50 Most Powerful: Government & Politics
Buddy Dyer, Orlando Mayor
All photos by Roberto Gonzalez
1. Buddy Dyer
Buddy Dyer likes the word “progressive.”
In today’s divisive political climate where “progressive” is a dirty liberal word, he proudly labels himself and Orlando as such.
“To me, progressive means forward thinking because we have the ability to become America’s 21st Century City,” Dyer says.
In his annual April State of the City address, Dyer talked about New York being the 19th Century City during the Industrial Revolution and cited San Francisco and San Jose for helping launch the computer revolution in the 20th Century. Now, he says, Orlando is poised to be the dominant city in this century.
With key industry pieces in place including simulation and training, the Medical City’s biomedical science and healthcare cluster, the new high-tech International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research project and an emerging rail system, the region seeks to further diversify its low-paying, tourism-dominated economy. Last year, metro Orlando hosted a record 66 million visitors, and Forbes recently named it No. 2 nationally as the best place to buy real estate; No. 3 in job growth; and No. 4 as the happiest place to work.
For the fourth year in a row, Dyer is Orlando magazine’s Most Powerful Person. His leadership helped secure the downtown UCF-Valencia College campus, which will anchor the Creative Village high-tech mega-community. He continued his vision to revitalize downtown with plans for parks and biking trails. SunRail expansion plans to Kissimmee are in the works, along with another rail link to Orlando International Airport.
“Buddy has been a successful mayor because of his skills and state legislature tour,” says Rollins College political science Professor Rick Foglesong. “He knows how to bargain and negotiate and also how to sublimate his ego and not be the loudest voice in the room.”
The former environmental engineer, lawyer and state senator has built alliances with all sectors of the community. A Democrat, Dyer also has forged relationships with top Republicans including Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Senate President Andy Gardiner, Gov. Rick Scott and a GOP-controlled Legislature to win key support and funding.
“Much like Governor Scott, Buddy Dyer doesn’t see people as Republicans and Democrats,” says Republican Frank Kruppenbacher, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority chairman. “He sets out a vision and brings together people for a win-win.”
That approach led Dyer and his team partners to attack homelessness and reduce it 23 percent over the past year. “It’s the right thing to do. You can’t be a great community without taking care of those who can’t,” he says.
In his 13-plus years in office, Dyer has championed big projects—some say he is addicted to them—such as the Amway Center, Medical City, the Dr. Phillips Center, SunRail, a revitalized Citrus Bowl and a professional soccer stadium. His proudest achievement: “the continued ability of our community to work together on all things important.”
“When we collectively focus on homelessness or the downtown (UCF) campus, there isn’t one person responsible for those things,” he says. “No single individual did those things. I kind of shepherded those.”
Dyer helped lead on other issues such as creating a domestic partnership registry in the city, performing gay marriages, approving a living wage, and passing a city ordinance decriminalizing small-amount marijuana arrests—giving young people a second chance.
Last year, he won a fourth term with nearly 63 percent of the vote—his biggest total yet.
But Dyer knows there’s more to do, from adding more transportation alternatives and affordable housing to providing more live music events to help attract young tech entrepreneurs. He envisions a development corridor running from the Amway Center west to Camping World Stadium.
The mayor's name also has circulated as being in the running for future president of UCF or for a job in a Hillary Clinton presidential administration. He says he will “wait and see” what the future holds.
“I’m happy doing exactly what I’m doing,” says Dyer, who in late November will eclipse Carl Langford as Orlando’s longest-serving mayor. “I hope I have some more stuff to do before I’m remembered.”
2. John Morgan
Attorney, Businessman, Philanthropist
Just like last year, Morgan is pitching his law firm, raising money for Democratic candidates, leading the fight for medical marijuana, and funding favorite charities. While his multistate Morgan & Morgan firm pushes into new markets such as New York, Pennsylvania and Alabama—Robert Kennedy, Jr. was hired to head up its environmental division—Morgan is focused on engineering a “law firm of the future.” It is a digital platform to educate potential clients—up to 9,300 a month—while also connecting them with his attorneys or others in faraway states. “We’re making the transition from a law firm to a tech firm which does law,” he says. And for the second time, Morgan’s United for Care organization gathered nearly 700,000 signatures to place the medical marijuana measure on the 2016 ballot. So far, Morgan has spent $7 million on the initiative and vows he will win the necessary 60 percent to pass the constitutional amendment and win pain relief for needy patients. Morgan also plans to push for an amendment in 2018 that would raise Florida’s minimum hourly wage to $15. On the political front, he remains a regular White House visitor and major political fundraiser, having already held two events at his home for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, generating $1.6 million over the past year. Morgan helped the Harbor House domestic violence shelter break ground in October on a new emergency housing facility bearing his law firm’s name, after a $1 million donation. He also helped secure $1 million in state funding for Second Harvest Food Bank.
