50 Most Powerful 2017: Government & Politics

Our annual list focuses on the government officials, business people, educators, performers and others who are shaping our community.

Government & Politics
Tourism and Transportation
Philanthropy & Community Voices

During his more than 14 years as Orlando’s mayor, Buddy Dyer has dominated the Central Florida government scene, leading the way on projects such as the Amway Center, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, SunRail and the new soccer stadium.

Dyer has earned a reputation as a builder of structures—and of political and business coalitions to gain public and financial support. And for five straight years, he has earned Orlando magazine’s No. 1 ranking on the annual 50 Most Powerful People list.

But last year, Dyer displayed a different kind of power—that of consoling, healing and bringing together a diverse community ravaged by a gunman who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub near downtown Orlando. It was the worst mass murder in the nation's history.

“June 12th was the worst day of my entire administration and the worst day in the history of the city,” he says. “But every day since, I have been more proud to be the mayor than at any other time because of the community response.”

It was Dyer who first stood before microphones and cameras on that Sunday morning, fighting to keep his composure. He took a deep breath, gulped and calmly told reporters that the number of “casualties” at the gay club wasn’t 20, as originally thought. It was 50. They were all deaths, including the gunman.

Over the next several hours and days, he and other local, state and federal officials continued with press updates to reassure residents that the sole attacker was dead and that survivors and victims' families were being cared for. They urged the city to pull together and respond with support for the LGBT community, as well as love, not hate for the Muslim community, where the attacker came from in South Florida. Dyer spoke at vigils and his staff helped set up the OneOrlando Fund to collect $33 million in donations and assist victims and their loved ones.

Residents turned out in droves to donate blood, water, food, money and provide support at public rallies. 

“By being a long-serving mayor, I’ve built up credibility,” Dyer says. “And that credibility was important on June 12. I’ve had many, many people say, ‘I felt safe. I felt secure. I knew what was going on.’ "

His calm approach—and the press and social media communication plan by the city and Orlando Police —had been well-rehearsed. Dyer says he realized the importance of communication after 2004’s Hurricane Charlie knocked out electricity in the area for several days. And it was honed in subsequent local tabletop training exercises following unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Baltimore in 2015.

New America, a Washington policy research institute that studied the city’s Pulse media response, applauded Dyer as a “charismatic and experienced mayor” who made the right moves.

“Dyer used his position as a trusted local official to shape how the wider public might interpret the attack, including clear and comforting language, acknowledging the LGBT community, and keeping the focus on the victims and their families, rather than the shooter,” the October 2016 report states.

Several persons interviewed for the research study called Dyer “ ‘a hero’ who contributed greatly to the resilience of the community.”

Since the attack, Dyer has spoken at various conferences around the country about terrorism, emergency response and the LGBT community—which, he notes, had never intersected before Pulse.

The nightclub attack response dwarfed other accomplishments for Dyer and the community over the past year: the new soccer stadium; breaking ground on the UCF-Valencia College Downtown Campus and phase two of the Dr. Phillips Center; and opening the U.S. Tennis Association's National Campus in Lake Nona. 

Seven months ago, Dyer passed the late Carl Langford as Orlando’s longest-serving mayor, something he said he never actually set out to do when first elected in 2003. Langford, who served from 1967 to 1980, was known as a fiscally conservative leader and entertainer who relished promoting the still sleepy city gaining attention from the arrival of Walt Disney World. 

But Dyer, aided by the county’s huge tourist development tax and partners such as UCF and Tavistock Group, has led a major building spree in the city. Amway Center, the renovation of Camping World Stadium, a new police headquarters and SunRail also became reality by Dyer reaching across the aisle and partnering with businesses.

To him, taking on big construction projects was a simple calculation of “risk and the potential return,” which his financial staff evaluated. “We took [financial] risk…but we always had substantial reserves.''

“It’s more what you’ve done than how long you served,” Dyer says. “And I’m not through doing yet.” 

He says he continues to have fun and recognizes how “special” it is to serve as mayor.

“We’re in this cool period…where we have so many major things going on that could be some other city’s single, major accomplishment for the year,” Dyer says. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how well this community works together in partnership and collaboration, and everyone tries to do that. But there are a lot of communities that are not that way.”

