Winter Park's Deirdre Macnab regularly travels across Florida to talk to groups about her organization's mission. Sometimes she dresses as Susan B. Anthony, the fearless leader of America's women's suffrage movement.
The costume is a good fit for Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
She has needed Anthony's 19th-century qualities — persistence and courage in the face of hostility, along with dedication and skills as an organizer — in 21st-century Florida.
After all, this is a state where legislators have at once tried to roll back the clock on voting advances and erect new obstacles.
Where voter-registration volunteers were threatened with fines while felons who have paid their debt to society are told their right to vote is subject to the whim of the Cabinet.
Where legislators pack the ballot with verbose and unnecessary constitutional amendments, and then feign bewilderment when voters are left to wait in lines for hours.
A state where legislative leaders were willing to spend whatever it took from the public treasury to battle a fairer system for drawing voting districts, a system overwhelmingly approved by voters.
These are the forces Macnab faced down as head of the League. For her determination on behalf of Florida's voters, Macnab is the Orlando Sentinel's choice for 2012 Central Floridian of the Year.
Advancing the cause
Florida's League of Women Voters, founded in 1939, has been on a roll since Macnab took charge in 2009.
It spearheaded the coalition that persuaded voters in 2010 to reform the state's hyperpoliticized and often profoundly unfair process for drawing legislative and congressional districts.
The League and its allies convinced a federal judge to strike down part of a 2011 state law that severely restricted voter-registration drives.
And the group fought alongside others for extra early-voting hours last year. Gov. Rick Scott rejected their request but now apparently has seen the light.
The League's chapter in Orange County, which Macnab led before becoming the statewide president, is now the second-largest local chapter in America, with more than 400 members.
Macnab is quick to point out that the League's priorities are chosen by its members across the state. She insists that any credit for its accomplishments under her presidency be shared among its 30 local chapters. But those who have worked with her — in and out of the organization — say Macnab's leadership has been crucial.
"Deirdre's done an incredible amount with the League," says Linda Chapin, who was a county president herself before going into politics and becoming Orange County mayor. "She really has advanced the cause."
"She's done a phenomenal job in making sure the League is always at the table," says Seminole County Elections Supervisor Michael Ertel.
In November, Macnab was recognized with an achievement award from the Florida Commission on the Status of Women.
Wrote the commission: "Due to Ms. Macnab's remarkable ability to attract and grow the league's membership in diversity of age, ethnicity and political parties, the League of Women Voters of Florida is more vital than ever before and with the highest regard of credibility."
Macnab, who is 57, didn't even move to Florida until 2004. That year her husband, Craig, became CEO of National Retail Properties Inc., an Orlando-based real-estate-investment trust.
Macnab grew up comfortably in Manhattan, though she went to public schools and remains a big booster of public education. She attended New York University as an undergraduate and Columbia University as a graduate student. Her addresses before Winter Park included Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta.
She has a formidable résumé, with positions in multinational corporations and a stint running her own consulting firm. Yet even while she studied for her master's degree in marketing and finance at Columbia, her favorite courses dealt with the nonprofit and public sectors.
Macnab left the private sector for good in Nashville when she was elected to the city's Board of Education. She felt moved to seek the office when her two children, sons now in their early 20s, were entering public school.
It was during her time on the board that she developed an admiration for the League through its chapter in Nashville. Members would come faithfully to meetings, take notes, then organize public forums on the issues that were discussed.
"I was really impressed by their interest," she says. She joined the League after her family relocated to Atlanta.
Soon after the family moved to Winter Park, she signed up with the League's Orange County chapter, becoming co-president just a year later, in 2005, and president in 2006.
"She came to the right place at the right time with a lot of energy and leadership," says Jean Siegfried, a member since 1960 and a former county president herself.
The county chapter's causes under Macnab included building support for commuter rail in Central Florida and pushing for local campaign-finance and ethics reforms.
She helped prod the Orange County Commission into giving citizens more opportunity to speak at meetings, an accomplishment we noted in naming her a runner-up for our 2008 Central Floridian of the Year.
