50 Most Powerful

They make the laws, keep us safe, instruct our kids, inform, entertain and, sometimes, infuriate us. But whether they are outspoken or work behind the scenes, the powerful among us have one thing in common: They affect the way we live. Our 2010 selections of the 50 Most Powerful People in Orlando include names from government, law enforcement, education, public relations, sports and entertainment. You’ll find that some people have moved up the list from last year, while others have slipped. Some who were on previous lists have fallen off altogether, making room for up-and-coming personalities. We also have added some individuals to our Hall of Power, a designation that means the person has made at least five consecutive appearances on the list and has a reputation for being influential in political, business or civic circles. So here’s to the powers that be. In this tumultuous time, may they wield their influence wisely.

2 Meg Crofton
Walt Disney World Resort
Age: 56

Keeping the tourists coming—and the Mouse healthy—have been huge challenges in this economy. Crofton has proved she’s up to the task, but she’s also stepped out of the land of pixie dust to become a visible, involved presence in her community, which is why she shoots up to No. 2 on our list. Besides serving on a regional commission to tackle the problem of homelessness, Crofton is chairwoman of the Economic Development Commission. After the Orlando Sentinel questioned whether the EDC was overstating the number of jobs it helps create and retain, Crofton responded by changing the way the figures are verified and compiled. And when a child was run over and killed by a Disney bus earlier this year, it was Crofton, not a lower-level Disney spokesman, who stepped forward to express condolences to the family. 2009 Rank: 12

3 John Mica
U.S. Representative
Age: 67

With SunRail’s chances of coming to fruition in jeopardy last fall, Mica used the carrot-and-stick approach to get the commuter rail project through the Florida Senate, which twice had rejected it. The ranking Republican on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee warned that the state had no hope of getting $2.6 billion for a high-speed rail line connecting Orlando with Tampa if the Senate didn’t pass SunRail. The tactic worked, but the state got only half the amount it sought for the 90-mile HSR link. Still, Mica, representing Florida’s 7th Congressional District, is pushing grand—and hugely expensive—plans for mass transit via rail, with high-speed, commuter and light rail connecting Florida’s major cities. 2009 Rank: 40

4 John Hitt
University of Central Florida
Age: 69

Hitt is certainly no stranger to this list. In fact, in both 2006 and 2007 he topped it. This year he’s No. 4 (up from No. 8 last year), which means he’s still a super-heavy hitter hereabouts. And the reasons should not be mysterious. Somewhere along the line—when a lot of people were looking the other way—UCF acquired the country’s third largest student body. So in terms of sheer size, at least, the school is a force to be reckoned with—and so is its president. As UCF’s leader, Hitt has played a role in mass-transit issues, including SunRail and toll rates. Meanwhile, the emergence of the university’s new medical college can only bolstor his portfolio. 2009 Rank: 8

5 Alan Grayson
U.S. Representative
Age: 52

He is a political firebrand, to be sure, but name another rookie U.S. House member who has Grayson’s national profile. He got it by sticking his foot in his mouth on a few occasions (“K Street whore”) and by dishing out the same flavor of vitriol the far right is famous for hurling, making him a YouTube sensation and the go-to liberal voice on MSNBC and CNN. But Grayson isn’t all hot talk; he’s a workaholic in the House and he brings home federal bacon to Florida’s 8th Congressional District. Republicans have drawn a bead on his seat in this fall’s midterm elections. 2009 Rank: 21

6 Rich Crotty
Mayor of
Orange County
Age: 61

Could this be Crotty’s last appearance on the Most Powerful list? That depends on what he does in the waning months of his final term and after he leaves office in January. It’s hard to imagine Crotty just riding off into the sunset.  Since topping our 2009 list, Crotty has been busy dealing with the county’s declining finances, ordering across-the-board spending cuts and furloughs, while trying to lure new business to the area. He’s also been less development-friendly in light of the real estate market meltdown, particularly with a request to build more than 6,300 residential units in east Orange County. Crotty also has had to deal with a more politicized county commission, as three members on it took aim at him and at one another while running to fill his seat. 2009 Rank: 1 

7 Alex Martins,
COO, Orlando Magic
Age: 46

Sure, he’s taking some heat because the Magic didn’t make it to the NBA finals, with fans questioning his and GM Otis Smith’s blueprint for success. But expect that angst to fade in about three months when the Amway Center opens. Make no mistake: Martins has an influential role in downtown’s economic well-being. He was the driving force behind construction of the mega-arena and, to top things off, recently landed the 2012 NBA All-Star Game for O-Town. That event will be a godsend to the local hospitality industry. Martins isn’t all business, though. He is one of the Magic’s compassionate faces in the numerous community goodwill endeavors the organization supports. 2009 Rank: 11