— Jim Leusner

2. JohnMorgan 
Attorney, Businessman, Philanthropist

Is the people’s lawyer going to become the people’s governor? On his second try since 2014, John Morgan won his $8 million personal crusade to have Florida voters approve a constitutional amendment for medical marijuana, with 71 percent of the vote. The overwhelming victory—during an abysmal election performance nationwide by his Democratic Party—later led Morgan’s former point man on the marijuana initiative to start a petition drafting the attorney for governor in 2018. Just two years ago, Morgan told Orlando magazine that he wanted to focus more on philanthropic ventures and enjoy his family and multiple waterfront homes. But that may have changed after Hillary Clinton, a friend for whom he raised $3 million, was upset by billionaire Donald Trump. Morgan has been speaking to civic groups around the state, laying out priorities for what he says would be a single, four-year term as governor. They include raising the minimum wage; dialing back charter schools; and decriminalizing drug possession charges he says are largely filed against addicts. Morgan says he will decide whether to run later this year or in early 2018. “I can afford to wait and watch the food fight before I decide to walk into the cafeteria,” he says. “That’s actually how I look at it.” Although he readily talks about the ever-expanding 370-lawyer Morgan & Morgan firm, his new classaction.com advertising brand, his investment funds, and the tourist attractions he owns, Morgan shies away from publicly discussing the millions he and wife Ultima give to charitable causes each year. Beneficiaries have included Second Harvest Food Bank and the Harbor House domestic violence shelter. Because Morgan has the luxury of name recognition and great wealth, he can self-finance a campaign. He won’t reveal his precise net worth, only saying that it’s “north of Mitt Romney.” Various estimates have put Romney's worth as high as $250 million.

3. Frank Kruppenbacher
Attorney; Chairman of Greater Orlando Aviation Authority

Perhaps no one has risen faster on the Top 50 power list the past few years than Kruppenbacher. As the powerful chairman of GOAA, he is overseeing expansion at the nation’s 13th busiest airport, handling 42 million visitors annually. Much of his power comes from his close ties to Gov. Rick Scott, as he often assists behind the scenes in securing state funds for regional projects or advising on patronage appointments. Scott recently appointed him to Florida’s Constitutional Revision Commission, which reviews possible changes every 20 years for voters to consider. “A lot of people say they talk to Gov. Scott,” says one government official. “But Frank really does.” He also played a role in drawing the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Campus and accounting firm KPMG’s worldwide training center to Lake Nona. At May’s KPMG dedication, Rasesh Thakkar, senior managing director of Tavistock Group and Lake Nona’s development, recognized Kruppenbacher as an “obstacle stopper” whose airport collaboration was vital in landing the deal. Thakkar added: “Frank has ensured that not only is the airport the gateway to the world, but also the gateway for business.” Kruppenbacher functions as the Republican wingman for Orlando personal injury lawyer John Morgan and is a partner in his firm, specializing in government and children’s issues. In addition, he operates his own law firm and works with clients such as the Florida Virtual School; Charter Communications; the Orange County Property Appraiser; and Osceola County School Board. He is a board member of the conservative James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based think tank.

4. Mayanne Downs
Attorney, City of Orlando; President, Gray Robinson

The influence of Downs, one of Mayor Buddy Dyer’s top advisers and the city attorney since 2007, continued to grow over the past year. After the Pulse massacre, she took charge of determining what records and 911 calls could be released, and coordinated the city’s response in legal matters with federal and state authorities. She also formed the OneOrlando Fund and its board and served as its legal counsel; the fund incurred zero expenses, meaning all of the $33 million contributed went to Pulse survivors and victims’ families. Over the years, Downs has been instrumental in helping Dyer secure various downtown entertainment and sports venues, as well as the UCF-Valencia Downtown Campus. Outside City Hall, she is finishing her first year as president and managing director of GrayRobinson, one of the state's biggest law firms with 300-plus attorneys in 13 offices. It gained even greater reach last year after bringing former House Speaker Dean Cannon and his prominent lobbying firm into the fold. Downs is a member of the Judicial Qualifications Commission and has been trial judge for jurists accused of misconduct. She is well known as a mentor to young lawyers.

