By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
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Ilias Tsolkas, a Greek immigrant and retired industrial engineer who now owns a business plaza and a hotel in Clearwater, talks about his son, 24-year-old Panagioti Tsolkas: "He looks like a Greek fisherman. He's a very handsome kid. If he didn't have that brain -- that stupid brain -- he could have done something with his life."
Informed that his boy, Panagioti, is running for mayor of Lake Worth -- South Florida's last affordable coastal town, population 35,000 -- the elder Tsolkas says, "Maybe one day he'll be governor. But I'm not going to spend any money [on his campaign]. We'll have no more electricity or big buildings. We'll have to live in trees -- like it was before Christ, I guess."
Panagioti Tsolkas, who announced last fall that he's seeking Lake Worth's top job (apparently without informing his pop), isn't likely to get elected. If he does, he says, he'll quit. In any case, his efforts leading up to the March 8 election have so far been entertaining. The lean, green-eyed activist with the warm voice, easy smile, and rat's tail lectures city leaders ad nauseum on land struggles, gentrification, and globalization. Cops, local businessmen, and even the FBI have voiced their suspicions about him.
Is he an idealistic prankster? Or a dangerous eco-terrorist? What do you make of a guy who's a part-time nude model, thinks the Unabomber's manifesto was a "well-thought-out critique," and doesn't mind eating out of the garbage?
"He was a very good student," his father says. "Panagioti was really close with the church. When he was 13, he used to feed the homeless every Wednesday. But he took it too serious -- started protesting for animals, started protesting for the homeless, started protesting for everything! You know one time he went up the tree and stayed 15 days?"
Ilias reports that his son was kicked out of East Lake High School in Clearwater during tenth grade for protesting the FCAT. "I went to fight the principal and get him back in, and do you know the same freakin' day, he was protesting again?"
That's right, Panagioti admits. He says he hung posters in the bathroom "encouraging other kids to reconsider grade slavery." Authorities booted him from school a second time.
"So I kicked him out of the house," Ilias says. "He didn't want to work or go to school. He just wanted to sit with the homeless all day."
After moving out, Panagioti began, in his own words, "hitchhiking, defending forests that hadn't been cut yet, [fighting to reopen] public space that had been closed off, and talking to homeless folks." He says he rode freight trains around Florida -- "not with a can of beans, more like with a dumpstered bagel and a jar of peanut butter" -- and in 2000 followed a girlfriend to Lake Worth, where she lived.
He moved into a house known as the Villa de Vulva with some feminists who called themselves radical cheerleaders. They'd dress up in uniforms, grab pom-poms, and stand outside of Taco Bell chanting against the company's purchase of tomatoes from a company that abuses its laborers.
In 2002, 60 percent of Lake Worth's voters -- with encouragement from Panagioti Tsolkas and friends, as well as more mainstream activists -- voted down a proposed $20 million beach development plan for the city. Encouraged by that victory, "we rallied around the idea of not letting developers get whatever they want," Panagioti says. "That's when we became more visible."
In November 2003, shortly before the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Miami, the group hit the network news. Calling themselves the Lake Worth Global Justice Group, they established a puppet-making warehouse downtown. Activists from around the world journeyed to the town to make banners, practice stilt-walking, and memorize radical cheers. "The FTAA was the first time we didn't all get together and take a road trip," Panagioti says. "We helped lay the foundation."
Those protests ended in a mess of riot police, rubber bullets, and pepper spray -- and about 225 arrests. So on February 4, 2004, the Global Justice group sued Miami, arguing that the city had interfered with demonstrators' First Amendment rights by passing several controversial laws designed to regulate demonstrations. On March 3, U.S. District Judge Donald Graham required the city to be more lenient, and a week later, city commissioners repealed the measure.
This past June 11, Panagioti and five friends erected a 25-foot-tall tripod in the middle of Dixie Highway and tied up downtown traffic for an hour. Angry that the city had approved plans for developer Gary Koolik to build a six-story luxury condo called the Lucerne on the town's quaint main drag, Panagioti Tsolkas climbed up a rope ladder into a hammock at the tripod's apex. Then he pulled up the ladder and hung two banners that read, "Urban Renewal Without Removal: No Luxury Condos" and "Developers will not control our city: No Lucerne."
Eventually, using a fire truck, authorities plucked Panagioti down, then arrested him along with three friends for unlawful assembly and obstructing a highway. But all were out of jail by noon; the group celebrated that evening by getting drunk and watching themselves on the news. Eventually, they pleaded no contest and were sentenced to eight hours of community service, a requirement Panagioti says they satisfied by spending about two hours setting up for the West Palm Beach Clematis by Night street festival.
Says his dad: "I don't know what Panagioti is looking for, he's not looking for a better life... You know that comedian who says I have four kids -- I put two through college and two through the wall... Well, I have three kids. I put two through college, and Panagioti went through the wall."
The same week as the tripod affair, the FBI issued a warning about possible ecoterrorist activity in Lake Worth. A few weeks later, Panagioti was at the Republican National Convention protesting with an "anarchist marching band." In November, he held signs outside the swank Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach while friends Lynn Purvis and Veronica Robleto protested the Scripps biotech park by running topless through the resort.
His dad laughs. "That's not my cup of tea," he says. "He hates the rich people. He's protesting any way he can. I've got different morals." What's Panagioti's mom's reaction? "She loves her kids no matter what. But we don't talk about it. If I say something, she gets upset. But she doesn't give him the reality. I give him the reality."
At a meeting convened by the Global Justice group shortly after the FBI warning, Mayor Rodney Romano challenged residents who were unhappy with the administration to run for office themselves. "I see the brainpower all over the city," he said. "But good people don't step up to the plate."
So Panagioti declared his candidacy and soon issued a platform -- one that advocates seceding from the U.S. government, disbanding the police, dismantling civilization, and changing the name of the town "so we don't honor that greedy, racist, murderer William Jenkins Worth anymore." He added: "If I did get elected, you wouldn't have to recall me, 'cause I'd quit. On my way out of City Hall... I'll need help dragging all the useless paperwork over to the beloved Bonfire on the Beach."
Responds his dad: "The ideas he has are not going to work. I tell him, 'I went through dictatorships, kings, civil war -- all of that in Greece. Those systems don't work anymore.' If he was living 200 years ago, it could be OK. But today, we have a different society."
Romano says Panagioti Tsolkas is just "engaging in his social experiment. It bothers me greatly. What disappoints me about this young man is that he has a lot of potential. I have no right to be paternalistic, but..." Romano sighs, "it sounds like he's not really serious."
Local businesswoman Maryanne Webber -- a self-described liberal Democrat -- thinks "he's making a mockery of the system and a laughingstock of the town."
So is his campaign a joke? "No, it's not a joke," Panagioti Tsolkas says. "But I don't want to trick people into feeling that there's some legitimacy to the way things work around here."
"I know he means good," Panagioti's dad says. "He wants to keep the town natural, no condos and towers. That's the only town that's nice and small, and I would like to keep it this way too. But business is business." As much as he disagrees with his son's politics, he is impressed by what he's accomplished. "He's been to Seattle, to South America. I haven't even been to the places he's been. I took him to try to feed the homeless, and then he wants to become one! Well... he found a way to not work and to feed the homeless without working either! Good luck to him."