girlfriend stood next to him, smiling. In his enthusiasm for urban strip clubs, the man seemed to embody Nickels's oft-repeated concern that a thriving nude-dancing scene in Seattle would draw undesirable elements into the city. But the man hardly seemed an undesirable outsider; just a horny one. He walked on, disappointed that his lack of Seattle residency made him unable to sign.
The afternoon wore on. A guy in an SUV honked in support. A mom walking by explained matter-of-factly to her young son what Van Every was up to. Another mom grabbed her daughter's hand tightly and pulled her away. A homeless man holding a Slurpee and a schedule for the Northwest Film Forum stopped by to discuss the Book of Revelation.
Then a woman who gave her name only as "Allison Avenue" stopped to rail against the new strip-club rules.
"If the mayor was more of a strip-club patron there wouldn't be a problem," she said in a thick Australian accent, inferring that perhaps the mayor's problem was his being undersexed. She then sang the praises of strip clubs in her home country, and said she felt her adopted city was going down a "ridiculous" road. She also dismissed the feminist argument as the mutterings of insecure women.
"I think that women who don't feel powerful, sexy, or in touch with their own sexuality are always in opposition to things like this," she said.
Van Every, meanwhile, seemed pleased with his haul of signatures for the day. "This is going to be cake," he said.