5. Teresa Jacobs
Orange County Mayor

For Jacobs, much of the past year has been about helping the area recover from the Pulse attack—and showing the world what makes Central Florida special. “The community’s biggest accomplishment was how it responded to Pulse  and the way it rose to the occasion to support the LGBT community in particular, and the Hispanic community,” says Jacobs, who has been Orange County mayor for 6½ years. She and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer helped rally their respective governments and communities, and she was a familiar voice at the Pulse press conferences and community vigils. She also led the move to fly the gay pride flag on the Orange County administration building. “When a community sees their elected leaders working together—when they see that unity—I think that helps,” Jacobs says. In the past year, Jacobs helped restructure the downtown venues’ debt to free up an additional $45 million for the second phase of the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, and established a $5 million fund to attract major sporting events. She remains a leader in the fights against the heroin-opioid epidemic and human trafficking. She also earmarked $15 million for pedestrian safety with improvements to crosswalks, signals and signs. Jacobs was a key partner on major business development projects, including the KPMG global training center and U.S. Tennis Association National Campus, both at Lake Nona.

6. Marcos Marchena
Senior Shareholder, Marchena and Graham, P.A.

After serving as one of the critical links between the University of Central Florida and Gov. Rick Scott on the downtown campus project last year, Marchena, the school's board of trustees chairman, reprised that role to help win approval from the state Board of Governors for a teaching hospital partnership for the university with Hospital Corporation of America. The facility is to be built next to UCF's College of Medicine in Lake Nona. As general counsel for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, Marchena continues to help execute plans for Orlando International Airport's $1.8 billion planned South Terminal expansion, including 16 new gates and an intermodal station designed to connect a local people mover train with rail service to Miami. The airport, with an operating capacity of 40 million passengers, already is handling 42 million annually. 

7. Kelly Cohen
Managing Partner, Southern Strategy Group

Kelly Cohen is all business—for business in Orlando. The strategist and lobbyist had a hand in everything from Orlando City Soccer and its new stadium to the UCF-Valencia College Downtown Campus. She also is involved in Osceola County’s advanced technology center BRIDG; Tavistock’s Medical City and Sunbridge development projects; and medical marijuana expansion. Perhaps best known as an adviser and fundraiser for Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Cohen has been active in growing the region’s startup technology sector and assisting various nonprofit civic groups. She serves on the boards of the Orlando Economic Partnership; the Creative City Project, an annual arts and music festival; the nonprofit high-tech shared work space Canvs; the Orlando Tech Association; and the FireSpring Fund to provide capital for technology entrepreneurs. She also is on the board of directors for the Orlando Children’s Trust and advisory boards for Clean the World, which provides recycled hotel soap to the poor, and Wells Fargo. In October, the Orlando Business Journal named her one of its CEOs of the Year.

8. Jerry Demings
 Orange County Sheriff

Over the past year, Demings has dealt with the Pulse massacre; a deadly alligator attack on a boy at Disney; the loss of a deputy during the manhunt for a fugitive wanted for killing an Orlando police sergeant; and a workplace shooting that killed five victims. Last fall, the Democrat was re-elected to his third term, while wife Val won a congressional seat. He recently announced he is considering a run for Orange County mayor in 2018. Demings testified twice before congressional panels, requesting more funding to counter terrorism and asking to re-evaluate the risk-scoring process for the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas in attempts to get the Orlando-Sanford-Kissimmee area more support following the Pulse attack. He is co-chair of Orange County’s Heroin Task Force combating the opioid epidemic, and his department also has attacked violent crime in west Orange County. He is president of the Florida Sheriffs Association and sits on the Department of Homeland Security’s FEMA National Advisory Council. He is active in the Boy Scouts; Boys and Girls Clubs; Orange County Police Athletic League; and Children’s Safety Village.

9. John Mina
Orlando Police Chief

Just a few years ago, Mina was on the hot seat. A handful of Orlando police excessive force cases captured on video grabbed headlines. A civil rights group even demanded that he resign. But Mina and his staff handed out stiff punishment, increased training, approved police body cameras and made officers more accountable. Then came last year's Pulse nightclub massacre and, nearly seven months later, the killing of OPD Sgt. Debra Clayton. In both cases, Mina appeared before the cameras with his trademark calm voice and demeanor, explaining the complicated Pulse standoff, and Clayton’s killing and the eight-day dragnet to capture the suspect.  Mina’s connection with and continuing outreach to the community and his officers was well received—and he has spoken to law enforcement groups around the country and overseas about Pulse. He has been selected the 2016-2017 Outstanding Chief Executive of the Year by the Florida Police Chiefs Association. And with Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings recently announcing he may run for county mayor in 2018, Mina says he would “give serious thought” to running for the sheriff's post.

