When Vicki Met Syl

Fate introduced Miami lobbyist Sylvester Lukis to a rising political star named Vicki Lopez-Wolfe. Twenty-two felony charges later, South Florida is still reeling.

There was an eighth person at the table. She was dressed in black boots, black and white herringbone slacks, a black blazer, and a white blouse. She wore a pair of modest earrings and a light patina of blush and lipstick. In the soft light of the restaurant her chestnut hair looked black, and her close-set hazel eyes appeared dark brown.

"She looked rather plain," Lukis recalls. "The first time I saw Vicki, she didn't strike me as, you know, a classically beautiful woman. I saw her as a very attractive, sexy woman. A woman with an incredible mind. She took over the table, man. Just took over."

Vicki Lopez-Wolfe, then 32 years old, had a habit of taking over tables, if not upending them altogether. Four months earlier, on November 7, 1990, she had reordered the political universe of southwest Florida by winning one of five commission seats in Lee County, the nation's fourth-fastest-growing metropolitan area. She was the first Hispanic ever to do so, and only the third woman commissioner in the county's history, but those facts tell half the story at most.

Lopez-Wolfe, in the words of one Gulf Coast resident, "was like nothing anyone had ever seen, a human hurricane." As an underdog campaigner, Lopez-Wolfe "mesmerized" audiences, according to the Fort Myers News-Press. Her command of issues and her oratorical skills were of a quality several degrees removed from what most Lee County voters had encountered in other local politicians. She had a habit of switching back and forth between the dry and the inspired, and the effect was dizzying; one moment she might delve into details of municipal bond refinancing or solid waste disposal technology, the next she'd quote Abraham Lincoln with tears in her eyes.

Vivacious, combative, and mercurial, Lopez-Wolfe had an uncanny ability to forge emotional connections with the electorate. As a woman, an ethnic minority, and the single parent of an eight-year-old son, she stood outside Lee County's traditional power structure, and this apparent disadvantage became her sharpest weapon. At the time of her political ascension, Lee County was on the initial swing of a steep growth trajectory. Hurricane Vicki, the Republican with passion, seemed like the first in a new generation of progressive public servants, the right person to handle the cultural and economic storm to come.

There was a younger version of Vicki Lopez-Wolfe that people remembered: the teenager who marched in the Cypress Lake High School band, twirled a baton as head majorette, and served on the student council. And then there was a gap in her time in Fort Myers. She left home at age sixteen to become Notre Dame University's youngest-ever freshman, moved to Chicago and then Miami after graduation, married, and worked as a financier in both the public and private sectors. The marriage dissolved, and she returned to her family in Fort Myers the spring before the election. She was unemployed, her net worth was $2000, and yet she was as eager and energetic as ever. To many voters she seemed like the prodigal daughter come home at just the right time.

On the other hand, Lopez-Wolfe had instant enemies. In an episode tailor-made for the amusement of Freudian psychologists, she requested a master pass key to the county building in Fort Myers some months after her election. The key opened every lock in the building. Two of her consternated male colleagues demanded that their locks be changed to avoid "unauthorized entry," presumably by Lopez-Wolfe.

If some saw her as too powerfully and outspokenly female, others viewed her campaign emotionalism as patently insincere and her election a stepping stone on the path of a cold, calculating climber. In fact, Lopez-Wolfe made no secret that she had larger political ambitions, though she didn't specify what they were. Her next stop might be the Florida legislature. (A fearful State Rep. Keith Arnold, D-Fort Myers, was one of the politicians who changed the locks on his office door during the pass-key incident.) An eventual run for Congress or the lieutenant governorship couldn't be ruled out.

Years later, testifying in federal court about his relationship with Lopez-Wolfe, Sylvester Lukis described the dinner table repartee at Galileo this way: "We had a lot of personal conversations, as well as conversations about things that were facing the National Association of Counties."

Q: Did you ask her out again after that night?
A: As a matter of fact, I did. I asked her out the next morning. There was a meeting of the Florida delegation. I told her it would be a good meeting, though probably not a good breakfast.

Q: And after that?
A: I believe I invited her to lunch also. And I invited her out to dinner that evening. And every evening after that. I think I was becoming completely smitten with her.

"The chemistry was incredible between us," Lukis recalls in an interview. "The second night, I was picking her up at her hotel and I was listening to a public radio interview, which I do a lot. It was on the subject of love at first sight, I swear, and they were talking about the possibilities from a psychological standpoint, confirming that that is clearly something that occurs in some people.

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