50 Most Powerful 2017: Philanthropy & Community Voices
Our annual list focuses on the government officials, business people, educators, performers and others who are shaping our community.
1. Joel Hunter
Senior Pastor, Northland, A Church Distributed
In Hunter’s 32 years as Northland’s pastor, the nondenominational Longwood-based church has grown from 200 worshipers to more than 20,000 taking part locally and worldwide, including congregations in Oviedo, Eustis and multitudes via the Web. Hunter, who was a spiritual adviser to President Obama, is the chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. He launched the Community Resource Network to mobilize faith groups to help provide resources and volunteer support for homeless families. The pastor is well known for speaking out and establishing a dialogue on various social issues, from gun control to the death penalty. After the Pulse tragedy, he questioned how the church treats the LGBT community; in May, Northland hosted a conversation on LGBT inclusion and understanding in the church with Matthew Vines from The Reformation Project, a Christian grassroots organization that works to promote inclusion of LGBT people by reforming church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity. Last year, Hunter received the Public Servant Award from Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority of mostly African American women. He also participated in PBS' Armed in America: Faith and Guns, a televised community and national conversation.
2. Jim Pugh
Board Chairman, Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
It’s hard to believe that the Dr. Phillips Center is coming up on its third anniversary. For decades, it seemed an impossible dream; that the dazzling venue exists is in large part because of Pugh, who contributed millions of his own money and was the driving force to get it built. Pugh, chairman of the Dr. Phillips board, also led the army of shovels breaking ground in the spring on the final stage of the center, a 1,700-seat acoustical theater that will house performances of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Orlando Ballet and Opera Orlando. Steinmetz Hall is set for completion in 2020 at a cost of nearly $240 million, and Pugh will play a key role in raising the remaining $15 million needed for the project. Beyond Dr. Phillips, his community efforts including working with the local Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida to relocate from Maitland to downtown Orlando. On the business side, Pugh heads Epoch Residential, one of the biggest apartment developers in the country, with 37,000 units in 56 cities.
3. Paula White
Pastor, New Destiny Christian Center; Presidential Adviser
How A Local Pastor Became Part Of Trump's Inner Circle
By Jim Leusner
It was 15 years ago while watching television that New York billionaire Donald Trump first spotted Paula White. He immediately called her studio, talked with the televangelist, recounted three of her sermons and told White: “You have the ‘it’ factor.” He asked her to come to New York to meet him.
And so started her spiritual relationship with the real estate magnate who would become president. White says she later became close to Trump and his family, including daughter Ivanka. She says she has held hands in prayer with him before Trump’s former Apprentice television shows, during the presidential campaign and, now, in the White House.
White, who pastors a local nondenominational church, was front and center at Trump’s inauguration, giving an invocation and joined by five other prominent religious leaders. Since then, she has been photographed next to the president at the White House on days when he nominated a U.S. Supreme Court justice and signed an executive order on religious liberty. (In the inset photo above, White is shown in February with Trump and National Rifle Association executive Wayne LaPierre.)
“My main assignment for him [Trump] is to pray for him and be his friend,” says White, who chairs the president's Evangelical Advisory Council. “…The president trusts me.”
White says she acts as a “facilitator’’ on matters involving religion or areas in which she has expertise or contacts—including the needs of the poor in the U.S. and Africa, human trafficking, homelessness, and rehabilitating criminals through her prison ministry. She helps put Trump, White House staff, the State Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in touch with the right people during her almost weekly visits to Washington. A White House spokesperson confirmed the evangelist's role.
Unlike his public image as a bully and sexist toward women, White says she has seen another side of Trump—a God-fearing man who is a “phenomenal listener” and is “extremely compassionate.” Trump, she says, is a family man with an open-door office policy at work.
Shortly before White’s granddaughter, Asher, was born last July, Trump wrote her a signed typed letter that read in part:
“Welcome to the world! You have fabulous parents and the most wonderful grandmother so you are already blessed.''
Over the years, White has been best known as a preacher of the prosperity gospel, a controversial doctrine asserting that God will reward believers with material wealth on earth as well as eternal salvation. She became pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka in 2012. In 2015, she married keyboardist-songwriter Jonathan Cain from the band Journey.
Her church’s mentoring of school students, donating food to the needy, assisting families victimized by violence and ministering to help young women trapped in the adult entertainment industry has been inspiring, says Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer. “What I see her doing in the community,” he says, “is of tremendous value to Apopka and northwest Orange County.”
4. Ted Maines
Interior Designer, Activist
The downtown power couple continue to be champions of human kindness—and equality—with generous donations of time and money. They are prominent advocates for gay rights and marriage equality, and for years they have been leaders in the UpStanders Stand Up to Bullying program, sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Education and Resource Center of Florida. Other causes include the Harbor House domestic abuse shelter, Human Rights Campaign, Equality Florida, and the Hope & Help Center. Their home has been the site of numerous fundraising events for local and national organizations, as well as political candidates they support (they have already scheduled a lineup of Democratic fundraisers for 2018). Last year, Maines and Miller received the Kenneth Murrah Award for Philanthropist of the Year, presented by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Miller, immediate past president of the Holocaust Center’s board, is playing a key role in an effort to relocate the center from Maitland to downtown Orlando.
5. Carlos Carbonell
CEO, Echo Interaction Group
Carbonell is an ambassador to various communities. The owner of a computer-mobile app company, he represents the business community as president of the Orlando Tech Association and executive committee member of the Orlando Economic Partnership. As a gay Latino, he helped 30 LGBT groups form the nonprofit One Orlando Alliance to coordinate with government, community and Pulse victim organizations. That coalition helped organize Orlando United Day—A Day of Love and Kindness, observed on the first anniversary of the Pulse tragedy. Carbonell also served on the OneOrlando Fund board, which helped distribute more than $30 million to victims. “I see myself as a connector to different groups which, in the past, may not have had a great deal of influence in the community—people of color, Latinx, LGBTQ+, immigrants, small businesses, fledgling tech entrepreneurs,” says Carbonell, an informal adviser to the mayors of Orlando and Orange County. He serves on the boards of the new FireSpring Fund for tech startups; the Contigo Fund, which combats discrimination and racism; and the Creative City Project.
6. Belvin Perry Jr.
Attorney, Morgan & Morgan
Perry plays many roles: pressing for justice in a public housing negligence case, being a WFTV television legal analyst (he was one of the first to call out embattled State Attorney Aramis Ayala for abandoning the death penalty), or acting as a mentor in Central Florida’s black community. Three years after retiring as the chief judge for Orange and Osceola counties, he serves on the boards of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and the school’s foundation; Bethune-Cookman University’s trustees; and the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation. Like his law firm boss, John Morgan, Perry often is consulted by candidates and public officials for political advice. (Ironically, his name has circulated as a possible replacement if Ayala is removed from office by Gov. Rick Scott.)
7. Mark Nejame
When it comes to high-profile politicians needing assistance, NeJame is the man they often call. Over the past year, he and his law firm briefly represented former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (before withdrawing due to “irreconcilable differences”); continued to defend former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in a marathon, 3½-year divorce case; and held an event for U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and newly elected Orlando Congresswoman Val Demings. All are Democrats. What people don’t see is NeJame’s hand behind the scenes for prominent persons needing legal help, which he keeps private. But in recent years, he has been better known for his philanthropy. For the seventh consecutive year, NeJame and wife, Josie, held their Runway to Hope gala in May. Their charity, pairing 150 kids battling cancer with celebrities in a fashion runway setting, raised $1.2 million for kids, their families and three pediatric hospitals. Later this year, NeJame plans to launch FaithSocial, a religious-based social media platform with several nationally prominent faith leaders, including Apopka’s Paula White.
8. Scott Maxwell
Columnist, Orlando Sentinel
The veteran newspaper columnist is passionate in his belief that politicians' feet should be held to the fire when warranted. In the past year, the prolific journalist has zeroed in on Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi for accepting a $25,000 campaign donation from Donald Trump while considering an investigation of Trump University. He also was critical of Gov. Rick Scott's appointment of state legislator Eric Eisnaugle as an appeals court judge, even though Eisnaugle had no judicial experience.
9. Dick Batchelor
Consultant, Social Advocate
Batchelor has been one of the most recognizable names over the past four decades when it comes to social and child advocacy issues. He heads the Family Homelessness Committee of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness and developed a plan to use a $500,000 Disney grant to help those in need. He also co-chairs a government-appointed commission seeking to reduce domestic violence and child abuse, and is working on the first phase of a campaign to pass a half-mill Orange County property tax increase to fund services for children.
10. Anna Eskamani
Director of Public Affairs and Communication Planned Parenthood, Central Florida
A Dynamic dedication to good words, thoughts and deeds
By Dan Tracy
Anna’s Eskamani’s brown eyes mist over as she touches a small gold necklace she wears that belonged to her mother, who died nearly 14 years ago of cancer. The necklace has three prongs representing the major tenets of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion in her mom’s home country of Iran.
Good thoughts, good deeds, good words, the religion commands. Those words and the example her mother set have become the guiding principles of Eskamani’s young life.
“I always ask myself, ‘What would she do?’” says Eskamani, who at 27 has two undergraduate degrees, two master’s degrees and is working on her Ph.D. in public policy, all at the University of Central Florida.
She makes her living as the director of public affairs and communication at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, which essentially covers 22 counties along the corridors of Interstates 4 and 75. And when she is not at work or studying, she is a member of the state board of the League of Women Voters.
Free time is not a concept familiar to her.
“I live in my car,” says Eskamani, only half joking. She recently traded in her Honda Accord with 250,000 miles for a small SUV, a blue Honda HR-V.
She often finds herself in Tallahassee, talking to a Republican-dominated Legislature that is not particularly supportive of Planned Parenthood or the League, which successfully sued over gerrymandered congressional districts. The Florida Supreme Court redrew eight districts in late 2015 after the state Senate and House could not agree on a plan.
Eskamani — whose fraternal twin, Ida, is a legislative aide in Tallahassee to state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Winter Park — says she doesn’t mind talking to people who disagree with her.
“It’s not like I’m not used to it,” she says. “Our job is to hold elected people accountable. Their job is so easy if we don’t.”
A registered Democrat, Eskamani says she has no problem reaching across the aisle if the cause is right. For example, she has worked with Republican Tim McKinney on his efforts to rebuild the underserved Bithlo area in east Orange County.
“Though we don’t agree on much politically, I love that she is so relational,” says McKinney, who describes himself as pro-life. “She doesn’t disregard me because we disagree on abortion. Just like I don't disregard her because she supports abortion [rights].”
Deirdre Macnab, the former president of the Florida League of Women Voters, met Eskamani in 2010. Together, they came up with discounted annual dues ($25) for students who want to join.
“Anna is a dynamo,” Macnab says. “She has incredible energy and is extremely bright…She’s in it for the world, not Anna Eskamani.”
Eskamani’s name was floated on social media as a possible candidate to replace Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who leaves office because of term limits in 2018. Eskamani says she might run for office someday, but not to replace Jacobs.
Tallahassee, she says, seems like the right destination for her. “That’s where so much happens that affects all of us,” she says.
Until then, she says, she intends to fight the good fight, win or lose, just like her mom would have wanted. “The world better get used to me,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere.”