Doug Guetzloe muscled his way to the front of Orlando's political scene nearly a quarter-century ago and never left.
The 52-year-old Orlando man has become one of the region's most well-known political figures without ever being elected to public office. He has built an intensely loyal following under the banner of his grass-roots Ax the Tax group. In doing so, Guetzloe has become a champion of the disaffected, portraying himself as the courageous outsider who is forever storming the gates of "the downtown crowd" on behalf of the little guy.
Key figures in the political establishment scorn him and accuse him of being against everything and for nothing. But it has become increasingly clear in the past 10 days that they don't ignore him.Guetzloe is on the defensive about revelations that his services or silence has been bought by the Orlando Magic, a major resort, the local toll-road agency and others.
"He suddenly seems to have a very close relationship with the power structure that for so many years he railed against," said talk-radio host Bud Hedinger, who joined Guetzloe in helping defeat a transportation tax three years ago. "It raises some credibility issues for Doug."
On the advice of his attorney, Guetzloe would not comment for this story. But he defended his methods and explained his motivations during several interviews with an Orlando Sentinel reporter last year and on his radio show in the past 10 days.
Guetzloe, a married father of three who lives in a neighborhood near downtown Orlando, has walked hand-in-hand with controversy throughout his life.
It started when the Tampa native was 20 years old and rose to student-body president at St. Petersburg Junior College -- and faced an unsuccessful impeachment because of his expressed contempt for the student senate.
When he transferred to Florida State University, Guetzloe again ascended to student-body president, the same time current gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist was vice president. In what the Tallahassee Democrat dubbed a "campus-size Watergate," student groups tried to recall Guetzloe, accusing him of using his position to persecute political enemies.
The recall effort failed, but the student presidency would be the last elected office Guetzloe held. He campaigned for a seat as a Republican in the Florida Senate in 1986 and 1990 but lost both times.
Guetzloe's real power didn't come from a political title. It came from Ax the Tax, a citizens group he helped start in 1982.
The group was formed to fight a proposed sales-tax increase to raise money for a downtown sports arena. It lost big, and Guetzloe's activist career was launched.
With a sharp sense of humor, an acerbic tongue and a populist message, Guetzloe has built Ax the Tax into a small but highly motivated grass-roots force. Under his leadership, its loose and ever-changing band of believers in at least eight counties has fought new taxes to pay for environmental lands, schools and roads as well as plans for light rail, commuter rail and more. There have been high-profile successes, such as the 2003 defeat of the Mobility 20/20 sales-tax increase for transportation, and high-profile losses, such as the education tax approved by voters a year earlier.
Guetzloe says Ax the Tax has saved taxpayers $11 billion through the years, though critics counter that some of the initiatives would have failed anyway.
"In every community, there are builders and destroyers," lawyer and former state legislator Bill Sublette said Friday. "Doug appeals to that crowd that thinks all government is bad and is against whatever the community is trying to do."
But while anti-tax activist is Guetzloe's public persona, it's not his only one. Guetzloe is also a lobbyist and paid political consultant who has worked for a slew of mostly conservative politicians through the years. Some are minor candidates, but he has also been hired by U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, among others.
"I am regarded as probably the most hard-nosed, successful political consultant around," Guetzloe said on his radio show last week.
He hosts The Guetzloe Report, his own talk-radio show on 1190 AM (WAMT). The show opens every weekday with "The Star-Spangled Banner" or another rousing patriotic standard -- after all, the conservative commentator named his three children after founding presidents -- and for the next hour Guetzloe beats up on the political establishment. Regular targets range from the mayors of Orlando and Orange County to the Orlando Sentinel to other lobbyists he considers enemies.
By itself, none of these roles would attract much attention: Political consultants spend their careers in the shadows, and Guetzloe's radio audience is so small it doesn't register in Arbitron ratings. But the lines between Guetzloe's worlds as tax activist, radio commentator and political consultant are blurred, and that makes him unique among political figures in Florida.