3. Teresa Jacobs
Orange County Mayor
In the past year, Jacobs has proposed and won approval for $300 million in infrastructure improvements—$200 million alone for road construction—without tax increases or budget cuts. On her watch, the region won another $14 million in state funding to bolster the modeling, simulation and training industry. Jacobs convened and co-chaired a Heroin Task Force to deal with the escalating spread of the drug, testifying before Congress on the 84 overdose deaths here in 2015. And to help the area keep its top U.S. tourist destination rank, the county developed plans to spruce up the convention center and International Drive. With a record 66 million tourists in 2015, Orange County collected $230 million in tourist development tax revenue last year. Jacobs—a Republican who prides herself on fiscal responsibility and transparency—has been the gatekeeper on the continuing debate on how much of those funds will be allocated among projects such as the Dr. Phillips Center expansion, tourist promotion and a winning bid for the NFL’s Pro Bowl. Meanwhile, she was a player in the county’s funding participation in the proposed downtown UCF-Valencia College campus; Orange County’s role in reducing homelessness; SunRail’s expansion south; and plans for a train between Orlando International Airport and I-Drive.
4. Frank Kruppenbacher
Attorney, Chairman of Greater Orlando Aviation Authority
A key ally of Gov. Rick Scott, Kruppenbacher is a powerful force on the political scene, both locally and statewide.
A Master Behind the Scenes
By Dan Tracy
Frank Kruppenbacher has been immersed in politics virtually his entire adult life, whether as chief counsel for the Orange County School Board or the city of Apopka, or as the current chairman of Orlando International Airport’s governing board.
Yet Kruppenbacher maintains he is tired of all the fighting and sniping that continually occurs between the two major parties.
“People who consider themselves Republicans and Democrats are destroying this country. We’re all Americans first,” says Kruppenbacher, who is a registered Republican but says he may change his affiliation to Independent.
Try as he might, Kruppenbacher will not escape the political world anytime soon. After all, he was one of the first in Florida to support Rick Scott when Scott initially ran for governor and no one really thought he had a chance to win, much less get re-elected. Scott and Kruppenbacher, along with their wives, have become friends and it is not uncommon for them to talk on the phone or meet for a meal.
Many believe Kruppenbacher’s relationship with Scott was instrumental in the airport winning a $213 million state grant two years ago to build a multi-modal train station a mile south of the main terminal. The attorney also had a behind-the-scenes role in Scott’s recent approval of a $20 million grant passed by the state Legislature to help the University of Central Florida build a satellite campus in downtown Orlando. (Last year, Scott had vetoed a similar deal.)
Kruppenbacher has embraced Scott’s job-creation philosophy on government-funded projects and the need to avoid wasteful spending, and the governor consults Kruppenbacher on key governmental appointments.
Kruppenbacher, who hails from Long Island, N.Y., works the other side of the political aisle as well. He's an attorney for John Morgan’s law firm, where he heads its children’s rights division. Morgan, a prominent Democratic fundraiser, says he talked to Kruppenbacher about joining the Morgan & Morgan firm when the latter was ending a 27-year run as the school board attorney. Kruppenbacher’s GOP affiliation was no deterrent.
“We’re the yin and yang,” Morgan says. “I’ve known Frank forever. Everybody has known Frank forever.”
Morgan says he encouraged Kruppenbacher to support Scott back in 2010. The reason: Morgan was no fan of Scott’s opponent in the Republican primary, former Florida attorney general and U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum.
Working with Democrats is not a problem, says Kruppenbacher, who recently lost more than 40 pounds by changing his diet and swimming a mile each day. He was the city attorney for nearly three decades with the late Democratic mayor of Apopka, John Land. One of Kruppenbacher’s most prominent airport board members, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, is a Democrat as well.
Kruppenbacher, who also provides legal counsel for Florida Virtual School and Bright House Networks, says he sees neither Republicans nor Democrats at the airport, the 13th busiest in the nation with 38.8 million passengers last year. He looks instead for people who can grow Orlando International, which, under his guidance, is embarking on its largest expansion—nearly $2 billion—since opening the main terminal in 1981.
