MIAMI — It's a late Friday night in a Little Havana restaurant when Luther "Luke" Campbell's campaign volunteer suggests announcing to the handful of other diners that a candidate for Miami-Dade County mayor is in their midst.
The former rapper nods in agreement, then jokingly reconsiders as the curly-haired volunteer walks away. Her short-shorts are demure by Miami standards, even practical on a humid night, but maybe the older couple she's approaching will get the idea that his campaign is about booty shaking.
"I'm a changed man!" Campbell says, laughing with three other male volunteers at his table.
The former 2 Live Crew frontman is best known for raunchy rap albums, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s, that were among the first to boast parental advisory stickers, as well as R- and X-rated videos. His legal battles defended freedom of speech, including a U.S. Supreme Court victory that secured an artist's right to parody others' material.
But it's not his "Uncle Luke" rap persona that's running for mayor in Florida's most-populous county: Campbell's campaign is built on decades of community involvement in his hometown. He insists it isn't a publicity stunt or vanity campaign. He wants voters to see him as a fellow angry taxpayer fed up with local politics — money disappearing from the county agencies; poor community policing; mismanagement at the publicly funded hospital; taxpayer money spent on a new Florida Marlins baseball stadium; and a lack of jobs in impoverished neighborhoods.
He touts his business experience as a record company executive to back up his plans to boost the county's economy. The most headline-grabbing plan involves strippers, but not in a "Me So Horny" sort of way — Campbell wants to impose a license fee to dance in strip clubs to raise revenue.
"I'm dead serious. Are you?" reads Campbell's campaign flyers.
Campbell is one of 11 candidates running in the May 24 special election to replace Carlos Alvarez, who was recently ousted in a recall led by billionaire car dealer and former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman. Voters outraged over a property tax rate increase and a salary raise for county employees in a struggling economy made Miami-Dade the most populous area, with more than 2.5 million people, ever to recall a local official.
If no one gets a majority, the top two candidates will have a June runoff.
If elected, Campbell promises a model of government transparency. His foibles, after all, are out there for the world to see, including a 2008 VH1 reality show that featured some of his six children, preparations for his wedding and the lewd videos he was selling at the time.
Despite building his legacy in what some would call smut — producing sexually explicit songs, R-rated music videos that set the benchmark for rap and gyrating women, and even porn production — there has been little discussion made of Campbell's past in the campaign. (He makes occasional appearances at clubs, but he's not regularly performing any more, and says he will have someone else run his record label if he becomes mayor. The porn videos are still for sale on the website, but he's not making any new ones).
Some voters who were among dozen or so audience members at a town hall in a predominantly black neighborhood seemed willing to see Campbell for the 50-year-old man he is, instead of the mouthy young rapper he was, especially when he complains about the same issues that concern them — jobs, gas prices, improving education opportunities in poor neighborhoods and the fatal shootings of seven black men by Miami police officers in less than one year.
"We've all done some crazy things in our youth. Consequently, we have to move past that," says Akua Scott, a 50-something writer and educator from Miami Lakes who hasn't decided who she's supporting.
If voters consider Campbell's rap career at all, it should be in the context of his legal battles defending 2 Live Crew's First Amendment rights, says Gary Johnson, executive director of political research for the Transportation Workers Union Local 291.
"It goes back to the heart of the man, who fights for what he believes in, and you have the characteristics of a leader when someone will fight. Would he do that for the people of Dade County? That's why he's running for mayor, because he's willing to fight for the people," says Johnson, who also remains undecided about who will get his ballot.
Local elections such as the Miami-Dade County mayor's race often come down to name recognition, and voters may cross ethnic lines to vote for Campbell because they remember him standing up for First Amendment rights, says George Gonzalez, a political science professor at the University of Miami.
But, he asks, will that be enough to sway voters struggling with school cutbacks, joblessness and the real estate market collapse? "Here we are talking about Luther Campbell only because he was a rapper 20 years ago," Gonzalez says.
Campbell was raised in Miami's tough Liberty City, where he's a familiar face through a football program he started more than 20 years ago. He coaches at high schools struggling to meet state standards, and with the pride of a father, brags about the players who made it out of the neighborhood to attend college.
At one candidates' forum, Campbell was asked what headline about his leadership of county government would be after 18 months in office. Campbell's response: "He brought respect back to county government."
When asked how that answer would fly with people familiar with Campbell's vulgar exploits, and he said Miami-Dade residents know he has changed.
"The people here locally, they know me as a community servant. They know me as a disciplinarian, versus people outside of this community," Campbell said. "They'll tell you, 'He don't play about his community.'"
Campbell says he learned politics through the court cases his rapping seemed to inspire, though he wasn't completely unprepared. His mother named him after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an uncle insisted he read the newspaper every day.
"You have to know the issues, the law of the land. It's a test. I understood that," Campbell says. "When you got a Senate subcommittee hearing on the lyrics, you get really lost if you're not politically savvy. So I became a political junkie of sorts."Comment on this story
The manager of the Little Havana restaurant comes over to test Campbell about the campaign promises listed on his flyer. He doesn't recognize the former rapper, but he's familiar with political campaigns because all politicians go out of their way to make stops on Miami's famous Calle Ocho.
"How are you going to create jobs?" the manager asks. Campbell explains that in Little Havana, he would support lengthening the annual Calle Ocho daylong carnival to a week to bring in more business.
Entertainment creates jobs, and he did it himself while building his rap empire, he says.
With a busboy mopping the floor around them, Campbell cajoles the manager, "I'm no politician, I'm like you: I'm a business owner."