Regardless, Guetzloe has long maintained that his battles against taxes remain untainted by his paid political work. He insists he has never changed his position for money.
"Have I ever been offered large sums of money to take a dive? Absolutely. Have I ever done so? Absolutely not," he told radio listeners Tuesday.
It's unclear yet whether the current controversy will erode the following he has built during two decades at the helm of Ax the Tax.
The revelations include:
Orlando Magic executives said Thursday that they paid Guetzloe $100,000 in 2001 and another $100,000 in 2006 to keep him from attacking plans for a new basketball arena, performing-arts center and renovated Florida Citrus Bowl. Hotelier Harris Rosen, who opposes the use of tourist-tax money for the projects, had rebuffed Guetzloe's offer to fight on his side for $20,000, Rosen's attorney said.
Guetzloe faces 14 misdemeanor counts for failing to include a political designation on a Winter Park mailer in March. Records show that a state attorney's investigator theorized that payments totaling $471,250 from the law firm of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed in 2005 and 2006 were tied to the law firm's representation of land developers pushing controversial projects in Winter Park and Winter Garden. But the records do not indicate that there was anything illegal about the payments, nor do they accuse the law firm of sponsoring the mailer.
Guetzloe's anti-tax crusaders mobilized last year to convince Osceola County taxpayers that a county convention center was a bad deal while his consulting firm was being paid more than $87,000 by the Gaylord Palms Resort, which was pushing its own plan for a competing facility.
Guetzloe attacked the proposed Mobility 20/20 transportation tax in 2003, saying the plan would put tolls on Interstate 4. But not long after the proposal's defeat, the toll-road agency began paying him as a consultant to gauge future opposition to possible toll increases. He collected $107,500 since 2004 and produced a two-page report.
"I'm amazed that he'd try to help an agency he essentially despises," Hedinger said of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. "He's Mr. Ax the Tax, and he's trying to help further a continuation of a system that essentially taxes us every day."
Dogged by allegations
In fact, Guetzloe has for years been dogged by allegations that he has taken or solicited money in exchange for his silence.
In 2002, developer Charles Clayton told the Sentinel that he had paid Guetzloe to keep him from publicly opposing a proposed sales-tax increase for schools. Months later, political consultant Dick Batchelor -- chairman of the school-tax campaign -- said Guetzloe asked him for $20,000 through an intermediary to stay out of the fight.
At the time and in interviews since, Guetzloe has denied both allegations. He said he represented Clayton in an unrelated land deal. As for Batchelor, Guetzloe said his longtime political foe was simply lying.
A similar allegation arose in 2004, when Maitland officials released a series of e-mails and faxes from Guetzloe's attorney, Fred O'Neal. The lawyer wrote that Guetzloe would drop his court challenge to plans for a new City Hall and public-safety building if he was paid $30,000.
After angry city officials went public, O'Neal said he had made the offer without Guetzloe's knowledge. The money was to cover legal fees, he said.
In another case, Guetzloe was accused of trying to sell the endorsement of one of his clients. Sublette, the former state representative from Orlando, was seeking the Republican nomination for a congressional seat in 2000, locked in a heated runoff with newcomer Ric Keller.
Sublette said Guetzloe offered the endorsement of his client, who had been knocked out in the primary, in exchange for $50,000 in consulting work.
"Doug was very, very clear that I would get the endorsement if I paid him $50,000," Sublette said Friday, adding that he declined.
The endorsement went to Keller, and Guetzloe earned $52,133 working for the Keller campaign, finance reports show. Keller said at the time that the money paid to Guetzloe was for legitimate services, such as radio ads and campaign mailings.
Guetzloe has denied each of the allegations, attributing them to a coordinated attack by his enemies.
Of the latest controversy, he wrote in an e-mail to supporters Wednesday:
"I strongly suspect that these `revelations' are yet another attempt to try to silence Ax the Tax and the various successful causes we have advocated. . . . I've stepped on some pretty big toes in Central Florida, and I've made some powerful enemies."
