Et Tu, Dolphins?

Remember what happened when you were a kid and you got into a fight with your sister about who called whom a name? Your father growled, slapped you on the tuchis, and it was over.

That same sort of fanny-whacking took place last week when Broward County Democratic Party chairman Mitch Ceasar tried to break up a fight between two warring factions of the Dolphin Democratic Club, the county's once-influential gay political organization. The group is one of 44 Democratic clubs in Broward organized to help elect Democrats and serve as a farm team for future candidates. But if the Dolphins are developing talent for anyone, it must be for the Little League.

"Bill Salicco defamed me," whined Dolphin board member Gretchen Hasselkus, who claimed that Bill Salicco, the club president, had called her a thief.

"Do the losers always have the right to run to the [Democratic Executive Committee] when they don't get their way?" sniffed Salicco.

"He lies, Mitch," retorted Hasselkus.
"Cut it out," Ceasar snapped in a fatherlike way before standing up to lecture the nine sheepish board members. "I won't participate in this back-and-forth crap. If I finish it, no one in this room will be happy." Dad couldn't have delivered his final warning any better. Except these are supposedly grownups, and despite his title Ceasar isn't as all-powerful as Dad was.

The reprimand fell somewhat short partially because the press showed up, in the form of a single reporter from New Times. It was like Dad raising his belt to swat his little malefactor, only to have a state child-protection worker burst in.

Everyone expected Ceasar to brandish the ultimate sanction -- termination of the group's charter as an official Democratic Party organization. But after discovering that a pesky reporter was present, he pulled back and only glowered. "I can say the word and you're gone, but I don't want to do that," he warned.

The immediate event that led to the latest Dolphin fracas and prompted Ceasar's snit was a proposed bylaws change that would allow the club's board to fire any officer or board member whose conduct is "injurious to the club, disturbs its well-being, hampers its work, and discredits personalities." This measure was drafted following a March 25 article in New Times in which board member Shane Gunderson and others blasted Salicco for allegedly misusing the club presidency to advance his campaign to become the first openly gay Fort Lauderdale city commissioner. According to the minutes of their April meeting, board members attacked Gunderson for being a "detriment to the club" by publicly "airing dirty laundry."

Gunderson views the bylaws change as a politically motivated gag provision that would violate his constitutional free-speech rights. "Bill is running for office, so he demands that people either be completely loyal to him, or he'll try to throw them off the board," he says.

Salicco denies that the New Times article triggered the proposal, but defends the bylaws change anyway. "I would assume that if you sit on the board, you'd be proud to be on it and wouldn't publicly say negative things about the organization you represent. The board should be able to decide to kick people off."

Ceasar told the Dolphin board that the grownups -- he and state Democratic Party officials -- would have to approve any bylaws changes. He later refused to comment on the proposed amendment until he read it, but he didn't rule it out. He didn't seem to see the irony of the ACLU-membership-card-waving Democratic Party punishing people for engaging in free speech. "I'm a lawyer, and I assure you I won't support anything that's unconstitutional," he says.

One reason the board wanted to gag Gunderson is that he had accused Salicco of financial mismanagement of the club and possible misuse of funds to help his political campaign. Salicco denies the allegation yet acknowledges that he disbanded the audit committee because the members were critical of his administration. He also admits that he has never presented a budget in his 16 months as president, even though the bylaws require one. The club will spend about $18,000 this year. "We're not a Fortune 500 company," he says. "A budget isn't the most important thing." Ceasar rejected that argument. He gave Salicco and the board 30 days to produce an outside audit report.

All this is a humiliating comedown for the club. Its proud 17-year history includes achievements such as helping elect numerous gay-friendly commissioners and legislators, persuading Broward County to recognize formally the rights of gays and lesbians, and lobbying for benefits for domestic partners of unmarried county employees.

"It's a shame," laments Karl Clark, one of the club's founders and now co-chairman of PAC-PAC, a rival gay political group. "I'm disgusted with how the group has turned out. There are too many people out for their own interests. When the community hears about this kind of thing, it makes everyone less inclined to be active in organizations to help fight for human rights."

Clark and other observers say that poor leadership and personality conflicts over the last five years have been key factors in the decline of the club's dues-paying membership -- from 300 at the beginning of 1998 to less than 100 currently. Ceasar warned the group last week that it's losing credibility with elected officials. "It took a long time for gays and lesbians to become part of the power structure. But this is threatening the movement."

The infighting is not just in Broward. This kind of nasty bickering has long been pervasive in gay communities around the country and has held back their political progress, says Adam Nagourney, coauthor of Out For Good, a new history of the gay rights movement, who spoke last week at Borders in Fort Lauderdale. "It's very personal and very intense, much more than in any other liberation movement," he says. "It's why no single leader, like a Martin Luther King, Jr., has emerged with the experience and stature to speak credibly for gays in the public forum."

More important to Ceasar, however, is that the Dolphins' decay is threatening his ability to deliver a strong Democratic majority vote in Broward to help elect a Democratic President and a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives next year. "The Democrats are building and expanding," he pleaded with the Dolphin board. "Stop and think. Let's coalesce and make a great team."

But Salicco writes off Ceasar's stark warnings about dissolution as much ado about nothing. "It looked like bad theater to me," he said after the meeting. "There are some personality conflicts, that's in every organization. It's three people who are griping, but there's no merit to it."

Clark believes the only hope is for the entire board to resign and have club members elect all new representatives. Salicco, with an eye on next year's city commission election, calls that idea "absurd."

Of course it is. When you and your sister pulled each other's hair, did you give yourselves spankings?

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Harris Meyer