He intends to serve the remaining two years of his term on the airport board, then step down.
“I think it’s good for the community that someone else comes in,” he says, “and builds on what we’ve done.”
5. Mayanne Downs
Attorney, City of Orlando; President, grayrobinson
Downs continues to be a major power player both inside and outside city hall. She is Mayor Buddy Dyer’s trusted adviser, most recently working behind the scenes to bring the downtown UCF campus and the Orlando City Soccer Club stadium to fruition, as well as helping put an ordinance on the books decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. Downs was recently tapped to run GrayRobinson, meaning she will oversee 290 lawyers at its 13 Florida offices, including Orlando. GrayRobinson recently gained more clout in Tallahassee through a merger with former Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon’s lobbying firm, which Downs engineered. (Cannon worked for GrayRobinson from 1995 to 2007.) Downs is a member of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, and served as chair of the JQC hearing panel looking into Orange County Circuit Judge Kim Shepard's alleged use of misleading campaign fliers in the 2014 election.
6. Andy Gardiner
State Senate President; Senior Vice President, Orlando Health
The Republican lawmaker concludes his term in November and will return home after 16 years in the Legislature. On his watch this year, legislators approved the downtown UCF campus project, full salary benefits to survivors of first-responders who die in the line of duty, and funding to support a career and financial independence for people with unique abilities, including the homeless, mentally ill and substance addicted. Gardiner, who has a son with Down syndrome, also led passage of the Personal Learning Scholarship Account for Pre-K-12 students with a disability, providing the option to apply for scholarship funds. It creates a Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities at UCF for statewide coordination of information and financial assistance. Additional legislation expands employment for disabled students to join Florida’s workforce. Gardiner says returning to Orlando full-time will be a “special time” for his family. But will he make another bid for office with the Orange County mayor’s job in 2018?
7. Marcos Marchena
Managing Shareholder, Marchena and Graham
The Orlando attorney is chairman of UCF’s Board of Trustees and played a key role in winning state approval for the UCF-Valencia College downtown campus, working closely with Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida university system’s Board of Governors and other partners, including UCF President John Hitt and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. What emerged from negotiations was a plan for a $60 million urban campus that would provide education and work opportunities—and meet the strict budget criteria of the jobs-obsessed Scott. “We had to walk a fine line between education and economic development,” Marchena says. As the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority’s general counsel, Marchena was involved in design approval of the planned South Terminal. He also has been a player in the All Aboard Florida high-speed train project to Miami.
8. Kelly Cohen
Managing Partner, Southern Strategy Group Orlando
Political strategist, lobbyist and business marketer, Cohen is one of Mayor Buddy Dyer’s top advisers. She was part of his re-election team last year, and Dyer gave away Cohen at her recent wedding. Over the past year, she worked with UCF and the city to secure state funding for the planned downtown campus, and with Orlando City Soccer on completion of its new stadium. She also is involved in the new, high-tech International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research in Osceola County. “My job isn’t only about advocating; it is essentially about helping businesses, nonprofits and government partners thrive,” she says. Influence Magazine named her as one of the 100 most influential people in Florida politics, and Florida Trend listed her as a “must know” player in Orlando/Orange County.
9. John Mica
Republican U.S. Representative
When it comes to all things transportation in Central Florida, 12-term congressman Mica is the guy. Whether expanding the I-4 Ultimate project south to Osceola County, connecting SunRail to Orlando International Airport or lobbying for a real-time, coordinated multicounty vehicle traffic system, Mica is well positioned as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets. He also has championed veterans care issues and chaired a hearing to fight the spread of heroin.
10. BIll Nelson
Democratic U.S. Senator
As the only Democratic U.S. Senator in the South, Nelson has had a lonely post as a supporter of President Obama. But he has remained active in his trademark low-key style, helping win Senate passage of $1.1 billion for emergency funding to battle the Zika virus in Florida, preserving the environment and regulating drones to protect commercial airliners. Nelson, whose name was briefly floated as a running mate for Hillary Clinton, has said he'll seek re-election to a fourth term in 2018.
11. Jeff Ashton
Orange-Osceola State Attorney
It has been a tumultuous year for the veteran prosecutor. After being revealed last summer as a member of the AshleyMadison.com dating site by the East Orlando Post, the married Ashton apologized, saying it never went further than viewing photos. In March, one of Ashton’s former female prosecutors announced she was challenging his 2016 re-election bid, in part because of Ashton’s personal judgment. Meanwhile, Ashton continues to personally handle high-profile murder and violent crime cases.
