Running on Her Reputation

Teresa Jacobs’ frequent battles against the status quo as an Orange County commissioner proved she could fight. Now a candidate for county mayor, Jacobs is determined to show she can lead too. By Sean Holton




Photo By Norma Lopez Molina

Fifteen years ago, Teresa Jacobs made her foray into Orange County politics as a neighborhood activist. She hit a brick wall. She also got a brick wall. It runs right across her back yard, a daily reminder of her failed crusade to stop a four-lane highway project that sliced her southwest Orange neighborhood in two. Today—a few feet from her patio on the other side of the high wall—what was once an unobstructed view of a lake and nearby woods is now a roaring river of traffic called Apopka-Vineland Road.

“Hear the noise?” Jacobs asks. “I don’t spend any time on my patio.”

Even in solitary moments in her kitchen making bacon and eggs for breakfast, Jacobs can’t escape the din of cars, trucks and sirens. But she describes the relentless racket as an inspiration. It reminds her of what launched her political career and of the battles she fought during her eight years as an Orange County commissioner. Now the sound spurs her on to finish the much bigger crusade she started in late January to become county’s
next mayor.

If she succeeds, she says her first order of business will be to turn the county government inside out—essentially by throwing the “insiders” out.

“We need to change the culture of that organization back to an organization that respects and acknowledges that they work for the citizens of Orange County,” Jacobs, 53, says in an interview at
her home.

Jacobs is a late entry into the August non-partisan primary election. If no candidate garners 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters go to the November general election. Her opponents include three former colleagues on the county commission—Bill Segal, Mildred Fernandez and Linda Stewart—and political newcomer Matthew Falconer. Like her competition, Jacobs advocates economic growth and more efficient government.

What sets her apart in the race is her reputation as Orange County’s iconoclast-in-chief, someone willing to oppose the status quo of a county government that she criticizes for putting developers and other insiders ahead of regular citizens. She says she decided to jump into the race relatively late after seeing, in her view, no other candidates willing to take up that banner for fundamental reform.

“I waited to see who else would get in the race,” she says. “It wasn’t something I had to do. Personally, I don’t have to be mayor. But it is something we [elected officials] have to do. We have to change the way we engage the public.”

Jacobs’ campaign is off to a solid start financially. At presstime, before the deadline for filing her first quarterly fundraising report, she estimated she had raised $105,000 in the first two months of her campaign.  That amount would exceed what any of her rivals, except Segal, were able to raise through contributions in 2009. As of Dec. 31, Segal had raised nearly $500,000.

Jacobs said she isn’t worried about being outgunned financially by Segal, because she’s won as an underdog before. Her reputation as a contrarian, however, raises a key question for voters: We know Teresa Jacobs can fight, but can she lead?

Jacobs knows it’s a question she must answer, and she starts by attacking the conventional wisdom that she is the “anti-development” candidate.

“I’m not anti-development,” Jacobs insists, noting that she counts many developers among her financial supporters. “But I am anti-school-overcrowding. I am anti-road-congestion.”

Her enemies belong to what she sees as the chummy, backroom club of political insiders and development-industry pals who use their connections to public office to serve their own interests.
 

There’s No Shame in Losing

Jacobs’ first political success came in 2000, when she ran a grassroots campaign against District 1 Commissioner Bob Freeman and convincingly blasted him out of office just four years after he had pushed the road project through her neighborhood.

After gaining office, she fought—and often lost—battles over tougher ethics reforms; bans on corporate campaign contributions; and reining in developers with more scrutiny and higher fees that help pay for the surrounding impacts their projects have on traffic, schools and the environment. She approached each issue with a take-no-prisoners manner that blended mountains of research and analysis with the same tenacity she had back when she was a full-time mother of four trying to save her backyard tranquility.

“It’s better to lose than be wrong,” Jacobs says. “I’d rather be on the right side of the issue and lose than be on the wrong side and win.”

Along the way, Jacobs made enemies, including some on the county’s professional staff, other commissioners and especially Mayor Rich Crotty, who is nearing the end of his decade-long run in office.

