By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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To hear Diamond Cabaret stripper "Dakota" tell it, George W. Bush is hell-bent on eradicating public displays of the part of the female anatomy that bears his name.
"I'm absolutely hoping that Bush loses the election," says the 36-year-old veteran of the industry. Clad in a plunging V-neck black dress and bookish glasses, Dakota says the Sauget club's older dancers plan to help the younger ones get registered.
It's election season, and strippers, tokers and hip-hoppers are getting political. Though traditional Democratic interest groups such as labor unions, environmentalists and trial lawyers have long been active in voter-registration drives, a new breed has taken to the streets this year with high hopes of registering thousands of new St. Louis voters. Their overriding mission: to fire Dubya in November.
"There's an increasing emphasis on getting out the vote these days, rather than trying to change people's minds," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. Though it's questionable how much electoral clout can be marshaled from these relatively small interest groups, "In certain states it doesn't take a lot," Newport observes. "Missouri's a swing state. Five hundred votes could make a difference. That's the lesson of Florida in 2000."
A nationwide strip-club voter-registration drive is being coordinated by local titty-bar mogul Micheal Ocello, the board president of the Association of Club Executives (ACE), which represents 600 strip clubs. His office is a stone's throw from the Diamond.
"Sorry for the mess," says Ocello, who is about to leave for Chicago to meet with club owners, political consultants and First Amendment attorneys about his registration drive. The cheesy-yet-fabulous furniture and stack of Penthouse magazines in Ocello's digs fit the mold of a strip-club manager -- but his rhetoric doesn't.
"Our mission is to register people and to give them information," he says. "The next president has the likelihood of appointing two to four Supreme Court justices."
Ocello says his distaste for Bush is personal -- and not representative of ACE. Nonetheless, he stresses that the upcoming election is very important to the adult-entertainment industry.
"This issue with ACE is not about supporting Democrats, [and] it's not about supporting the independents. It's about not supporting Bush." The ultimate goal, Ocello adds, is to get each of the nation's 4,000-plus strip clubs to register 100 people.
Vintage Vinyl in the University City Loop has registered hundreds of people since it kicked off its first voter-registration drive early last month.
"We're a business," says store operations manager Steve Scariano, who organizes the effort. "We have people from both parties shopping here, and we have people from both parties working on the staff. We feel that voter registration and voter turnout is important, and this way we're not taking a stand either way."
Still, Scariano, a Democrat, is keenly aware that high turnout is beneficial to the Donkey party.
"The Republicans do not want you to vote," claims Scariano. "We as a business feel it's the most important election of our lifetime. These are life-and-death choices right now about all of our freedoms."
Meanwhile, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is signing up voters via a new Web site, www.smokethevote.org. "Our slogan for the campaign is, 'We're here, we smoke, we vote,'" says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group. Although NORML is, officially, politically neutral, Pierre fully expects the bulk of the newly enlisted to vote for John Kerry.
At the same time, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network hopes to pluck new voters from another important Democratic constituency -- young urbanites. In August Summit representatives will be in St. Louis looking to add this potential Kerry-sympathizing group to the rolls. Featuring various rap-star celebrities such as Eminem, the Summit also claims bipartisanship, though that hasn't stopped hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons -- the group's board chairman -- from repeatedly criticizing Bush.
Gallup's Frank Newport is all for swelling the ranks of new voters but warns that such efforts are only half of the job: "The name of the game is to get those people activated and out to the polls."
Lester Spence, assistant professor of political science at Washington University, believes that the new registrants will be motivated to cast ballots on November 2. "In the literature," he says, "the biggest predictor of somebody voting is somebody asking them to vote."
For these non-mainstream groups, Spence adds, "A significant portion of their constituency are people who are not registered to vote now."
While Kerry's campaign acknowledges organic support bubbling up from unlikely places, the GOP seems content to stick with its base. "We're registering more people than ever before," says Paul Sloca, communications director for the Missouri Republican Party, "but everything is done through the state and national parties."
That's not to say that the Diamond Cabaret campaign won't also pull in its share of Bushies. A belief in supply-side economics and a lust for jiggling silicone are not mutually exclusive. Heather Layman, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, has been quoted as saying that there's no reason to suspect that Bush is working against strip-club owners.
In any case, Dakota's mind is made up. "They [the Bush campaign] are targeting everything that they don't agree with," she says moments before heading to the dance floor to begin her shift. "Foul language on the radio -- breasts. Anything that they don't want to see."