50 Most Powerful People – Politics & Government
Proclaiming he still loves his job, Dyer earlier this year announced he’ll run for a record fifth term in November, hoping to extend his unprecedented 16-year run. The Democratic mayor has helped bring big projects to town: SunRail, downtown's UCF-Valencia Campus and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. With SunRail expanding south to Poinciana, the UCF campus and Creative Village opening later this year and the arts center’s Steinmetz Hall slated to debut next year, Dyer will see his city vision further enhanced. He predicts the campus and 7,700 students will be “the biggest thing to ever happen to downtown.” But he knows there’s more to be done: a $60 million upgrade to Camping World Stadium to make it more competitive with nationwide sports venues; a desperate need for affordable housing; and discussion of a rail link to Orlando International Airport. “I feel like my first decade as mayor, I was kind of a change agent,” Dyer says. “Now, with all of the change around, I’m a stabilizing force… Things going on at UCF, the airport, a new county mayor and a new county commission, a new governor.” From 2011 to 2018, Dyer sometimes clashed on projects with Republican Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. But with the recent election of County Mayor Jerry Demings, a Democrat and a retired Orlando police chief, Dyer hopes to have a more willing partner. In May, Demings pitched a countywide penny sales tax for a 2020 vote to fund transportation projects, which Dyer has favored for years. But perhaps the most pressing issue—cited by many of the magazine’s 50 Most Powerful—is affordable housing. In the past five years, Dyer and the city have launched numerous projects and pledged nearly $30 million to create or preserve housing options. They include building or refurbishing nearly 1,250 multifamily units and 115 new residences or duplexes for residents seeking homeownership. Dyer also announced earlier this year a city infrastructure partnership for 5G wireless communications to more quickly approve permits to install poles and next-generation equipment for cellular carriers, which is being duplicated in other cities. He has received several more honors this year, including the 2018 Florida Association of Museums Outstanding Public Official Award; the 2018 Boy Scouts of America–Central Florida Council’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Service Award; and Green Builder Magazine’s Best Municipal Program Award.
Orange County Mayor
Demings’ career has been filled with historic African-American firsts. He became the first black Orlando police chief in 1998; first black Orange County public safety director in 2002; and first black Orange County sheriff in 2008. In December, he added another title to his ground-breaking public service record: Orange County’s first black mayor. A Democrat, he broke a 20-year Republican stranglehold on the job, winning an impressive 62 percent of the vote. Demings is working with an all-female county commission, 8,000 employees and a $4.4 billion budget. He hit the ground running, attending 200-plus community meetings in his first 100 days in office. In May, he proposed a 2020 penny sales tax referendum to fund transportation projects such as SunRail, Lynx and roads. Demings also has pledged to pay full-time county employees a $15-an-hour living wage by late 2021; earmarked $20 million more for children’s services; resurrected the public safety director position to oversee corrections and fire services; and hired the first Hispanic corrections chief, and first Hispanic female to oversee county health services. He has allocated $8 million in tourist taxes for cultural programs and approved another $42 million for the Holocaust Memorial Education and Resource Center; Orlando Philharmonic Live Project; the Orange County Regional History Center; and Orlando Science Center. He also appointed a 39-member task force to tackle affordable housing issues. Earlier this year, Demings was named to the Hall of Fame of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida, an organization important in his youth.
COURTESY OF STEPHANIE MURPHY
U.S. Representative, District 7
When Murphy was a Pentagon analyst from 2004 to 2008, political affiliation didn’t matter, only the mission. The Democratic congresswoman for northern Orange and Seminole counties has taken that thinking to Capitol Hill, working with Republican counterparts, as well as winning a second term last November. “For me, bipartisanship is not a dirty word, and in fact, I believe I am most effective because I am bipartisan,” says Murphy, the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress. She is co-chair of the House Blue Dog Coalition, 27 Democrats focused on fiscal responsibility and defense. She recently was named to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and has been demanding the FBI disclose which two Florida counties were hacked by Russians during the 2016 elections. In February, Murphy announced $1 million in federal reimbursement to Valencia College for students resettled from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands following 2017 hurricanes. Last year, she helped win $5 million for Orlando Sanford International Airport renovations and $1 million for UCF’s post-traumatic stress disorder treatment program. She and fellow Orlando-area Reps. Darren Soto and Val Demings secured $23 million in affordable housing funds and $16 million for SunRail’s extension south.