For most of Jacobs’ time on the county commission, from 2000 to 2008, Crotty was her nemesis, with the two butting heads time and again over development and government ethics.

Both of those issues came to haunt Crotty when, in 2006, he was found to have made $112,000 in a land-investment partnership with a local developer who at about the same time was getting a favorable ruling on an unrelated project from Orange County’s planning staff. A special prosecutor cleared Crotty of any wrongdoing, but Jacobs was alone among commissioners to criticize the entire episode as yet another example of how the good ol’ boy system works in government and as a further erosion of public trust. Crotty’s investment deal gave her the ammo to call for sweeping campaign-finance and ethics reforms in county government. In the end, Jacobs failed to win support for stricter regulations of corporation contributions and a tougher requirement on commissioners to disclose business partners. Still, she supported the more limited package of reforms that passed unanimously.

Recently, Crotty and Segal came under scrutiny for possibly running afoul of one of those reforms. The Orlando Sentinel reported that the two attended “men-only” gatherings organized by a leading land-development lawyer-lobbyist. Attendees at the events were treated to gourmet food, top-shelf booze and fine cigars. After questions were raised about possible violations of a ban on gifts exceeding $35 to elected officials by lobbyists, Crotty and Segal wrote checks of $100 and $150 ($50 per event they attended), respectively, to cover their estimated costs.
 

Perception Isn’t Reality

Jacobs’ outspokenness on the commission generally got good media play. Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas called her “our most valuable elected official, someone who consistently outworks and outthinks everybody else in the room.”

Detractors, however, see her as lone ranger who’s been unable to cultivate strong relationships with county staff and commission colleagues. They say she couldn’t even build a consensus on the issues she cared about.

Commissioner Fred Brummer is as blunt about Jacobs as he says she was while they served together for two years. “It’s very easy to be a bomb thrower,” he says, referring to Jacobs. “It’s a lot more difficult to manage people. One of her styles was toembarrass staff publicly. It’s far more challenging when you’re the mayor and you have to produce results.”

Brummer and Jacobs have clashed frequently. Not long after he joined the commission, Brummer complained in a memo to Jacobs that he was distracted by her cell-phone use and text-messaging during meetings. Another time, he was heard saying, “Thank God” when Jacobs noted in passing that she only had a few months left on the board.

In 2003, Jacobs drew a strong rebuke from other colleagues who voted her out as the panel’s vice chairman after she used the phrase “perhaps corrupt” to describe a previous deal the board had approved to allow a billboard on county-owned land.

Jacobs meets the criticism that she can’t get along with others with an acknowledgement that it will be used against her in the mayor’s race. Characteristically, she plans to respond with research and data.

“First of all, that’s an image that others have created of me that is not even close to reality,” she says. “So if I can give you some facts to dispel that…”

For instance, she says it’s a myth that she was frequently the sole dissenter in commission votes. So she has her campaign staff combing through the minutes of meetings from all eight years of her service to count the actual number of such occasions. She says her own spot checks have found such occasions to be rare.

More broadly, she points to her leadership of such organizations as the Orange County Homeowners Association Alliance, the Florida Association of Counties and the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council as examples of being able to work with groups. After leaving county government, she worked with a variety of local governments in positions at the University of Central Florida and the Florida Department of Transportation.

“Why was I having a hard time on the Orange County Commission when I seem to succeed everywhere else?” Jacobs wonders.

Then, answering her own question, she cites the unique dynamics of the Orange County board. It’s a system with a powerful but term-limited mayor—part executive and part legislative leader—leading a board of term-limited commissioners whose longevity in office depends on moving up rather than staying put. And she says the result is like a reality show that puts competition ahead of
collegiality.

“Any commissioner who steps out of the fold and tries to do something—if it’s a good idea there’s almost this tendency to squash that idea and that person,” Jacobs says. “It’s more like the Survivor culture where the best doesn’t succeed—the best has to be stomped.”

Jacobs says that dynamic doesn’t matter now that she’s off the board and campaigning for mayor as an outsider. In her view, all that matters is convincing voters that she is the candidate with the purest motives, the highest level of integrity and the best ideas for the job. And this time around, it might take more than a brick wall to stop her.

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