But someone was missing.
Not one of the participants who showed up at the main branch of the Broward County Library in Fort Lauderdale was there as a representative of the county's most powerful gay political organization, the Dolphin Democratic Club.
The Dolphins -- or at least some of them -- had good reason for not showing up. The club's charter prohibits board members, in particular, from attending political forums with members of the opposite party. But the absence of an official Dolphin Club representative suggests far more: a new era of gay politics in Broward County.
Since the Dolphin Club was founded in 1982 as a strictly Democratic block dedicated to reaching out to the gay electorate, it has been, for the most part, the only political base for gay voters in Broward County. Other gay political groups exist -- the Log Cabin Republicans, for instance -- but only the Dolphins can boast they've gotten specific candidates elected, as they did last March, when three gay-friendly candidates won seats on the Wilton Manors City Council.
Though it's too soon to assess what PAC-PAC's impact may be on the upcoming general election, attendance at last month's forum proves there's a new kid on Broward County's political block, one that claims to support political candidates based on their opinions, not their party affiliation.
And, to the dismay of Dolphin board members, this kid is the result of dissatisfaction and discord within the Dolphin Club itself. In fact, half of PAC-PAC's 16-member board were or still are members of the Dolphin Club.
"Not all PAC-PAC people were Dolphin people," says Denise Yoezle, the PAC-PAC co-chair and a past Dolphin board member. "But it was started by people who were dissatisfied with the Dolphins, and a few other people looking for nonpartisan activity."
PAC-PAC, a nickname for the Political Advocacy Coalition: The Lesbian and Gay Political Committee, was founded in January by Karl Clark, who helped put together the Dolphin Club in 1982. The Dolphins lobby for gay rights and support Broward County Democrats running for office on all levels. But, by the mid-'90s, Clark felt that Democratic politicians in general were becoming far too moderate. He began to believe that, when it comes to gay rights, the Democratic Party doesn't have all the answers.
So last year Clark joined the Green Party, a left-wing organization that nominated consumer-advocate crusader Ralph Nader as its presidential candidate in 1996. Finally, earlier this year Clark resigned from the Dolphin board and made plans to put together a nonpartisan group that would fight for gay rights and endorse gay and gay-friendly candidates regardless of party affiliation.
"Over the last three to four years, I decided I want to try to continue on with some liberal ideas and keep the discussion going," Clark says of his departure.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, were dealing with internal conflicts. In late 1997 a handful of female members complained that the club was run by a largely white male power structure. Although the 600-member club was roughly 80 percent male, the women campaigned to change the bylaws so the club's executive board and committees would be divided evenly between men and women. Some Dolphin men argued that, if their fellow members wanted more representation, they should recruit more women for membership. The women tried a different tack: They proposed establishing a mentorship program in which the club's male leaders would train women in leadership skills and political savvy.
After both initiatives failed, the women stepped up their attack by complaining to the county's Democratic Executive Committee, which oversees the county's many Democratic political groups. Among the complaints were serious allegations, mainly that the club's membership consisted of ineligible members, including Republicans, unregistered voters, and Palm Beach County residents. But the complaints were dismissed. Mitch Ceasar, who serves as both state and county Democratic Party chairman, heard the complaints, and he calls them "narrow" and "minor."
Without a sympathetic ear, the women had nowhere else to turn.
"They tried to articulate their viewpoint and were ignored," Clark contends. "They had two choices: Stay and fight it out, or come to a home where they could feel more politically comfortable."
At the moment PAC-PAC is only an executive board, albeit an "inclusive" one, according to Clark. Of the board's sixteen members, eight are men, eight women. And their responsibilities are evenly distributed. For instance, Clark and Yoezle serve as the board's co-chairs. And as such they're determined to leave the floor open to debate during PAC-PAC political forums.
"We wanted to make sure all segments of the community were covered," Clark explains. "So no matter what your political views are, you're covered."
But when it comes to politics, PAC-PAC doesn't look much different than the Dolphin Club -- at least not yet. Earlier this year PAC-PAC sent candidates a questionnaire covering gay rights, the environment, and abortion. The survey's results served as a basis for discussion at the August 11 forum. (A second forum is tentatively scheduled for October 14.) After the forum PAC-PAC endorsed 16 candidates for this week's primaries in the local gay newspaper TWN. Every endorsement went to a Democrat.
As politically similar as PAC-PAC and the Dolphin Club appear to be, it's too early to tell what PAC-PAC's existence will mean for Broward County politics down the road. For some politicians, however, the new political group is a force to be reckoned with.
"PAC-PAC has been recognized now," says Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Jack Latona, a long-time friend and supporter of the gay community. "Up to this time, the Dolphins have been the leading political entity in Broward County's gay community. Now there is one other."
Some Dolphin board members fear the new club will dilute the voting power of Broward's 100,000 gay voters. PAC-PAC may endorse Republican candidates who don't have the gay community's interests at heart, argues Shane Gunderson, former president of the Dolphins. Worse yet, if PAC-PAC's endorsements don't translate into fundraising dollars or actual votes for gay-friendly candidates, the whole community will suffer, he says. Elected officials will start to believe that Broward's gay community is all talk, no political clout.
But more than politics may be involved here.
"There's like two people in that group that are decent," Gunderson scoffs. "But the rest of them can't deliver votes because they're too self-absorbed. They're all about taking credit."
Dolphin President Bill Salicco, who didn't attend the PAC-PAC forum, pretty much dismisses the new group. "I just don't know who is going to listen to them," he says. "I mean, look at who is running the organization."
At least publicly, however, politicians who have benefited from Broward County's large gay population say PAC-PAC can help bring gay issues to the forefront of public discussion. It will provide yet another opportunity for candidates of all parties to discuss views on gay rights and gay-friendly legislation, such as same-sex marriage.
"The only downside," notes Kip Zimmerman, campaign manager for Tracy Stafford (D-Wilton Manors), "is when people from the different groups lose focus of the larger objective, which is to have their issues gain support.