8  Craig Ustler
Downtown Developer, Restaurateur
Age: 41

A devotee of urban environments where you live, work and play, Ustler for years has been molding downtown Orlando’s Thornton Park neighborhood to conform to his vision. This spring, he raised his profile as an urban developer with his bid to transform the Centroplex property, site of the Amway Arena and Bob Carr, into a “Creative Village” composed of commercial spaces, digital media schools, parks and residential towers. Among the politically and civically influential in Orlando, he sits on the board of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. 2009 Rank: 23

9 Lee Constantine
State Senator
Age: 57

The Altamonte Springs Republican’s last year in the Senate was a doozy, with victories on a landmark clean-water bill and SunRail. Constantine led the initiative to require  inspections of the nearly 3 million septic tanks in Florida and to install sewers in Key West, efforts aimed at improving the quality of state waterways, including the Wekiva River basin. In a separate bill, he led a move to raise the state’s recycling rate to 75 percent by 2020. But it’s what Constantine didn’t shepherd through the Senate that bears mention: state Rep. Dean Cannon’s (No. 11) bill in support of offshore oil drilling. 2009 Rank: 17

10 Ronald Blocker
Orange County Public Schools
Age: 57

Blocker remains one of the most influential persons on our list for reasons that go beyond the political and persuasive.  He sets the agenda for the 10th largest school district in the country, with 175,363 students and 21,349 employees (including 12,000 teachers) under his purview. The last two school years have been among Blocker’s most tumultuous, as cuts in resources and a controversial but ill-fated teacher merit-pay proposal chipped away at teacher morale. He is now dealing with audits of his school-rebuilding program and the district’s bus operation, both under scrutiny as wasteful with public money. 2009 Rank: 2

11 Dean Cannon
State Representative
Age: 41

Another ardent SunRail backer, Cannon is in line to become the next speaker of the House, a position that would complement his image as a Republican Party wunderkind. But the Winter Park resident first must retain his District 35 seat this November, and that race may not be a cakewalk. Cannon has drawn criticism for his support of offshore oil drilling, his charges on a state GOP credit card and his efforts to “clarify” (some would say undermine) two anti-gerrymandering amendments headed for the November ballot. While his decision to rescind his endorsement of Charlie Crist’s U.S. Senate bid was the right move politically, Cannon could be in line for payback should the governor win the race as an independent. 2009 Rank: 6

12 Lars Houmann
President and CEO,
Florida Hospital
Age: 52

Houmann has become a major player in both health care and economic development. Florida Hospital continues to expand, having just opened the fantastical Disney pavilion at its children’s hospital. Next on the list is the debut of Health Village, an $80 million-plus complex next to the main hospital that will house diabetes, transplant and digestive health specialties, and include a 200-unit apartment building. Houmann also heads up bioOrlando, a group committed to drawing life sciences industries to the region. 2009 Rank: 13

13 Helen Donegan
Vice President, Division of Community Relations, UCF
Age: 63

“Nexus of power” is a phrase you’re likely to hear whenever talk turns to Helen Donegan. Like a sales rep working a roomful of prospects, she’s spent years working the Orlando scene, making friends and forging alliances among the movers and shakers.   Founder of the power-lunching Friends of Helen Executive Women’s Networking Group, Donegan could teach a class at UCF on the power of community involvement. She is married to Bill Donegan (No. 26), a well-connected public figure in his own right. 2009
Rank: 10

14 Bill Nelson
U.S. Senator
Age: 67

A resident of Baldwin Park, the moderate Democrat consistently has been an advocate for NASA, having ridden on space shuttle Columbia, and the environment, having taken the lead on climate-change issues. Never a fan of offshore drilling, he has, in the wake of BP’s oil spill disaster, attracted national attention by calling for the Obama administration to take over efforts to stop the leak. 2009 Rank: 16

15 Clarence Otis
Chairman and CEO,
Darden Restaurants
Age: 54

With restaurants ranging from Olive Garden to Bahama Breeze, Red Lobster to Seasons 52, Longhorn Steakhouse to The Capital Grille, Darden bills itself as “the world’s largest full-service restaurant company.” In a sense, we’re all eating from Otis’ menus. And his influence extends far beyond the gastronomical through the Darden Restaurants, Inc. Foundation, which supports education, social services and the preservation of natural resources. 2009 Rank: 14