12. Jerry Demings
Orange County Sheriff
While violent crime in unincorporated Orange County is down 22 percent during Demings’ 7½ years in office, overall shootings and teen murders are up this year. That led him to form a violent-crime task force. And to combat the spread of heroin, Demings co-chaired the Orange County Heroin Task Force with Mayor Teresa Jacobs. He serves on FEMA’s National Advisory Council and is expected in July to become the first African American president of the Florida Sheriffs Association.
13. Patty Sheehan
Orlando City Commissioner
First elected to the city council in 2000, Sheehan continues to be a gregarious advocate for the people in her district.
Grassroots, Firmly Planted
By Jennie Hess
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan lets loose with an exuberant laugh after considering her secret to longevity in public office. “Twenty percent don’t like me,” she says, noting past polling results. “In politics, that’s pretty much a landslide, so I’ll take that any day!”
Politics aside, what really matters to Sheehan, first elected to the Orlando City Council in 2000 and re-elected every four years since, is the constituency she serves.
“I love going out and talking to people and finding out what their problems are and how we can help solve their issues,” Sheehan says. “When people know you honestly care about them and want to help make them successful, they want to make you successful.”
Central Florida’s first openly gay public official, Sheehan visits residents and business owners in District 4 almost nightly, and she has tackled issues across a broad spectrum. She’s a historic preservationist who’s determined to amend the city’s Land Development code so that new construction is more in scale with existing downtown buildings. She has worked to build community gardens, to help save Constitution Green Park and its centuries-old live oak tree, and to clean up and add luster to downtown’s Lake Eola Park and its iconic fountain.
The proud owner of a backyard chicken coop—home of Peep, Cheep and Bleep—Sheehan supports the cause for urban chickens, and she lobbied for the state law allowing doggie dining on downtown restaurant patios. She’s worked with the Trust for Public Land to acquire the Orlando Urban Trail, a favorite spot for exercise enthusiasts, including Sheehan.
An advocate for “fairness and equality for all citizens,” Sheehan helped officiate the City Hall ceremony for Florida’s first gay marriages, and she’s pleased that Orlando just earned its second Human Rights Campaign perfect score for inclusiveness toward its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.
“When I first got here, the gay city employees would wait until after 5 [p.m.] to come talk to me because they were afraid to let anybody know we were friends,” Sheehan says. “In the last 16 years, I’ve seen tremendous change.”
Sheehan has been rolling up her sleeves since age 13, when she went to work in a Central Florida azalea nursery that was exempt from child labor laws to help her single mom and sisters make ends meet. She worked her way through the University of Central Florida to earn an art degree—her “Bad Kitty” paintings can be found in local shops and clubs. Inspired by her late grandmother, Phyllis, who was known for her volunteerism, Sheehan founded a program to provide bicycles to students in Reeves Terrace public housing. At least 175 children now also receive backpacks with school supplies.
Despite vociferous public disagreement with Mayor Buddy Dyer over issues like the fate of historic Tinker Field, Sheehan says, “he and I agree to disagree sometimes.”
Is a mayoral or legislative race in her future?
“I support the current mayor,” Sheehan says. “If anything opens up, we’ll see. I would never go to Tallahassee. Washington’s a hot mess. I want to be effective, and here’s where I’m most effective. I always bloom where I’m planted. So we’ll see where that leads.”
14. Alan Grayson
Democratic U.S. Representative
Grayson helps bring home the federal bacon to Central Florida, from millions of dollars to extend SunRail, to grants for Valencia College and law enforcement, to citizen tax credits. His House tenure this year was marked by ethics violation allegations related to a hedge fund he runs, as well as a nasty dispute with House Minority Leader Harry Reid. The newly married Grayson is running for Marco Rubio's old Senate seat, while his wife is making a bid for her husband's current position.
15. Belvin Perry, Jr.
Attorney, Morgan & Morgan
Two years after retiring as Orange-Osceola County’s chief judge, Perry continues his longstanding role of lobbying legislators on justice issues. This year, he helped win passage of a law honoring Orange County Deputy Scott Pine, shot and killed in 2014. The measure gives full salary to survivors of first responders killed in the line of duty, including Pine’s widow. Perry serves on several civic boards, as well as the board of trustees of Bethune-Cookman University and Florida A&M University.