It's not the first time that Guetzloe has faced tough times. But the proven political survivor has always emerged to fight another day.
In 1994, he was acquitted of grand-theft charges after testifying that his overbilling of a politician-client by $2,500 was an honest mistake. The charge was part of a larger investigation of his client, a former Orange County property appraiser.
Another of Guetzloe's battles -- the one he has since called "the worst decision of my life" -- turned into one of Florida's larger political scandals of the 1990s.
He was hired by Bally Entertainment Corp.'s political committee to lead a casino-gambling petition drive. When the effort fell short, Bally sued him for fraud, saying the consultant had repeatedly overbilled and failed to honor his contract.
Guetzloe countersued for severe emotional distress, saying in court papers that Bally threatened to, among other things, "show him where Jimmy Hoffa was buried." Guetzloe said in court documents the threats had him so shaken that he routinely checked his car for bombs.
Amid the litigation, he was awakened one night to find a Lincoln Town Car burning outside. The car -- identical to Guetzloe's -- had been stolen from a neighbor two days before. Police never linked Bally to the still-unsolved case, but Guetzloe took it as a message.
Guetzloe's lawsuit triggered a criminal investigation of the man who recruited him for the casino job, state House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson. Johnson served 18 months in prison for failing to pay taxes on $250,000 he had been secretly paid by Bally at the same time he was publicly opposed to the initiative.
The litigation also led to the drawn-out Chapter 7 bankruptcy of Guetzloe's consulting firm, Advantage Consultants Inc. Records show that the company owed at least $450,000 to a long list of creditors, including the Internal Revenue Service.
Guetzloe's corporation was dissolved after the bankruptcy, but he continued to use the name to do business.
In an interview with the Sentinel last year, Guetzloe said he feared for his family during the litigation with Bally.
"Those were really bad guys," he said of the allegations made in his lawsuit. "That taught me to only work for things I believe in."
Trailer City flap
When he works for something, Guetzloe works hard. University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett said Guetzloe's part as the agitator and obstructionist in local politics can be both beneficial and damaging.
"In some ways, local government needs people like Doug Guetzloe who are paying attention to ugly issues and raise concerns," Jewett said. "On the other hand, he seems to go too far and works against what people would consider the good of the community."
A case in point is Trailer City. In 2004, when Winter Garden officials announced a plan to close the city-owned mobile-home park as a safety hazard, Guetzloe offered his support and advice on how to fight back. The David-and-Goliath battle was right up Guetzloe's alley, and the residents won.
Trailer City resident Carol Nichols, who fought the closure and won a seat on the City Commission, described Guetzloe in glowing terms last year.
"Some people don't like him because he stands up and says things that need to be said," she said. "He's like a knight in shining armor charging in on his white horse."
But those who have found themselves on the opposite side of an issue from Guetzloe say he is so aggressive -- so intent on winning -- that mean-spiritedness replaces any trace of civil debate. Opponents say he is ready to sue any critic; many would not comment for this story for that reason.
"There seems to be a pattern of dirty tricks wherein he tries to destroy people's reputations," said attorney Howard Marks, who is representing a Winter Garden businessman in a legal fight with Guetzloe.
In January, Guetzloe said on his radio show that the businessman, Richard Mask, had been "trying to pick up young boys" and "trolling for children" in Trailer City. Mask was seen as an ally of the Winter Garden mayor, whom Guetzloe had targeted because of the mayor's support for closing the mobile-home park.
Aghast, Mask said that if he had been seen talking with someone in Trailer City, it was likely his own teenage son, who visits a friend in the neighborhood. Mask has sued Guetzloe for defamation. Guetzloe maintained that he never meant to imply that Mask was a pedophile or a threat to children and has countersued.
At no time in his activist career has Guetzloe had his political work so exposed for all to see. But he has survived plenty of political tempests in the past and predicts that this time will be no different.
"The truth will come out. . . . I have always helped the taxpayers fight against boondoggles," he told radio listeners Friday, "and I always will."