16 Harris Rosen
Rosen Hotels and Resorts
Age: 70

With seven Orlando-area hotels in his bulging portfolio, Rosen not only employs a lot of local people but also helps to shape the impression of our community that visitors carry home with them. And it’s an indication of the scope of his influence that his family name appears on both UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando’s Jack & Lee Rosen Southwest Orlando Campus. His local philanthropy well documented, Rosen extended his humanitarian reach to Haiti, sending aid to earthquake victims there. [Food and dining are Rosen hallmarks, as is story-telling;  see page 58.] 2009 Ranking: 9

17 Rasesh Thakkar
Senior Managing Director,
Tavistock Group
Age: 48

While the recession has put a damper on development in the medical city corridor Thakkar helped to create, his influence with key political and business leaders remains strong. That’s because billionaire developer Joe Lewis’ Tavistock Group, which Thakkar runs, has a lot of land and money riding on plans to turn a swath of east Orange County into an intellectual hamlet, with high-paying jobs in the health-care and research fields. When that area, where Tavistock owns the ultrarich gated community Lake Nona, rebounds from the real estate slump, look for Thakkar’s visions to start coming true. 2009 Rank: 3

18 Scott Maxwell
Orlando Sentinel  columnist
Age: 38

He was part of an answer on Jeopardy! recently (“Scott Maxwell stands guard for this Orlando paper.’’). And if that weren’t enough to keep him high on our list, Maxwell is a must-read who continues to take the powerful to task, unafraid of exposing local and state politicians as con artists, gay bashers, hypocrites or worse. 2009 Rank: 31

19 Bill Segal
Orange County Commissioner,
Candidate for County Mayor
Age: 60

Segal has held the inside lane in the mayoral race since the day he announced his candidacy more than a year ago because he is as well known as he is liked in Orlando’s civically, culturally and politically involved cliques. The “doers” of Orlando—the folks who get things done—are loyal Segal backers, but can the establishment carry him to victory? Next month’s primary should give us a good read on the lifetime local resident’s appeal beyond the  core of Orlando insiders. 2009 Rank: 22

20 John Morgan
Attorney and
Political Fundraiser
Age: 54

Morgan is Central Florida’s fundraiser extraordinaire, with beneficiaries across the spectrum: He has hosted thousands-of-dollars-a-plate galas for everybody from liberal U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to conservative state Rep. Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park). Morgan also has raised cash for Gov. Charlie Crist and advised him to run for the Senate as an independent, advice that Crist heeded. And oh, yeah, he’s a pretty famous lawyer, too. 2009 Rank: 28

21 Jerry Demings
Orange County Sheriff
Age: 50

In just his second year in office, Demings has demonstrated that his low-key, just-get-things-done style may be a perfect fit for these trying times. He recently negotiated a budget cut for his department down to 3 percent —county officials had wanted 5 percent, but Demings said that would mean taking deputies off the road. And between 2008 and 2009, the county’s murder rate dropped drastically. 2009
Rank: 30

22 Val Demings
Orlando Police Chief
Age: 53

Gone are the Demings controversies of last year—her gun stolen, her threat to sue a website critical of her performance. Instead, the focus has been on law enforcement and it has shown—a 34 percent decline in the city’s violent crime rate (which may have to do with Demings’ emphasis on seizing illegal guns), plus favorable reviews for her department’s quick response to the mass shooting at Gateway Center. 2009 Rank: 44

23 John Hillenmeyer
CEO, Orlando Health
Age: 62

He’s retiring in December, but what a journey it’s been! During his 13 years at the helm of Orlando Health, Hillenmeyer has overseen the opening of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. On tap: a $750 million capital plan that includes the expansion and renovation of Orlando Regional Medical Center. Hillenmeyer also had a huge say in the selection of his successor, Orlando Health veteran and strategic planning guru Sherrie Sitarik. 2009 Rank: 20.

24 Andy Gardiner
State Senator
Age: 41

Word is that the Orlando Republican may already have the votes lined up to become Senate president for the 2015-16 session. Gardiner’s rise to power has been fueled by his successful push for SunRail and his conservative stances—including sponsorship of a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound (and look at the image). At press time, it was still on the governor’s desk. Gardiner’s other position of power is with Orlando Health as its director of business and community relations. Last Ranking: 10 in 2008

25 Tom Williams
Chairman and CEO,
Universal Parks & Resorts
Age: 62

As the buzz grows louder and more furious around The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, attention increasingly turns to Universal Orlando. Williams, as head of Universal Parks & Resorts, is at least as much at the center of the hype as young Harry is. And that’s not even taking into account the somewhat smaller boost the park has received from Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, which opened last August. 2009 Rank: 18

For complete list, pick-up the July 2010 issue of Orlando magazine!

Categories: Features