One-time brothel owner and current mayoral candidate Dennis Sobin wears an Adrian Fenty for Mayor shirt underneath a tan blazer. It’s one of two things he says he got from supporting Fenty in his 2006 campaign. The other was six months in jail.
The jail time came from a family drama involving a hearing on prison reform, a restraining order, and an estranged son employed by Fenty. Now, Sobin says he’s running to make sure Washington’s government treats its citizens better than it treated him.
“I’m in the race to make this government more humane,” Sobin said.
Sobin came to the District in 1976. He founded a newspaper, Free Spirit, winning over prostitutes by printing court sketches of undercover vice cops. These relationships became big business when Sobin began purchasing strip clubs, adult bookstores, and brothels, of which he eventually owned a dozen. He also began producing pornographic films, an endeavor that he said taught him the importance of delivering a quality product to customers.
“It’s very much a business, supply and demand,” Sobin said.
Sobin dabbled in politics, with a 1982 mayoral run against then-mayor Marion Barry and a 1984 run for an At-Large City Council seat. Tipped to the mayor’s drug use by sympathetic prostitution cops, a group known as the “Pussy Posse,” Sobin began offering the mayor a urine specimen cup to prove his sobriety. Barry never accepted the challenge.
The politics and the porn eventually caught up with Sobin. After dodging a racketeering charge for participating in organized crime in Virginia—”They thought I was better organized than I thought I was myself,” he said—Sobin ended up serving 10 years in prison in Florida for producing child pornography, a charge he denies.
Now, Sobin operates a gallery of art made by prisoners. In the K Street office his gallery shares with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Sobin explained why he refuses to accept monetary donations to his mayoral campaign.
“The mayor has accepted $4 million,” Sobin said. “There’s no way to compete with that.”
Sobin’s chances in the election are dim, but he expects to draw from the same constituencies he pulled in his 1982 election, in which he managed to defeat the Communist Party candidate for a third place finish. Sobin said his campaign will appeal to Washington’s rich, who are comfortable enough to take a risk on him, and to Washington’s poor, who will be attracted to his promises to support ex-convicts in finding jobs. After talking with him, it’s not hard to imagine him winning at least a few votes—he has a way of making his campaign not seem totally quixotic, and he’s considering playing guitar during candidate forums.
Sobin said he supports Fenty’s re-election—just not this year. Instead, he thinks Washington deserves a friendlier mayor until Fenty learns how to treat people with kindness. After years spent trying to help Washington get off, now Sobin’s just trying to get the mayor to relax.
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City on a Hill is a bi-weekly column on D.C. news and politics.