A brash strip-joint owner asks for aid

June 08, 2000|By Michael Olesker

WHEN FIRST spotted, in all his subtlety and refinement, Kenneth "Kenny Bird" Jackson was running commercials for his strip joint, the El Dorado club, on Baltimore television. Wrapped around the broadcasts of ballgames came the curves of a young lady in a leopard-skin outfit wrapping herself sinuously around a metal pole.

A shrinking violet, Jackson never was. If it bothered him, or any broadcast outlet, that he was running his ads in a venue devoured by children, it went unnoticed around here. Jackson sees himself as a businessman. His business is a branch office of sex. In the past, his business has been breaking the law.

Since the 1970s, his arrest record includes more than 30 charges of assault, drug possession and other crimes. He's been convicted of manslaughter, resisting arrest, illegal possession of a gun and, in 1992, lying to a New Jersey trooper who charged Jackson with attempted bribery after searching his car and finding $697,000 in cash.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in The Sun on June 4, as well as a follow-up article on June 6 and a column on June 8, incorrectly referred to Kenneth A. Jackson as the owner of the El Dorado Lounge at 322 W. Baltimore St. State records list Jackson as director of KAJ Inc., which owns 322 W. Baltimore St. Jackson identified himself as the manager of the El Dorado in documents submitted to the city liquor board. However, Jackson's lawyer says he is not an owner of either the El Dorado Lounge or of KAJ Inc.
The Sun regrets the errors.

But all this was the old Jackson. Now, he says, he plays strictly by the rules - the rules of traditional politics, for example - which, as everybody knows, are civil and decent and never involve certain ugly words, such as quid quo pro.

In the last Baltimore political campaign, Jackson contributed $2,500 to Sheila Dixon's race for City Council president, solely because he believes in good government. Only now, as the city gets ready for its $350 million redevelopment of the west side of downtown, Jackson has gone back to Dixon. His implicit message is: "Remember me? I gave you money. Now I want money from the city, and I want your help getting it."

Subtle, he has never been. In November at the El Dorado, for example, police had to order strippers to stop performing what are known in the trade as "lap dances" for customers. Previously, the club's license was suspended for selling alcohol to a minor. Once, a patron complained that an El Dorado bouncer punched him in the eye.

As everybody knows, these things can happen in any business. Can we be blunt? The city is not attempting to reinvent its west side because it is thrilled with the businesses currently there, or with some of the people attracted to some of these businesses. At this geographical location, at these prices, it wishes to bring in a whole new line of folks, whose idea of culture goes beyond lap dances and ladies in loincloth outfits wrapped around metal poles.

But the process gets a little messy. The city cannot simply throw these business people into the cold, not without the same considerations given to any property owners uprooted for the greater good of the community.

As The Sun's Tom Pelton has been reporting, it looks as if the city will have to pay about $570,000 to buy properties owned by a couple of convicted felons. One is Ioannis Kafouros, who isn't making a terribly big issue about it because, since his 1998 conviction for transporting stolen goods, he has been on the lam. The other is Jackson.

Jackson is not only still in Baltimore, but knocking regularly at Sheila Dixon's City Hall office. His Eldorado Lounge is at 322 W. Baltimore St., which the city wants to convert into loft apartments. Jackson wants the city to pay him more than $300,000 for the building, and compensate him for loss of business, and consider paying him moving expenses. In all of these matters, he is not much different from other business people about to be uprooted. Where it gets tricky, of course, is the nature of his business. (He can't exactly relocate his strip club anywhere he chooses.) And the nature of his relationship with Sheila Dixon.

She is in an awkward position here, which needs a little perspective. Did she take campaign money from a guy who runs a strip joint? Yes. Is she the first politician to do this? Of course not. Joints on The Block, for example, have been throwing money at politicians for generations. It's America, and they're entitled to as much representation as anybody else.

Then there's the appearance of scratching each other's back. Is she helping Jackson because he helped her when she needed it? Dixon says no, that she's trying to help any business people who come to her for help, and that Jackson should be judged by his business record and not by his previous life when he was breaking various criminal statutes.

Her point is well taken. Jackson has never been a choir boy, and he does not run a choir-boy business. But he does operate within the law, and the city must do the same.

What Dixon has to do, though, is understand the look of things. In politics, appearance counts. Whatever assistance she gives Jackson, or anyone else who tossed money her way, she needs to give to those merchants who didn't finance her campaign - but whose rights are the same as Jackson's, and whose plight is at least as poignant as his.

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