Out of the Closet and Into Battle

Ken Wolf expected opposition in his run for the Fort Lauderdale City Commission seat recently vacated by John Aurelius. As an openly gay candidate, Wolf eyed warily the candidacy of Barbara Collier, head of the local Christian Coalition chapter. In a nasty 1994 race against Cary Keno for the city commission, Wolf's sexuality had become a liability.

What Wolf did not expect in seeking to become the first-ever openly homosexual commissioner in Fort Lauderdale was opposition from his fellow gay activists.

On March 15, the day before the city commission and Mayor Jim Naugle were to decide who would fill the seat for the year remaining in Aurelius' tenure, they received a letter from Bill Salicco, president of the Dolphin Democratic Club. The mission of the Dolphin Club, of which Wolf has been a member for ten years, is to elect gay-friendly candidates.

"As a community leader and an equal rights activist, I urge you to appoint a woman on March 16th to fill the remainder of Commissioner Aurelius' term," Salicco's letter, printed on Dolphin Club stationery, stated. The letter then went on: "Since approximately 75,000 residents of Fort Lauderdale are women, I strongly urge you to provide them with a voice on the Commission."

A similar epistle was posted the same day by another board member of the Dolphin Club, Richard Blaise Cimoch. This missive was printed on the letterhead of Pride South Florida, a homosexual rights group, of which Cimoch is the co-chair. The letter endorsed Gloria Katz, the eventual victor, for the post. Katz is a past president of Coral Ridge Country Club Estates and a registered Democrat. Cimoch's letter went on to attack Wolf, although not by name, for having moved to District 1 only weeks before the appointment (an issue that several commissioners say was a factor in not voting for Wolf). "Please only consider applicants who are long-term residents and homeowners and who have proven their involvement in District One," the note reads.

The letters were a not-so-subtle shove plunging the leading gay politicos of Broward County into a spiteful abyss that includes allegations of jealousy, betrayal, conflicts of interest, and political backstabbing, among other misdeeds. It is all part of a continuing riff that has divided the once-influential Dolphin Democratic Club.

"[Salicco] was insanely jealous that I was this close to becoming the first gay commissioner," says Wolf. "It's pretty shallow and petty, but that's what it was."

Salicco has made no secret of his intention to run for District 4 Commissioner Jack Latona's post next year, and he's already opened a campaign account. His detractors say that Salicco feared that having an openly gay commissioner, such as Wolf, already seated on the dais might scare away voters still squeamish about homosexuality. In other words voters might conclude that one of those people is enough.

"His pro-female letter that he's written is a publicity stunt to help his candidacy," says Shane Gunderson, a Dolphin Club board member and former president. "It's very insincere."

The whining from Wolf could be written off as sour grapes, except for the fact that many within the Dolphin Club agree with him. Salicco did not consult with the group's board of directors before writing on their behalf the letter endorsing a woman for the seat. Also, no vote was taken among the membership on whether to support an individual candidate, as is usually the case when the Dolphin Club endorses someone.

Several board members publicly lambaste Salicco's actions as simple political expediency rather than a principled stand for women's equality.

"It is quite clear that the president did not want another gay person ahead of him put on the city commission," says Dean Trantalis, a member of the Dolphin Club's board. "This was truly a conflict of interest on his part."

Adds Gunderson: "It's just wrong to write that letter without taking it to his board members. The two of them just planned this out and said, 'How can I help Bill Salicco's campaign next time?'"

Attacks from outside the organization are equally vituperative. "For him not to support Ken Wolf is just totally self-serving," says Denise Yoezle, cofounder of the Political Advocacy Coalition: The Lesbian and Gay Political Committee, or PAC-PAC, which helps gay-friendly candidates get elected to office. "We all know that he plans on running for the city commission, and we all know that one of his slogans is going to be 'Elect one of our own.'"

Salicco steadfastly stands by his actions and dismisses the disgruntled board members' charges as jealousy. He argues that, as president of the Dolphin Club, he must have the ability to speak on behalf of the organization. Salicco also claims that the four people in leadership positions on the board were aware -- and supportive -- of the letter. "When you're elected to lead, you lead. You don't follow," Salicco says. "I have every right to use that stationery without board approval."

Salicco also contends that the Dolphin Club is not going to support a candidate simply because he or she is gay. He says that Wolf pointedly did not make an issue of his sexual orientation prior to the vote. "You can't be openly gay when it's convenient," Salicco says. "You have to do it all the time."

Salicco is indeed supported vocally by the majority of Dolphin Club board members. But even some who support him concede that better judgment was called for in light of Salicco's own political aspirations. "Maybe he should not have done it on letterhead," says Robert Youngquist, a Salicco supporter. "Maybe he should have just done it on, 'William Salicco for Commissioner,' or whatever. But I think deep, deep down, his heart was in the right place. People do make mistakes."

Watchers of gay politics also see electoral maneuvering in Salicco's newfound enthusiasm for women's equality. In 1997 Salicco opposed an amendment to the Dolphin Club's bylaws that would have mandated that the president and vice president positions be split between a man and a woman. The measure was defeated, but not before several prominent female members quit in disgust over what they felt was an organization run by a white male clique.

"It's total hypocrisy," says Yoezle, who is also a former vice president of the Dolphin Club. "Bill Salicco has publicly stated he's opposed to affirmative action, that everybody needs to earn their own way. And Bill Salicco was adamantly opposed to gender parity in the Dolphins."

While the dustup could be discounted simply as personality and ego clashes, some fear that the fallout will be a diluted power base for the Dolphin Club and a slimmer chance that a homosexual will be elected to office in the near future. "Right now there's only about 200 members [of the Dolphin Club], because everybody's resigning because of Bill Salicco," says Gunderson. "The club's falling apart."

Cimoch says the whole fracas is much ado about not much. "This is a group of people that, if you walked up and handed them a million dollars in cash with no strings attached, they would bitch about the denomination of the bills," he says.

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko