Metro Weekly

The Victor: Q&A with Victory Fund’s Chuck Wolfe

Having helped elect hundreds of LGBT candidates to public office nationwide, Victory Fund's Chuck Wolfe moves on

Chuck Wolfe Photo by Todd Franson

Chuck Wolfe – Photography by Todd Franson

Come January, things will be different around Victory Fund’s offices in downtown Washington. For the first time in more than a decade, Chuck Wolfe won’t be there. Having served as the president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute for 12 years — a length in tenure that is almost unheard of in the advocacy world — Wolfe will be stepping down, leaving behind a legacy that speaks for itself.

Since assuming the role as head of the nonpartisan organization, the sole mission of which is to elect openly gay LGBT candidates to public office, 751 of the 1,183 candidates Victory Fund has endorsed have won their races. Indeed, the number of openly LGBT elected officials currently serving in office has nearly tripled during that time, and in 2012, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin became the first out member of the U.S. Senate. Despite retirements by such key figures in the LGBT-rights movement as U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the number of out members of Congress has reached an all time high of eight. (That number will drop to seven next month following the retirement of U.S.Rep. Mike Michaud, who lost his bid for governor of Maine.)

For 53-year-old Wolfe, though, the time has come to move on. “Twelve years seemed like a nice round number,” he says. And after suffering a heart attack earlier this year, things came into focus for Wolfe.

“What it did was not say, ‘You can’t do this job anymore.’ The question in my head was, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ Because you look at mortality in that situation. I don’t know how much time I have left, we all don’t know how much time we have left…. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but it really was a blessing. You have time to think about it,” he says.

Dec. 31 is Wolfe’s last day on the job and a search is underway for his replacement, who is expected to be named early next year. What’s next for Wolfe is unclear. He says he’s considering a few interesting opportunities, and for a man who has served public servants most of his professional life, the lure of politics remains apparent.

“I feel pretty self aware that my abilities are better in serving a public servant than in being the public servant,” he says. “To the extent that my health issues have helped influence my desire to have a calmer and more zen like existence, I’m not sure the two would be compatible.”

For a man whose career has taken him from the Florida governor’s office to the board of the Boy Scouts for America, one thing seems clear: we haven’t heard the last from Chuck Wolfe.

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your childhood. Where were you raised?

CHUCK WOLFE: I grew up in South Florida, West Palm Beach, back in a time where you rode your bike everywhere. Loved being outdoors, played all the time as a kid, played all summer long. Still, my number one goal in life is to spend time outside.

I grew up very involved in Scouting. That led to all kinds of leadership roles in the Boy Scouts, all the way up to being a national executive board member and being the national explorer president of the Boy Scouts, which meant I took a year out of college and traveled around the country on behalf of the Scouts, which provided a leadership scholarship which got me through Stetson University. I was very involved in leadership roles there, finished with a bachelor’s degree in political science and an associate’s degree in business. And then I ended up going into business, not political science right away. But that lasted about three months, and then I went to work for a guy named Harry Johnston, who ran for governor of Florida in 1986. In that campaign I grew from being the body man or travel aide to being the deputy campaign manager. We were not successful, he did not end up winning that race. Two years later he became a member of Congress, but then I really knew I enjoyed politics.

MW: Was politics important to your family?

WOLFE: I had grown up in a family where politics was discussed all the time. My mother was very involved in the Florida League of Women Voters, so a very liberal Democrat. My father was the general counsel for the Florida Republican Party. Now this is in the ’60s and ’70s when Republicans in Florida were not really going to win anywhere or anything. But he was of that old school Republican. So I come by my independent roots pretty genuinely. You know, mom on one side, dad on the other, trying to find the middle ground all the time and not really buying into one doctrine or the other, finding what you believe works, which played out later when I went to work for the governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles, who was a fairly conservative Democrat. I worked for him and had a great career with him. It was awesome. I got to do things like manage the relief effort for Hurricane Andrew, run the operations of the re-election campaign in 1994, and then just after that be the executive director for the financial emergency oversight board for the city of Miami, and then after that start the [anti-smoking] truth campaign. All really cool opportunities under one boss. I moved to D.C. after he passed away.

After I moved to D.C., in mid 1999, I started up the American Legacy Foundation, which helped us make the truth campaign a national campaign. In that timeframe I’d also been invited to serve on the board of director of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. When Brian Bond announced he was going to leave Victory, and I threw my hat in the ring and ended up here.

MW: When did you come out as gay?

WOLFE: In my senior year of high school I had my first experience with someone, but my true coming out happened post-college. I told my father first, and my siblings and then my mom all happened right around the timeframe of being 26 to 30. I don’t know the specific date. It is kind of funny, right? It’s almost like now we expect there to be a marker. We have to remind people of this all the time about our politicians who are still in the closet. People talk about it like, “They should come out, they should come out.” Everybody has their own way in which they do it, so you just have to respect that.

MW: When did you decide LGBT advocacy was something you were interested in?

WOLFE: When I first knew the mission of Victory. When Jeff Trammell and Brian Bond called me and said would you be willing to serve on the board, I looked into it more. There were no out state legislators. There were a couple pretty well-known closeted ones, but none were out. And there weren’t many other out people in government, period.

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That’s when I started connecting the dots to advocacy. I had been very involved in trying to get the governor not to sign DOMA in Florida and in the end, while he didn’t sign it, he let it become law, which was a disappointing day. But as he pointed out, ‘I could sign it, or I could try to veto it but I will be overridden. Look what the vote was in the Senate.’ He had no chance of his veto being sustained. So I guess maybe that was a turning point for me, paying attention more. As an out person but it just made complete sense to me.

MW: Why leave now when it seems like we’re at the height of the LGBT movement?

WOLFE: A lot of people point that out. We’re at the pinnacle or we’re at the height or we are so close to getting some big decisions come our way and maybe even see the Republican Party drop its opposition to our equality. Maybe seeing an all-encompassing marriage decision. Who knows when ENDA will be the law of the land, but we’re certainly continuing to work on it and get closer.

Twelve years is a long time doing one thing. That means I have two boards — the institute and the fund — they meet about four times a year. Do the math and you’re at 96 board meetings in person, plus telephonic meetings when there are issues that come up. So I’ve had over 100 board meetings, never missed one. Some have been while I’m on vacation, some have been planned. I’ve now had 12 conferences. I’ve had hundreds if not thousands of actual elections and nominees and endorsees. Hundreds of people getting appointed to office. Lots of great staff people. I look at it all and I think it’s a great portrait of the last 12 years. I’m going to take the snapshot now and move on.

Plus, I had health issues this year that gave me the time to reflect and pay attention. Normally you’re just doing these jobs, you just keep moving. The trick is to keep moving. So having time to sit back and relax with family, all of that came together and it just made sense. Twelve years seemed like a nice round number.

MW: I want to ask about those health issues. You had a heart attack?

WOLFE: I had been having some chest pains last year and then I finally got into a cardiologist. I always put this stuff off after our board meetings and conference, so after last year’s conference I finally got in to chat with a cardiologist and he agreed there was a problem. They went in, tried to fix it and couldn’t get it all fixed. Went in again, tried to fix it and couldn’t get it all fixed. Five months later, there was no alternative but doing open-heart surgery and a quadruple bypass. Obviously a big part of this year for me will be what all that was like. I guess family history-wise, it’s not to be completely unexpected, but certainly I don’t live the same health of the males who preceded me. I’ve never smoked — anything. I’m one of the few people I know who can actually say that.

MW: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment of the past 12 years?

WOLFE: It’s very easy to name particular races and say, “Isn’t this exciting?” You talk about a U.S. senator in Tammy Baldwin or you talk about Annise Parker becoming mayor of Houston. And they are very exciting races. Or then I think of it this way: you know how Time magazine just announced their Person of the Year is all the ebola fighters, I could say all of our candidates. Anybody who is willing to step up and run, put their name on the ballot, help the country live up to its ideal of a representative democracy — that’s pretty cool.

Somewhere mixed in it all is a deeper and broader understanding of why having our own community in public service — in positions of power, in positions of responsibility — matters. And if that’s the case, that’s fantastic. It’s not just about having gay people in power because maybe they’ll vote for marriage. It’s about this idea that the more the country accepts electing people to office who may be different than them, the more they accept that the better off the country is. And I know that can sound pie in the sky, but I have always believed it to my core.

MW: What’s your biggest disappointment?

WOLFE: I can point to a particular race. I was disappointed when Jim Roth didn’t win statewide in Oklahoma in 2008, because I thought not only is he a very good public servant, but in the only state where every county voted for John McCain in [2008] and for Mitt Romney four years later, that electing an out man would have really been a fascinating bookend to that equation. It would have caused lots of political scientists to scratch their heads. But that didn’t happen, so maybe that’s my biggest disappointment.

Mike Michaud just lost his race for governor of Maine — that’s disappointing. I’m not disappointed in Mike, I’m just disappointed it didn’t work out. Last year Christine Quinn didn’t win her race [for mayor of New York City]. The funny thing about these races are these kind of marquee names if you will, people know them or the position, they can overshadow all the amazing other victories you have. So you still have a hundred people win elections in a year but people pay attention to a single one, then it somehow overshadows things.

MW: A lot of what Victory Fund does is very much on the local level and those races don’t always make headlines. But there were a series of high profile defeats this past election. You mentioned Mike Michaud, there was also Richard Tisei in Massachusetts, vying to become the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress. What was your take on this past election?

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Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's former political editor and White House correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @JustinCSnow.