As city clerk Judith Pippin watched cheerfully from a nearby reception area, a small crowd of strip-club supporters and curious onlookers—including two strip-club attorneys, a couple of bemused TV reporters, and one smirking city council aide—gathered on the third floor of city hall to watch as rumpled strip-club attorney Gil Levy and natty Mark Sidran–campaign veteran Tim Killian dumped a foot-and-a-half-tall stack of petitions on the counter outside Pippin's office. The 27,000 signatures were twice as many as required to place a referendum on the ballot to repeal new strip-club regulations passed by the council in September. Among other changes, the rules would require dancers to stay four feet from patrons, prohibit direct tipping, and require bright lighting in all strip clubs.

"These regulations are out of step with the values of Seattle," Killian said Monday. The free-speech rhetoric marks a significant shift in strategy for the campaign. Instead of focusing on strippers' livelihoods (a tactic the group used in September, when it bused hundreds of dancers to an afternoon hearing at City Hall), it will attempt to convince voters that banning lap dances is tantamount to prohibiting free speech itself. Whether the campaign will draw any organized opposition is unclear: Conservative groups like the American Family Association have little presence in Seattle, and the council seemed less than enthusiastic about the restrictions to begin with.

Two weeks ago, as campaigns for four contested council seats wound to a close, seven South King County taxi drivers and two administrative assistants gave $650 each, the legal maximum, to city council candidate Dwight Pelz, a lame-duck county council member in a tight contest against incumbent Richard McIver. Their contributions, combined with a $450 check from the Kent-based American Taxi Association, added up to exactly $5,000—an even and surprisingly generous donation from a group of mostly working-class cab drivers and secretaries. In Strippergate, the 2003 campaign-finance scandal, strip-club owners were slapped for illegally reimbursing their employees for contributions to city council members.

Pelz said there was nothing unusual about accepting money from a group of people with a common business interest. "Vulcan throws an event and gives McIver $10,000 and it's no big deal," Pelz said. "Seven black cab drivers from Ethiopia give me $5,000 and suddenly, it's an issue." The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which reportedly looked into the donations, will not confirm or deny information about its investigations; McIver's campaign, meanwhile, found nothing to indicate the taxi company had reimbursed its drivers.

This year's $55 million city budget surplus hasn't gone unnoticed by the Seattle Education Association, which last month asked the city to cough up $25 million a year for Seattle schools to spend as they see fit. Despite the union's promises of eventual financial independence from the city (SEA plans to sue the state over school funding), most council members remained wary of getting involved in public education. Without more details (not to mention a funding plan that doesn't suck up half the city's surplus), "it's just not going to happen," council member Peter Steinbrueck said.

barnett@thestranger.com