We're down to the final day of Taking Names' ranking of The 25 Most Powerful People in Central Florida.
When we started tallying ballots, our panel of 15 plugged-in and diverse judges cast more than 375 votes for more than 140 people.
Now we're down to the final five -- a businessman, an educator and three politicians. And, according to our panel, they have more clout and control than anyone else in the region.
5. Al Weiss, Walt Disney World president. By nature of his position, Weiss might have more impact on Central Florida's image than anyone else. His work force alone consists of more than 50,000 people, meaning his decisions affect more families than any other boss in town. That said, Weiss received many of his votes because of the position he holds, rather than who he is. Several panelists simply wrote "Disney CEO." Another wrote: "I would really like to scratch out Al's name and put in Mickey Mouse." Still, Weiss is taking steps to improve the perception that he lives in a Disney-only world. Perhaps most notably, he stepped into the position of chairman of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission -- which, interestingly enough, tries to generate jobs outside of theme parks.
4. John Hitt, president of the University of Central Florida. You can start with the number of impressionable minds that Hitt helps mold: more than 40,000 of them. But more importantly, Hitt has helped chart a sophisticated course for UCF that leaves the school's past as a technical college a distant memory. The school now rivals in-state siblings such as Florida State University when it comes to SAT scores and well-known programs. And Hitt continues to push further, looking ahead to a day when he'll oversee a medical school as well. Plus, things can only get better on the athletic side of things, seeing as how a single win for the school's football team in 2005 would be one more than it saw this year.
3. Toni Jennings, lieutenant governor of Florida. Many regard Florida's Legislature as a cesspool nowadays. But back when Jennings was Senate president, bickering between top leaders was kept to a minimum (at least publicly). It was that sense of decorum and capability that led Jeb Bush to pick the Orlando construction-company executive as his No. 2. But you'd better believe that it's not Jennings' current job alone that netted her this high ranking. Any number of panelists think she has a good chance to replace Bush when he steps down in 2006.
2. Buddy Dyer, mayor of Orlando. The Orlando mayor finished a strong second. He holds the most recognized post in Central Florida. And he has proven that he has the audacity to dream big, whether it's remaking downtown or raising Orlando's profile as a sports town. The trick will be turning those dreams into reality. It's also worth noting that, a few years ago, the race for No. 1 on this list would have been a tight one between the city mayor and county chairman. This time, it was not. In fact, three of the 15 panelists didn't even include Dyer on their list of 25 candidates -- and included notes saying that was quite deliberate. Dyer has found himself dogged by controversy, fights and squabbles with friends and former allies, including the one man who finished way ahead of him.
1. Rich Crotty, Orange County chairman. When all was said and done, this was really no contest. Crotty was the only person to get votes from every single panelist involved in these power rankings. He controls a budget and work force that's about three times the size of Dyer's. He's buddies with both Bushes. And he has shown a willingness to play hardball for things he is passionate about, such as the tax increase for schools, even when they aren't part of his job description. The question now is: Where does he set his sights next?
THE REST OF THE LIST
6. Jim Seneff, chairman of CNL Financial Group.
7. Kathy Waltz, publisher of the Orlando Sentinel.
8. Mel Martinez, U.S. senator-elect.
9. Harris Rosen, hotelier.
10. C. David Brown, Broad & Cassel law firm.
11. Rick Walsh, senior vice president for Darden Restaurants Inc.
12. Jane Healy, editorial-page editor of the Orlando Sentinel.
13. Fred Leonhardt, senior partner, GrayRobinson.
15. Jacob Stuart, president of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce.
16. Tom Yochum, retired Central Florida president of SunTrust Florida.
17. Dick Batchelor, consultant/former state representative.
18. John Mica, U.S. congressman.
19. Jeff Fuqua, president, Amick Construction.
20. Cameron Kuhn, developer.
21. John Morgan, attorney.
22. John Hillenmeyer, president, Orlando Regional Healthcare.
23. Clarence Otis Jr., CEO, Darden Restaurants.
24. Teresa Jacobs, Orange County commissioner.
25. Mike Thomas, Orlando Sentinel columnist.
THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMM . . .
With politicians, media elite and scads of business and nonprofit leaders, the 15 panelists who voted in these rankings comprised a power pack all by themselves, as you may have noticed when we disclosed their identities Sunday. (Remember, they couldn't vote for themselves and didn't know who the other panelists were until all the ballots were cast).
These folks included some amusing and interesting notes in their anonymous ballots, such as:
Notable omissions. Among those noticeably missing from the top 25 was Superintendent Ron Blocker, whose Orange County school system often seems like it couldn't get good ink in the newspaper if it took out an ad. Blocker did receive a few votes, though, with one panelist saying he doesn't get the credit he deserves. We also learned that money doesn't always equal power, as time-share magnate David Siegel was all but ignored. And then there was Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, who might have been viewed as more powerful in Central Florida if he actually stayed in Central Florida, rather than traversing the globe.
Neither of Orlando's most recent former mayors made the cut. Interestingly, though, Bill Frederick scored slightly better than Glenda Hood -- even though Hood was mayor more recently and currently serves as secretary of state.
Women and minorities didn't fare well. Of the 25 people who made the list, 19 were white men. There were only four women. And we see a real dearth in up-and-comers. No one on the list was under 40. In fact, the average power broker was a white man in his mid-50s who has run in Orlando power circles for years.
On a couple of ballots, panelists ranked Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer's staff, including aide David Dix and administrator Richard Levey, as more powerful than Dyer.
One panelist voted for Margot Kidder. That seemed odd, seeing as how the former heroine from the Superman movies endured a much-publicized mental breakdown 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles in 1996. We correctly presumed the vote was intended for United Arts chief Margot Knight. Still, it was amusing to see Lois Lane on the particular ballot -- two spots above Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos no less.
A few voters admitted their ulterior motives in the way they cast ballots. Wrote one panelist: "I put Toni [Jennings] at #1 because I want her to be the next governor, and I think being #1 on your list will help her chances."
One panelist also reserved the 25th spot on the ballot for "the spouses or significant others of all those named above."
ABOUT THE SERIES
To come up with this ranking, Taking Names tapped the minds of 15 people who compose a power cartel in and of themselves. The goal was to get a panel that was both informed and diverse. It is both, including politicians, CEOs, nonprofit leaders, media execs and more.
All of them agreed to rank the 25 people they think are most powerful in Central Florida.
We offered no starting names, only a blank slate. The higher the name was ranked, the more points it got.
Although a few of the panelists made the list, all were prohibited from voting for themselves. And none of them knew who the other panelists were until all the ballots were in, to prevent collusion.
Scott Maxwell, who wonders how many of these power elite he'll find doing body shots at tonight's VIP opening of Club Paris, can be reached at 407-420-6141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.