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.
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.
14. Rich DeVos, owner of the Orlando Magic.
15. Jacob Stuart, president of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce.