Jacobs’ Ladder

The climb to No. 1 was fast and furious for the new county mayor, the first woman to lead the 50 Most Powerful list. But the top could be a lonely place.

Teresa Jacobs conducts meetings as if they were speed dates—enter, sit, squint, grimace, GO! You’re on the clock. Spare her the small talk and get to the point. She has the county of Orange to run as its new mayor, a position she executes with the exactness of an auditor. It isn’t until she leans forward and locks onto you with those brown eyes demanding an explanation that you begin to understand why voters late last year overwhelmingly picked her over a candidate once considered a shoo-in to lead the largest government in Central Florida. They’d seen that look of skepticism before—in the mirror.

People don’t trust politicians. And Teresa Jacobs, with her sensible shoes and ’80s-style neck bows, doesn’t quite fit the image of a politician, though she has lived and breathed politics for a decade now.

During her first campaign for the County Commission, in 1999, she was an angry homeowner with a beef against the county for ramming a road through the middle of her southwest Orlando subdivision. So she got even with her District 1 commissioner, Bob Freeman, by running him out of office. Once on the commission, she quickly established herself as smart and confrontational, drawing the ire of fellow commissioners with her constant harping on ethics and accountability.

When term limits prevented her from seeking a third term, in 2008, Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty, a frequent target of Jacobs’ badgering, breathed a sigh of relief. Linda Chapin, who ran Orange County from 1990 to 1998, spoke for many at the time when she said of Jacobs: “She could have been more effective if she had more allies on the board.”

Flash forward two years when Jacobs jumped into a mayoral race that had all but been declared Bill Segal’s to lose. The last to join the field, Jacobs ran on her reputation as a maverick and easily defeated her former commission colleague, who was considered the establishment candidate. Once in her new job, Jacobs was her old self. Right out of the gate she dissed Mike Snyder, saying the director of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority “does not have my confidence.” That comment was sweet talk compared with language (“very disconcerting,” “we have a major problem”) contained in her Feb. 10 memo to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a poison-pen analysis of the city’s plan to build a downtown performing arts center. But while she struck a populist pose when she made the cost-cutting move to cancel a county perk of buying tickets for Citrus Bowl games, saving $4,980, she appeared to be just another tone-deaf politician when she spent $32,300 to spruce up her executive offices.

Clearly Jacobs is not one to ease into a new job, which shouldn’t be surprising given her MO as a commissioner. But as the new mayor her style (combative or direct, depending on who’s describing it) now has wider implications than it did during her days as a single-member-district commissioner. With such a fast and furious start, Jacobs went straight to the top of this year’s 50 Most Powerful People list, the first time for a woman since its inception in 2004. The ascension is even more impressive when you consider that it’s also Jacobs’ debut on the list; yes, even as a commissioner she went unranked.

Distrust Goes Both Ways

“If I have broken some eggs and rocked the boat, so be it,” Jacobs says during an interview with Orlando magazine. “My responsibility, first and foremost, is to the citizens of Orange County, not to the mayor of the city of Orlando, or any small groups of individuals. . . . The best time to establish that is at the beginning of the relationship.”

Jacobs is referring, of course, to the dust-up between her and Dyer over a request that the county help secure more funding for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The proposed downtown venue had been stuck in limbo since the economy tanked. She could have issued a polite “Sorry, but we can’t help” response, but, as she is wont to do, Jacobs offered details on her position.

In short, she called Dyer’s baby not only ugly, but overweight and dim-witted as well.

Her swipe at DPAC, outlined in a letter released to the public in February, prompted Dyer to tell the Orlando Sentinel that he didn’t trust Jacobs. Sources in Dyer’s camp called Jacobs’ move a grandstanding ploy to raise the county mayor’s profile as a fiscal hawk at her city counterpart’s expense.

“Let me be clear about something,” Jacobs says when asked by Orlando magazine about Dyer’s remark. “I don’t trust the mayor.” As for the political one-upmanship charge? “Absolutely not,” she sighs.

Both mayors have since backed off a bit, with Dyer making city-county cooperation the theme of his 2011 “State of the City” address in March. But even the onset of summer won’t get these two to warm up to each other.

A Thousand Little Things

So what is she planning to do with all that power? Make sure that nobody else runs up against the brick wall she slammed into as an average citizen trying to get her county commissioner to listen to her. In her first 100 days as mayor she held one-on-one meetings with all senior staff and 16 large-group meetings encompassing thousands of county employees.

“I have asked every employee in Orange County to remember that their number one purpose and mission is to serve the citizens of Orange County,” she says. Jacobs has created an Office of Public Engagement, repurposing staff from other duties to spend 10 to 15 hours a week thinking about ways to engage citizens more actively in government. She’s working on “whistleblower” protections to help ferret out institutional corruption and waste. And so on . . .

Point after point, goal after goal, breaking down the old structure and rebuilding it from within, Jacobs is working on a thousand little things that don’t individually grab headlines but collectively could add up to a government that’s more responsive, ethical and accountable to residents.

Perhaps as important as what she says is what she doesn’t say. Compromise is not a word you hear Jacobs use very often. Nor are there plans pending for the kind of grand public construction projects—convention centers, arenas, highways—politicians love to build as shrines to themselves.

“I’m not talking about building any buildings—that’s not me,” she says.

If Jacobs comes across as more of a back-office analyst than a visionary it’s because she is. She graduated cum laude from Florida State University with a degree in economics and worked almost a decade as a bank investment officer before returning home to raise her kids. Talking with her, you can almost see the wheels turning and hear the numbers crunching. Small wonder that Orange County’s top bean-counter, Comptroller Martha Haynie, is one of her biggest fans.

“We speak the same language,” Haynie says.

“Analytical” is the term Jacobs’ predecessor, Crotty, uses to describe her now—a nicer word than “nitpicky,” the more common description some commission member applied to her during her time as a commissioner. Whatever you call her, she came to office with a reputation for finding fault. The big question was whether she could lead and build mutually beneficial alliances.

The DPAC squabble may have answered both parts: First, Jacobs’ criticisms that the project had been mismanaged led to formation of a construction-oversight committee, while her refusal to lend the city another dime for it prompted a group of wealthy arts center backers to put up $16 million in letters of credit to plug DPAC’s budget gap. So Jacobs enforced a level of accountability while sticking to the terms of the county’s financial commitment.

But on the second part, it was Get ’er Done Buddy who took the bows after announcing, on May 18, that construction on the arts center would begin in June. He mentioned that DPAC’s board, a target of Jacobs’ ridicule, had “managed the project extremely well” and acknowledged everyone but the county for helping move the project along. Apparently, the bridge extending from City Hall on Orange Avenue to the county Administration Building a few blocks away on South Rosalind Avenue remains closed for repairs.

For the record, Crotty says he, too, would have rejected Dyer’s request for additional funding, but would have handled the matter discreetly. Crotty knows how the game is played; that you smile and make nice in public before and after fighting with adversaries behind closed doors. In a game where all the players are keeping score, everybody wins with a tie.

Halfway through her first year in office, Jacobs is keeping her campaign promise of streamlining processes. She recently cut the ribbon on a one-stop permitting system, making it easier for people to do business with the county. She has changed the job title of some county service personnel from “administrator” to “advocate.” And she has been working with local employers to help fill open positions and reduce unemployment. None of those things, however, require the kind of interlocal cooperation that Chapin, Crotty, Dyer and others have all flagged as Jacobs’ weak spot.

While Jacobs seems content to focus her energies on things solely within her domain, it will be interesting to see what happens the first time she needs a helping hand. It can get lonely at the top if you don’t have friends in high places.

Categories: Features