10. Bill Nelson
Democratic U.S. Senator

Nelson is Florida’s elder political statesman: He was elected to the state Legislature in 1972; the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 and the U.S. Senate in 2000. These days, he has been a strong voice against President Donald Trump undoing policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama. A 12-term congressman before being joining the Senate, Nelson is expected to be challenged in his 2018 bid for a fourth term by Republican Gov. Rick Scott.  Nelson, 74, is the senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and ranking Democrat on its new cybersecurity subcommittee, formed in the wake of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He also is the top Democrat on the Senate’s Commerce Committee, which oversees transportation safety nationwide. Nelson has been a proponent for the elderly and veterans, and pushed to improve health care, fought Florida offshore oil drilling and supported NASA funding for Mars exploration. Earlier this year, he and other Democratic leaders offered a $1 trillion plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure with $180 billion to expand bus, rail and port services, including in Florida.

11. Patty Sheehan
Orlando City Commissioner

Along with Mayors Buddy Dyer and Teresa Jacobs, Sheehan was arguably the most visible presence in the days after the massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub, an event that affected her deeply: She was Central Florida’s first openly gay elected public official after all, and has served in her council post since 2000. In the hours and days after Pulse, Sheehan was on the forefront of offering comfort to those who had survived the mass shooting. A grassroots community leader, Sheehan also has championed causes such as a bike trail along Bumby Avenue, saving the centuries-old live oaks in Constitution Green Park, an urban chicken program, the opening of dog parks, recycling, and the cleanup of city lakes. All the while she promotes a dialogue on the importance of LGBT equality. Once Dyer decides his work as mayor is finished, look for Sheehan to be a formidable candidate for his seat.

12. Val Demings
Democratic U.S. Representative

A Newcomer to the house works to Energize the Resistance  
By Dan Tracy

Val Demings harbors no illusions about her place in Congress: She is a freshman representative in the minority Democratic Party faced with a Republican president, Donald Trump, who seems to stand for just about everything she opposes.

That puts her squarely in the so-called resistance movement against Trump and what appears to be an ascendant Republican and conservative moment in history. But Demings is not complaining.

“Get the moaning out, the crying over,” she told about 100 supporters during a recent gathering in the Orchid Room at Church Street Station in downtown Orlando.

It is time, she said, to rebuild the Democratic Party locally, in Florida and nationally and to start promoting and winning the vote and debates on issues she believes will make America great again. Like gun control, for one.

Named the first woman police chief in the history of the Orlando Police Department in 2007, Demings wants universal background checks, even for gun shows, as well as ensuring that people on the terrorist watch list are prohibited from purchasing weapons.

“This is not about the Second Amendment and keeping guns from law-abiding citizens,” she told Orlando magazine. “It’s about keeping guns away from terrorists and lone wolves.”

Gun control as a top priority for Demings was reinforced the morning of June 12, 2016, when 49 people were killed and 53 others wounded by a lone gunman at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

Demings was so dismayed that she invited Christine Leinonen to accompany her to Trump’s first joint address to the House and Senate in February. Leinonen son’s, Christopher, was killed at Pulse.

Leinonen says she was honored to attend Trump’s speech because it gave her a chance to be Christopher’s voice.
“Common sense gun control is what the American people want,” Leinonen says, adding, “Val Demings is going to be part of the solution.”

Demings scoffs at the “F” rating she received from the National Rifle Association, saying as a retired police chief she has a better handle on public safety and gun violence than a lobbying group, albeit one of the most powerful in the country.

“Follow the money,” Demings says. “It’s all about the money. When people don’t do the right thing, follow the money.”

Demings is no stranger to the kind of money it takes to run for office. She raised $2 million to win her congressional seat last year. It was her second attempt at Congress after losing to Republican Daniel Webster in 2012. 

Court-mandated redistricting in 2015 resulted in Demings’ District 10 seat being more amenable to Democrats. Webster moved to another district more conducive to Republicans and returned to Congress.

Losing to Webster in 2012, then dropping out of a race for Orange County mayor two years later were low points in Demings’ political career.
“I was disappointed but not knocked down,” she says. “Win or lose, I knew I made the right decision.”

Demings' husband of 29 years, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, says he is not surprised to see his spouse and the mother of their three sons now shuttling between Central Florida and Washington, D.C.

When they met three decades ago — she was a beat cop, he was a detective — he says they “talked about the possibility of impacting people’s lives. Wherever that would take us, that was what we would do.”