Published October 25, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – "Bubba the Love Sponge," the shock jock who lost his job when he got too dirty on the radio and was slapped down by the Federal Communications Commission (search), is seeking a new gig: sheriff.
Todd Clem — he had his name legally changed to Bubba the Love Sponge Clem (search) when he became a celebrity on WXTB-FM in Tampa — is running as a Democrat for the top law enforcement job in the Gulf Coast's Pinellas County, made up of retirement communities, glorious beaches and 920,000 residents.
And he seems to be serious, too, at least judging from a recent campaign stop.
The bulky 38-year-old at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus. "Now I just have to convince you that I can be the person you may not know."
Clem has no law enforcement experience beyond getting arrested for staging the on-air slaughter of a feral pig. (He and three others were acquitted of animal cruelty charges in 2002.)
His opponent, Chief Deputy Jim Coats, a Republican, is the hand-picked successor to retiring Sheriff Everett Rice. Coats, 60, has spent more than three decades climbing the ladder in the department, which employs nearly 3,000 people and has an annual budget of $225 million.
Some people are buying it; many aren't. A college student who came up to shake Clem's hand after the speech said he planned to vote for him "just to see what happens."
"I don't think he's sheriff material," Coats said, although his camp is taking the challenge seriously.
Clem's top-rated, syndicated radio show was heard by about 130,000 listeners every week and featured bits about sex, drugs and bodily functions designed to make his mostly male audience snicker.
In January, the FCC came down hard, levying a record $755,000 fine against four Clear Channel-owned stations that aired his show because of graphic discussions of sex and drugs "designed to pander to, titillate and shock listeners." One of those bits featured the cartoon characters Alvin the Chipmunk, George Jetson and Scooby Doo discussing sexual activities.
Clem was sacked by Clear Channel a month later, and he contends he was made a scapegoat by chest-thumping politicians vowing to clean up the airwaves because Janet Jackson exposed a breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.
He has criticized the sheriff's office on the air for years. He talks about appointing a committee of younger deputies to help him run the department, raising salaries and promoting minorities and women.
Half the battle is convincing voters that the real Bubba Clem is not the raunchy guy they used to hear on the radio. He has spent more than $25,000 of his own money trying to prove it.
Among the many doubters are county Democratic leaders, who disowned him recently in a letter to The St. Petersburg Times. "It's a publicity stunt," said Tom Steck, chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee.
University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said Clem's celebrity will get him some votes, but she put his chances of getting elected at "slim and none."
"It actually interjects a little fun into politics at a time when people are desperate for something funny," she said.