Orlando City Attorney
President, Gray Robinson
Running one of the state’s biggest law firms, handling some of her own cases and serving as Orlando’s city attorney, Downs has kept very busy for the past three years. That will change Sept. 1 when the first woman to serve as president and managing director for a large Southeastern law firm steps down and will be replaced by close friend Dean Cannon, a former Florida House speaker and a GrayRobinson attorney. Downs will become the firm’s No. 2 manager as executive vice president, general counsel and statewide litigation chair. During her reign, the firm merged with Cannon’s Tallahassee lobbying group, Capitol Insight, opened offices in Washington, D.C., and represented outgoing Gov. Rick Scott in litigation against South Florida election supervisors, charging a lack of vote-counting transparency in his U.S. Senate race. In April, the Orlando Business Journal selected Downs as one of 2019’s CEOs of the Year. Downs is Mayor Buddy Dyer’s top attorney and adviser on litigation and contractual matters. She also serves on the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates judges, and was a member of Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s Inaugural Host Committee.
Southern Strategy Group
Another year, another campaign, another round of business outreach. Just another typical year for this strategist, lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser. Cohen was a member of Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ transition team; one of the finance chairs for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s Inauguration Committee; and adviser to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s re-election campaign. She serves on the board of directors for the Orlando Economic Partnership; Starter Studio, which has helped raise $11 million for 500 tech startups; and Creative City, an art/performance event which attracted 50,000 people last year. Cohen assisted Orlando City Soccer in landing the MLS All-Star Game and also is a member of the 2026 World Cup Organizing Committee. She was selected last fall by Florida Trend as among the state’s 500 Most Influential Business Leaders. Cohen says Orlando must continue to diversify its economy, encourage companies to grow locally and help tackle affordable housing and transportation issues. She says national politics will be center stage locally over the next year, especially in the decisive I-4 corridor, and Orange County “will be ground zero for the 2020 presidential race.”
U.S. Representative, District 10
A fter 27 years climbing the ranks at the Orlando Police Department, retired Chief Val Demings is now patrolling the House of Representatives. The no-nonsense Demings, wife of former Orange County sheriff and now-Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, won re-election to a second term last fall. She serves on the powerful House Judiciary Committee; the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; and the Homeland Security Committee. Those assignments place her in the middle of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report review and issues like congressional efforts to hold the Trump administration accountable; sensitive intelligence gathered about Russian election interference; and the safety of visitors traveling to Central Florida. Demings also was selected as co-chair of recruitment nationwide for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She had anti-terrorism funding for Orlando restored and doubled to $3.25 million for 2019; worked to increase security officer funding at Orlando International Airport; and fought to stop use of homeland security funds to arm teachers, which she calls “reckless and dangerous.”
Orange County Sheriff
After serving 28 years at the Orlando Police Department -—the last five as chief-—Mina ran for sheriff and won with 46 percent of the vote in a three-way race. The Republican-turned-independent won in Democratic-leaning Orange County and assumed office in December. He took over the 2,500-member sheriff’s department from Jerry Demings, who ran and won last fall’s Orange County Mayor’s race. Mina inherited a relatively healthy agency, fine-tuning it to respond more quickly to violent crime and completing the staffing of 116 county schools with school resource officers several months early. And in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, Mina has equipped all deputies with active shooter gear, including rifle-round-resistant body armor and ballistic helmets. His top goals: reducing gun violence and opioid abuse and hiring deputies to keep up with growth. Other community needs he cites: affordable housing and mental health treatment and resources. Over the past year, he was given the LGBT Ally Award from the Florida Diversity Council; a Leadership Award from the Sons of the American Revolution; and was recognized for contributions toward the Puerto Rico recovery after Hurricane Maria.
Orlando Police Chief
Rolón was sworn in last October as the city’s acting top cop and formally became Orlando’s 39th police chief and first Latino to hold the job in December. He spent 25 years working his way up the ranks in nine of the agency’s 11 divisions. Mayor Buddy Dyer tapped the former head of the patrol services and administrative divisions, crisis negotiator, agency public information officer, and city hall liaison after Chief John Mina retired to run for Orange County sheriff. The bilingual ex-Marine Corps Reserve member and Puerto Rico native, who moved to Orlando as a teen, also led the agency’s contingent that provided surplus police equipment to the island in 2017 following hurricane devastation. Rolón has been reorganizing the police department to better respond to violence with a real-time crime center. He also pledged to help address community mental health issues and improve post-traumatic stress awareness with police officers. With his longtime media relations expertise used with the Hispanic press and victim families during the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting—and with the county’s Hispanic population at about 31 percent—Rolón plans more community outreach and says diverse workforce recruiting and retention will be a major priority. He called his promotion a “celebration for all Latinos.”
U.S. Representative, District 9
Earning a reputation as a moderate Democrat as a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus, Soto won re-election to a second term in Congress last fall. With his district covering Osceola and parts of Orange and Polk counties, he has been a big proponent for aid to Puerto Rico hurricane victims on the island and those relocated to Central Florida—and in March filed a bill to make Puerto Rico the 51st state. In early June, Soto announced that Ban Assault Weapons NOW, a bipartisan group he supports that was founded after the Parkland shootings, gathered over 100,000 signatures toward placing a constitutional amendment on Florida’s 2020 ballot. Soto and fellow Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Val Demings are requesting that the Pulse nightclub be designated a national memorial site. Another of the congressman’s bills won House and Senate approval for pandemic preparedness and to extend $100 million in related grants through 2023, including for mosquito control and airborne illnesses in Florida. In June, the bill was headed to President Trump’s desk for his signature.
State Senator, District 9
An Orlando civil lawyer and Republican state senator since 2010, Simmons was tapped by Senate President Bill Galvano—and elected by colleagues—as the president pro tempore of the Florida Senate for 2018 through 2020. He also is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the chamber’s Rules; General Appropriations; Education; and Community Affairs committees. Orlando Democratic Mayor Buddy Dyer says Simmons is a “go-to guy” to help fight bad Senate bills, such as the one filed to remove local mayors from the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority board. Simmons was among local legislators opposing retaliatory budget cuts to the University of Central Florida following its building finance scandal over the past several months. Simmons cites water—both quality and quantity—as a major concern today and in the future for residents and business. He was a key player in passing a landmark 2016 comprehensive water quality and preservation law.
Carlos Guillermo Smith
House District 49
Smith is a triple minority in the Florida House of Representatives. He’s Latino, an openly gay LGBTQ advocate and a progressive Democrat—a tough combination in a Republican-controlled chamber. But Smith uses his voice to get the message out to the majority and the public to hear. That helped him win a second term last year in his east Orange County district with 64 percent of the vote. He also was an early, vocal and visible supporter of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost to Republican Ron DeSantis. With his key post on the House Appropriations Committee, Smith helped increase arts and culture matching funds from less than $3 million last year to $21 million in the proposed 2020 budget for 600 nonprofit groups. Smith also restored $500,000 for the Pulse Memorial and Museum; fought arming Florida teachers; highlighted lack of funding for Central Florida’s affordable housing crisis; and was a vehement opponent of Trump-style anti-immigrant legislation. The special projects manager for Equality Florida, Smith was honored for leadership over the past year by the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida; Florida Cultural Alliance; and Florida Alliance for Arts Education.
State Representative, House District 47
In November, first-time candidate Eskamani flipped House District 47 from Republican to Democrat, becoming the first Iranian-American elected to public office in Florida. The daughter of immigrants raised in Orlando, she promoted her American Dream story, and record as a University of Central Florida student and progressive community activist. Eskamani was featured on the cover of Time magazine with other female activist “avengers” nationwide, did interviews with MTV and media in Iran, and amassed an army of Millennial supporters, winning 57 percent of the vote. In Tallahassee, she fought a Republican-controlled chamber which did not hear any of her bills, but Eskamani helped win $21 million for arts and culture funding; $500,000 for the Pulse Memorial and Museum; and $80,000 for the Lifeboat Project, a human trafficking prevention group. A former Planned Parenthood executive and now a state strategic adviser for NEO Philanthropy, she advocated for women’s rights and safe abortions; gay rights; a minimum wage increase; public school funding; and keeping guns from domestic abusers. She also became the first freshman legislator presented the “Defender of Home Rule” award by the Florida League of Cities.