She also began her work on a decades-old League priority, redistricting reform, which she continued when she became state president in 2009.
"Having competitive districts is simply the most essential thing for a functioning democracy," she says. "If you're running for office and you're unopposed, you don't care what the voters think."
The League had taken part in three unsuccessful statewide petition drives before the one that put the two Fair Districts amendments on the 2010 ballot. A coalition that included the League gathered 1.7million signatures to stop state lawmakers from rigging congressional and legislative districts to favor politicians or their parties.
The state's political power brokers fought the effort at every turn. Lawmakers even approved a rival amendment to nullify the two Fair Districts measures. The courts found the rival confusing and threw it off the ballot. Voters then passed both Fair Districts amendments with 63percent approval.
Lance deHaven-Smith of Florida State University, an authority on state history and politics, credited the League for getting the amendments passed, calling them "the most significant reforms in Florida since the 1968 Constitution."
A 'huge' victory
For the League, the victory "was huge," Macnab says. But rather than rest on their laurels, she and her organization shifted their attention to making sure that the Legislature would carry out the amendments as voters intended.
Again, they ran into a buzz saw of opposition from legislative leaders, who used taxpayer money to challenge the amendments in court and dressed down League members in public hearings on redistricting.
The new district maps that the Legislature wound up approving created more-competitive races last year. Even so, lawsuits that the League and its allies filed against the maps for Congress and the state Senate are still pending.
"There is no way we're going to give up the fight," Macnab says. "But we're huge strides ahead of where we used to be."
The League is an unlikely power player in Tallahassee. It doesn't wield the typical levers of influence in the state capital: candidate endorsements and campaign contributions. It gets its clout through citizen activism.
The League's high-profile-issue campaigns under Macnab haven't shortchanged its fundamental goals of registering and educating voters. It has launched a series of websites and mobile applications to do both better. Her advice to citizens who are fed up with politics is to "stop complaining and start voting."
Like other League members, Macnab doesn't draw a salary, though she dedicates at least 40 hours a week to her position. She's a prolific speaker and writer, including on the Sentinel Editorial Board's Opinionators blog. Those who know her use words such as "focused," "determined" and "fearless" to describe her.
When Macnab talks about her members — "They do not give up; they're passionate about good government" — she could be talking about herself.
Lately one of her organization's top priorities is undoing other parts of the 2011 voting law that have been widely blamed for long lines at the polls on Election Day. This past week the League issued a set of seven recommendations, including adding more days and locations for early voting and shortening summaries for proposed constitutional amendments.
The Florida League's choice of issues in recent years, and its aggressive advocacy — supporting President Barack Obama's health-care-reform law; opposing offshore drilling; and locking horns with the Legislature's Republican leaders on education funding, growth management and other issues — have led some critics to accuse the group of betraying its nonpartisan heritage.
Macnab rejects that notion. She points out that the League began work on its signature issue, redistricting reform, decades before Republicans were running Florida. The organization has always had plenty of GOP members, she says, including some officeholders.
"It's one of the oldest methods of trying to divert the voters from the issue at hand to call it partisanship," she says.
A thick skin
Macnab says she has developed a thick skin — thick enough to withstand the barbs that politicians and other critics have aimed at the League and at her personally. Any hostility she's experienced, she says, doesn't compare with what Susan B. Anthony encountered when she crisscrossed the country more than a century ago.
"Very typically she'd have to give her speech with the sheriff sitting next to her with his guns drawn on the stage to keep the audience settled," she says.
Macnab probably won't appear on a coin as her historical hero did.
But she has left a lasting impression on her organization — and on Florida.
Born: New York City, 1955.
Education: New York public schools; New York University, bachelor's in history and political science; Columbia University, master's in business.
Background: Positions with Dun & Bradstreet Corp., Manville Corp. and Bankers Trust; president of her own direct-marketing consulting firm; member, Nashville Board of Education; Atlanta mayor's designate, Fulton County, Ga., Library Board; president, Orange County League of Women Voters.
Personal: Husband, Craig; sons Ian, 23, and Graham, 21.