A Woman for All Seasons
Attorney, adviser, traveler, friend: Having stared down death, Mayanne Downs lives like there’s no tomorrow.
There’s an autographed plaque in the city attorney’s office at Orlando City Hall commemorating the approval of SunRail, a regional commuter rail project more than a decade in the making. The inscription, from Mayor Buddy Dyer, reads: “Mayanne, thanks for doing absolutely nothing on this project!”The slacker plaque is a joke between the mayor and City Attorney Mayanne Downs, his closest adviser. It’s the exception that proves the rule—the rule being that the mayor doesn’t make a major political move without consulting Downs, his friend and confidante since law school.
“I asked him to do that,” Downs says of the plaque, uncorking a trademark cackle.
It’s a Hemingway laugh, the full-throated, confident yawp of a woman who looked death in the face at 50 and is holding nothing back in the second half—least of all a good laugh.
Not that Downs was ever a shrinking violet. She allegedly reported to law school in 1985 with a bright pink streak in her hair. And despite formal training in etiquette as a child, friends say she “drops F-bombs like apples falling from a tree.”
Polished, with punk roots. “That’s Mayanne,” says Judy Doyle, a member of Downs’ inner circle. “She’s like a Bette Midler character. Think of a bawdy female Thomas Jefferson.”
Like Jefferson, her workload is staggering.
Now 57, Downs heads up the litigation practice at GrayRobinson, P.A., one of the largest law firms in Florida, overseeing the work of 165 attorneys. As city attorney, she manages a staff of 25, and has been instrumental in guiding the mayor’s multibillion downtown renaissance, from development of a $100 million Orlando Magic entertainment complex across from Amway Center to clearing the way for a new pro soccer stadium.
She personally handles about 100 cases a year, including high-stakes divorce and family law; clients have included golfing great Annika Sorenstam, and basketball superstars Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh. The $200 million settlement she won in Bettie Siegel’s 1997 divorce from timeshare magnate David Siegel still ranks among the largest on record.
And as a member of Florida’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, Downs has a hand in deciding whether judges should be removed from the bench.
Off the clock, she works just as hard—cooking for friends, raising two kids, and traveling almost to the point of compulsion.
For the past two years Downs has ranked near the middle of Orlando magazine’s list of the 50 most powerful people in the city. We thought it was time to get to know her better. We could barely keep up.
Mayanne Downs lives in a 3,000-square-foot home, bigger than a bungalow but nowhere near a mansion, at the dolphin-tail tip of Lake Lancaster, less than a mile from where she was raised. If this were a fairytale, she would have come from humble beginnings, but, like Jefferson, she grew up with wealth. Her father, Earl Downs, was a successful developer whose projects included The Springs in Longwood. In the late 1960s, he teamed with John McLintock and Jim Pugh to form Epoch Properties Inc., which became one of the nation’s largest developers of multi-family real estate.
Her parents belonged to The Country Club of Orlando, and her father was a founding member of The Citrus Club. Her mother, Sally, belongs to the exclusive Rosalind Club. The family traveled extensively, and Mayanne learned to ski on The Matterhorn.
Their home, a converted country store in a 15-acre orange grove at 2401 S. Bumby Ave., was a regular stop on the social circuit, where children could ride in a miniature stagecoach pulled by Shetland ponies, pet a llama, and fly tree-to-tree on a homemade zip line. Adults would dine on barbecue and roasted oysters, and be entertained by Mayanne, the eldest of four, who would sing and play guitar.
“We thought we were the von Trapps,” says her closest sibling, Cathy Downs-Phoenix.
The old homestead is gone, replaced by apartments, but the tradition continues, with Downs regularly hosting a Who’s Who of Orlando’s movers and shakers, a cross-section of power players from the world of politics, law and culture. The events are relaxed and comfortable, with Downs and her sister handling most of the cooking and Dyer or another guest tending bar.
“I would never hire a caterer,” Downs says. “My therapist says if you haven’t prepared a meal for someone, you’ve never truly loved. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I understand her point. There is something about the sustenance you provide someone—spiritual, psychological and emotional, and certainly physical—the sustenance that you give people when you do that. It’s a meaningful thing, at least for me.”
Last Thanksgiving, the guest list included Dyer and his family; Ron Legler, president and CEO of the Florida Theatrical Association; arts ambassador Donna Dowless; interior designer Ted Maines; political fundraiser/lobbyist Kelly Cohen; and dozens of others.
The event started at 2:30 and stretched late into the evening, with most of the guests reconvening the following evening at The Abbey, one of Legler’s venues, to hear Downs’ 22-year-old-son, Barry Rigby, perform with his band Redwood DeVille. Dyer introduced the band. Downs flitted about taking pictures, while her daughter, Savannah Rigby—a political science major at UCF hoping to study law—worked the band’s merchandise table.
Witnessing Downs in this light, it’s easy to see her power as something that has been bestowed on her in thanks and friendship, as opposed to something she has claimed or seized. Like her grandfather, Joseph Baynard Shearouse, who headed Orlando’s sanitation department, and her aunt Alice Fague, who chaired Orange County schools’ music department and handpicked students to perform at the opening of Walt Disney World, Downs has embraced her community, and the community has rewarded her in return.
The same has been true in business. In addition to her father’s extensive connections, Downs’ Uncle Joe Shearouse was a prominent banker.
Her uncle Dean Downs worked for Florida Ranch Lands and was involved in some of the land sales to Disney and The Martin Co. (which eventually became Lockheed Martin). Family connections gave Downs a solid base on which to build her law practice, although it was her ability to deliver for clients that ultimately made her successful.
Her father’s former business partner Jim Pugh chairs the board of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which is set to open later this year. So it was only natural that Downs would begin her public service there, on the board, before Dyer tapped her as city attorney in 2007 and tasked her with moving the venues projects forward.
As city attorney, Downs is part of “C4,” a panel of top advisers that includes the chief financial officer, chief of staff and chief operating officer. They have guided Dyer through the largest downtown building boom in Orlando’s history, including the Amway Center, the performing arts center, renovation of the Citrus Bowl, the coming Magic complex, and the soccer stadium approved last fall.
The soccer stadium project has raised the hackles of many residents of the predominantly black Parramore neighborhood in which it’s being built; they say it’s a further gentrification of their community, as well as a giveaway of tax dollars that should be spent revitalizing their community in other ways. But Downs says she is “100 percent comfortable” with the city’s plans for Parramore because it will bring lots of new jobs and opportunities for local residents.
Downs has carried the mayor’s water on other issues that met with opposition, including a four-year fight to stop the activist group Food Not Bombs from feeding the homeless at Lake Eola, and the arrest of a man for writing protest messages in chalk on the sidewalk outside City Hall.
The city prevailed in the case of the homeless feedings, although the group now conducts feedings on the steps of City Hall. The chalk protester sued the city for violation of his First Amendment rights and won, a $200,000 lesson. Downs, who was informed of the arrest after the fact, said she would have advised against it. She has taken steps to avoid similar mistakes in the future, implementing First Amendment training for police officers, and including the chalk writer as a case study.
A calm counselor in public practice, Downs is known as a fierce foe in private practice. Among her professional admirers is Keith Mitnik, senior trial counsel at Morgan & Morgan, the lawyer who represented David Siegel in that decade-long, hard-fought divorce battle where Downs ultimately prevailed.
“I’ve taken on some of the best in the country, and she is in the top, top tier,” says Mitnik, who has been practicing law for more than 30 years. “She’s a street fighter. She pulls no punches. She comes hard and she comes fast. She will fight to the last breath.”
Mitnik and Downs have since become friends.
“Mayanne is a straight shooter but an accurate shooter,” he says. “We have bowed up at each other and come close to cursing one another out, but at the end, there was mutual respect.”
In 2010 Downs was sworn in as the 61st president of the 90,000-member Florida Bar, the professional association for Florida lawyers. The Florida Legislature had proposed deep cuts in the state court budget and Downs traversed the state, rallying her peers against the cuts, and teamed with House Speaker Dean Cannon in Tallahassee to mount a successful challenge.
Colleagues attribute Downs’ success, both as a lawyer and as Florida Bar president, to a relentless work ethic and a broad skillset that has allowed her to excel in a wide range of legal disciplines.
David King, a founding shareholder in King, Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth, of Orlando, says he saw her potential early on, when he inherited Downs as an associate after her mentor, Jacqueline Griffin, left private practice to become a judge on Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal in 1990.
“There might be people who are better at any individual skill,” King says. “But few are as good at all of them. And there isn’t anyone I’d rather go to lunch with. She has so many diverse interests. She adds salt to the environment.”
A Fork in the Road
There’s no telling how Downs’ life might have turned out if she hadn’t gotten sued.
Odds were good that she would follow her father into the real estate business. And that was the path she chose after graduating from the University of Florida with a history degree in 1979.
She obtained her real estate broker’s license and, with her mother, formed Springs Realty, with exclusive listing rights to homes in The Springs. It was a sweet deal, but then fate intervened in the form of a federal antitrust lawsuit.
The suit lacked merit and would ultimately be thrown out, but in working with an attorney to defend herself, Downs found her calling.
Her attorney on that case, Jackie Griffin—a high-school Spanish teacher turned lawyer and one of only a handful of female litigators in Orlando at the time—became a friend and role model. She encouraged Mayanne to apply to law school.
Downs was accepted to UF, where she met Buddy Dyer and his future wife, Karen. It was there that she also met and married Barry Rigby, her now ex-husband. At school, she helped Dyer win his first election—as editor of the law review—and forged a circle of friends that would become the cornerstone of her new life.
She graduated top of her class in 1987 and went to work for her mentor until Griffin’s court appointment. Karen Dyer took a job with Griffin’s best friend, Anne Conway, who became a federal judge in 1991. The four women remain close, traveling together and socializing frequently, more than two decades later.
Downs proved to have a natural affinity for the law. The Bettie Siegel settlement established her as a top divorce attorney, while among the partners at King, Blackwell she had become a go-to resource on complex “bet-the-company” corporate litigation.
By the time she became city attorney in January 2007, Downs was already at the top of her game. Two months later, she would be at death’s door.
Superman had his Kryptonite; Achilles had his heel. Samson had an aversion to haircuts. Mayanne Downs has kidney stones.
And not just one or two. Downs produces kidney stones like oysters produce pearls. She’s had 15 removed to date. Mostly they cause pain and discomfort; in 2007, one almost killed her.
It was late March, and Downs had just returned from a trip to Spain with her kids and the Dyer family. A stone had become lodged, causing a severe infection.
She went to the hospital three different times and was diagnosed with the flu. It was her sister Cathy, and a family friend at Florida Hospital, who finally bypassed the emergency room and got her to intensive care, where she was admitted immediately.
She crashed within hours, losing consciousness just as her Florida Gators men’s basketball team battled through the brackets of March Madness, fighting for a second consecutive national championship.
Doctors put Downs in a medically induced coma to stabilize her, but then she wouldn’t wake up. As word spread, friends began showing up at the hospital to pray for her. They brought clergy of all faiths. Anne Conway even invoked the healing power of the sacred Gator Nation.
Dyer came, and Conway and Griffin. The crowd grew so large that hospital staff finally moved them into a conference room to keep the hall clear.
Downs hovered near death for days. Dyer was devastated. After all, it was Downs whom Dyer had asked to represent him when he was forced to defend himself against (ultimately unfounded) charges of election fraud in 2005. It was her house where he and his family had sought comfort and refuge before he surrendered to authorities.
“Mayanne is as close a confidante as I have,” Dyer says. “There’s no one I trust more.”
She awoke from the coma after 11 days with daughter Savannah by her side. Downs and her fellow Gator alums will tell you her first words upon returning to the land of the living were: “Did the Gators win?''
Mile a Minute
Downs emerged from her near-death experience with a renewed vigor, determined to see and do as much as possible. In the last 18 months, she’s been to the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark twice; Finland, Poland, Russia, Estonia, Asia, Norway, Thailand and Myanmar—not counting a plane change in Japan—pausing only long enough to have a couple of kidney stones removed (14 and 15).
Domestically, she’s been to the Napa Valley, New York City, Boston, New Orleans, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Miami and Key West.
In mid-October, on the heels of a positive City Council vote on venue funding, Downs flew to New Orleans for the Florida-LSU football game. A week later, she rolled out of bed after an evening of theater and caught a plane to Boston to see her son’s band play at the Boston Book Festival.
She returned two days later, arriving 10 minutes before guests began gathering for a retirement party for Orlando Sentinel government/politics editor Bob Shaw—at her house. She stopped by City Hall to help Dyer garner approval for the soccer stadium; celebrated her birthday with co-workers; and then hopped on a plane to New York to join Legler and the Dyers in celebrating the 40th birthday of friend and cooking protégé Kelly Cohen. She barely had time to unpack before returning to the airport with Conway for a three-week trip to Myanmar.
In between, Downs finds time to host monthly dinner parties at her house, and makes a point of taking in rock concerts with fellow music aficionado and recently appointed judge Ed Scales of Key West.
“I do quick trips because I like the experience, but want to get on to the next thing, and because I always want to go home,” Downs says. “Lengthy, drawn-out things just seem to me a waste of time, because time is the only thing we all really own and the only precious, limited gift we have. I can forgive any sin except the waste of time.”
Undoubtedly, Downs is busier than any 12 people you could probably think of at random, appearing in so many places and disappearing, like a Harry Potter character, defying the laws of physics. She logs 50,000 frequent flier miles a year, yet has managed to raise two well-adjusted kids, cooking hot breakfasts for their friends before school, and sending her own kids off to class with a homemade lunch.
It’s a phenomenon that Cohen, who sees Downs as a mentor and life coach, has observed with fascination. “She’s actually very selective about how she spends her time. She’s everywhere, but she isn’t everywhere all the time.”
Downs acknowledges that, while she attends a lot of functions, she’ll typically make an appearance and leave quickly and quietly. It’s a skill the hipsters call “ghosting.” Downs’ friends call it “pulling a Mayanne.”
It’s not all sunshine and roses. Downs meets regularly with a therapist, a confessor she pays to keep her doubts and demons at bay. She’s the first to admit she has issues—for example, her failure to make a good marriage match after two tries. About therapy, as with most things, Downs is matter-of-fact.
“I am open about therapy, because through the years I’ve had so many people tell me that they wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t let them see it as possible. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, and therapy was an essential part of that progress.”
Although not particularly religious, she is spiritual, and superstitious. Her sister Cathy says that’s one reason she never says goodbye.
Downs offers another explanation. “I just don’t like drawing attention to myself. Believe it or not, I’m actually an introvert. I’ll be somewhere and I’ll just need to get home and recharge. I don’t want to make a big deal of it. I just leave.”
For the dozens who gathered at the hospital to pray as she hovered near death seven years ago, it doesn’t matter that she never says goodbye. They’re just grateful that she came back.