50 Most Powerful 2018: Government and Politics

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Over the past year, Dyer didn’t pitch any major new projects, instead focusing on those in the works: SunRail expansion to Osceola County; new Orlando International Airport terminal construction; and Phase II of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. That’s on top of affordable and low-income housing development of 600 units that’s built or being planned for downtown and west Orlando; the downtown UCF-Valencia College campus and Creative Village construction; and the Puerto Rico refugee crisis. City officials worked to help settle Hurricane Maria victims, while Orlando Utilities Commission and Orlando Police were dispatched to the island. Last fall, Dyer said he met with a handful of advisers to discuss whether he should apply for the UCF president’s job being vacated by retiring John Hitt—or even consider a run for governor. Ultimately, Dyer decided to stay mayor and join the presidential search committee, which selected UCF Provost and Executive Vice President Dale Whittaker. “My ability in this job to affect so much policy and what is going on in Central Florida goes much further than being president of UCF,” Dyer says. “Quite honestly, I get up every day loving what I’m doing.” In office for more than 15 years—making him the longest-serving mayor in Orlando history—Dyer has announced that he will seek re-election in 2019.



With a flurry of tweets over Thanksgiving weekend, the Orlando trial lawyer and political fundraiser announced he could not “muster the enthusiasm” to run for governor as a Democrat, despite leading a lackluster field of candidates without formally announcing his intentions. Morgan said he was becoming an independent and that he would no longer raise money for nationwide political organizations such as the Democratic National Committee. Meanwhile, he is focused on his court fight to force the state to comply with a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana that he helped win voter approval for in 2016 but which state officials continue to appeal because they object to the smokable form of marijuana. Morgan also has his sights set on a 2020 constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage statewide. And, of course, his 350-lawyer Morgan & Morgan law firm continues to expand its presence nationwide, racking up a second consecutive $1 billion year in revenue. Last year, the firm donated 2,000 pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico hurricane victims and flew a team of doctors to the island. In August, Morgan and wife Ultima donated $1 million to the homeless aid nonprofit Community Resource Network.



At Orlando International Airport, Kruppenbacher is a mayor of sorts, overseeing 21,000 employees, a $518 million budget and $31 billion in regional economic impact. His constituents: a record 45 million total passengers over the past year. OIA now ranks 11th busiest in the nation and first in Florida, but expansion continues. A multi-billion dollar, 19-gate South Terminal expansion is under way. Meanwhile in September, OIA also was ranked No. 1 in overall customer satisfaction by J.D. Power for North American airports that handle more than 32 million annual passengers. Kruppenbacher led a fight against the Transportation Security Administration, threatening to privatize passenger screening if federal staffing and security improvements were not made. TSA relented in April and agreed to expand checkpoint capacity, provide additional screeners and bomb dogs, while GOAA will remodel to provide more airside passenger lanes. Aside from the airport, Kruppenbacher serves as one of Gov. Rick Scott’s outside advisers and fundraisers and is a key player in helping to lure new business to Orlando. He pushed to open the airport’s Puerto Rico evacuee assistance center in October after Hurricane Maria.



Downs has been making the rounds in the state and country, giving keynote speeches over the past few years, but she’s not running for office. As Orlando’s first female city attorney, the first woman to head the 300-lawyer GrayRobinson firm in Florida, and ex-president of the Florida Bar, she preaches professionalism and diversity in the workplace, emphasizing the importance of women having a seat at the business table. A skilled trial lawyer and a perennial choice on various state and national best lawyer lists, Downs says she never turns down a speaking request because it is important to follow those “who made a difference to me” during her career. As city attorney, she is one of Mayor Buddy Dyer’s closest advisers. Between her two jobs, Downs “has her hands in everything between here and Tallahassee,” says one acquaintance. She also serves as a member of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which disciplines judges; and the boards of directors for the Orlando Economic Partnership and the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation.




The Republican leader is leaving Orange County government after 16 years in office, eight years as a commissioner, plus the past eight as county mayor. She is term-limited from the mayor’s office and set on replacing Bill Sublette as chairman of the Orange County School Board. She faces three challengers for the post. To the surprise of many political observers who have watched the NRA reign supreme in national, state and local politics, Jacobs was able to persuade the commission earlier this year to require criminal background checks and a 3-day waiting period for everyone purchasing a firearm at a gun show, flea market or firearms exhibit in the county. Those restrictions previously applied only when buying a firearm from a licensed gun dealer. The county, at Jacobs’ behest, assisted the nonprofit organization Feeding Children Everywhere in putting together and shipping more than 4.4 million meals to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.



Marchena was involved in two of the more momentous recent decisions in Metro Orlando. As chairman of UCF’s Board of Trustees, he oversaw the selection of Dale Whittaker as president, replacing John Hitt, who retired after 26 years. Enrollment had tripled under Hitt, reaching 66,000 students. As the general counsel for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, Marchena is the legal adviser for a massive $3 billion expansion that includes construction of a third terminal and a multi-modal station awaiting its first occupant. OIA, with more than 45 million passengers, has surpassed Miami as the state’s busiest airport. Back at UCF, the prominent Republican is working to open by the fall of 2019 a campus in downtown Orlando in conjunction with Valencia College.



Cohen has a major voice in local issues, ranging from politics and business to sports and civic initiatives. A longtime lobbyist, fundraiser and strategist, she serves as a key political adviser to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and other Democrats. This year she is campaign finance chairman for Sheriff Jerry Demings’ bid for Orange County mayor. She remains a key advocate for the Orlando Magic’s proposed Sports and Entertainment District; Orlando City Soccer; Lake Nona’s Medical City and Sunbridge developments; and Osceola County’s BRIDG and NEOCity high-tech projects. Cohen was part of the leadership team helping to merge the Canvs co-working space, Starter Studio tech incubator and the Firespring investment fund in order to support entrepreneurs. She serves on the Orlando Economic Partnership Executive Committee; the boards of directors for the Creative City Project and Starter Studio; and the advisory board for Clean the World, which recycles hotel soap to distribute in needy countries.




Over his 37-year government career, Demings has collected several big titles: Orlando police chief; Orange County public safety director; and for the past 10 years, Orange County sheriff. Now he wants to add another: Orange County mayor. With current Mayor Teresa Jacobs leaving office due to term limits, the mild-mannered Demings is considered the favorite for the job. During his three terms as sheriff, overall crime has declined 30 percent in unincorporated Orange County. Demings co-chairs the Orange County Heroin Abuse Task Force and serves as a member of the Homeland Security FEMA National Advisory Council, which advises the government on disaster preparedness and response. He also sits on boards for the Boy Scouts; Boys & Girls Clubs; Orange County Police Athletic League; and Children’s Safety Village. Military Times magazine again cited the sheriff’s department this year as one of the best for hiring veterans.



For the past four-plus years, Mina has led Orlando Police through some of its toughest times: a series of controversial use-of-force incidents, the June 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre and the 2017 killing of a police sergeant by a career felon. In his calm, steady style, Mina has modernized the agency and moved it to a new headquarters. Along the way, crime has gone down, force by officers has dropped due to body cameras and more training, and OPD has improved relations in the community. Mina has opted to pass on retirement and will run for Orange County sheriff; he is considered the front-runner as Sheriff Jerry Demings seeks the Orange County mayor post. Earlier this year, Mina received a 2018 Orlando Diversity Award from the LGBT+ Center Orlando Inc.; a 2018 Florida Attorney General’s Distinguished Victims Services Award; and was voted the Florida Police Chiefs Association Outstanding Chief Executive of the Year last July.



Florida’s senior senator—and one of only two Democratic senators in the South—is being targeted by the Republican Party and challenger Gov. Rick Scott in what is expected to be a close race in November. A state legislator beginning in 1972, Nelson served six terms in the U.S. House and was elected to the Senate in 2000. During his tenure, Nelson has been an advocate for the environment and the space industry. In recent months, he has pushed for a nationwide gun-tracing database for federal firearms agents; more mental health resources in schools; hiring 1,000 more government-funded doctors nationwide to help combat the opioid crisis; and capping student loan debt interest rates. In May, he helped secure nearly $23 million to help 15 Florida public transit agencies pay for response costs and damaged equipment from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.



Two years ago, Murphy upset 12-time Republican Congressman John Mica with the help of a redrawn district and an inspiring story of her family’s 1979 sea rescue by the U.S. Navy while fleeing Vietnam. Since then, the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress has been busy brushing aside partisanship for her purple district that takes in Seminole County and northern portions of Orange. The Democrat, a former Pentagon analyst, has been a key player on small-business and defense issues, while advocating for women and children. Quorum Analytics, a Washington firm, earlier this year ranked her as the No. 1 most effective member of her House freshman class (for recruiting bill co-sponsors) and seventh most-bipartisan of the chamber’s 435 members. She successfully led the effort for more federal funding for Florida schools to offset enrollment of hurricane-displaced students from Puerto Rico; helped enact a law so that small-business owners could obtain microloans up to $50,000; and aided in winning major military pay and veterans’ education benefit increases.


U.S. Representative, District 10

Demings, a Democrat completing her freshman term and gearing up for a re-election campaign, has continued to push for federal gun control legislation, ensuring she will continue receiving an F rating from the NRA. Although no new gun laws have moved through Congress, Demings has promised to fight on, arguing that as former Orlando police chief, she is in an ideal position to discuss and promote solutions to gun violence. A member of the House Homeland Security Committee, she recently helped introduce a bipartisan bill to protect U.S. elections from Russian interference. She was among those who successfully fought for the Transportation Security Administration to remain at Orlando International Airport, where the board was considering replacing the agency with a private security force.



The freshman congressman has been a crusader to preserve the Kissimmee River, win funding for citrus growers and cattle ranchers, secure PTSD benefits for first responders and help line up hurricane disaster relief for Puerto Rico evacuees and island infrastructure. In May, Soto helped persuade FEMA to extend temporary relocation benefits to evacuees as they searched for permanent Central Florida housing. He also opposed privatized passenger screening at Orlando International Airport, an idea that later was withdrawn when aviation authority and TSA officials resolved their differences. A former state legislator, Soto is the first Floridian of Puerto Rican descent to be elected to Congress. He is being challenged this November by former congressman Alan Grayson for the district seat which includes southeast Orange and all of Osceola counties.



Smith made history in 2016 when he was elected as Florida’s first openly LGBTQ Latino lawmaker. Ever since, the progressive Democrat representing east Orange County has been a strong voice for equality, medical marijuana and Puerto Rico hurricane victims. He is best known as a vocal supporter of Pulse nightclub shooting victims—helping secure $3 million in funding for a PTSD treatment program at UCF—and as an advocate for gun reforms in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. One civic leader describes him as “the conscience of the Legislature.” Smith judges his own success not on bills passed in the Republican-controlled House, but rather on “how I can use my platform to effectively change the conversation and effect change.” Smith also serves as the Central Florida outreach coordinator for Equality Florida and has been honored by the Florida League of Women Voters, Hispanic Federation, Florida Education Association, and the Metropolitan Business Association. In May he was tapped as the LGBT+ Center of Orlando’s Champion for Equality.



The first openly gay person elected to the Orlando City Council (2000), Sheehan has mixed standing up for the LGBTQ community with representing her constituents in a district that includes neighborhoods such as Colonialtown South, Delaney Park, Lake Como, Southern Oaks and Wadeview Park. Her profile rose in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting June 12, 2016, when 49 people—many of them members of the Latin gay community—were murdered by a lone gunman. She has continued involvement in supporting a Pulse memorial, family outreach and counseling services for victims, in addition to backing local governments’ legal challenge to a state law that punishes elected officials who enact sensible local firearms ordinances. Other priorities: protecting Lake Eola’s beloved resident swans and finding ways to encourage biking and walking without snarling traffic. Sheehan is a member of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council.

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