Who makes things happen here in Central Florida? Today, Taking Names columnist Scott Maxwell concludes the list of the 25 most powerful people.
We are down to five -- three politicians, the head of the region's largest work force and the leader of one of the nation's largest universities.
When they work together, they can chart new courses for Central Florida's economy and future. When they don't, the community can languish.
These five men top 2006's list of The 25 Most Powerful People in Central Florida, according to Taking Names' panel of 14 plugged-in observers:
5. Al Weiss. The president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has always earned a prime spot on this list simply because he runs the largest work force in the region and its bread-and-butter industry. And that role is even greater with worries about the local economy. Wrote one panelist: "The shaky future of tourism needs his immediate attention." But in recent years Weiss, 52, has also gotten more personally involved in the world beyond Cinderella Castle. He helped the politicians carve out a deal to raise hotel taxes, both to help the tourism industry and to erect buildings for locals in downtown Orlando. And he chaired the region's economic development commission a few years back. The question now: What's next?
4. Mel Martinez. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Republican freshman with more clout in Washington than this U.S. senator. He's good friends with the president and was recently tapped to lead the Republican National Committee. Put it all together, and Martinez, 60, crept into the Top 5 on this list for the first time this year. Martinez's political future should be interesting to watch. The spotlight will burn brightly in his new extrapartisan post. And there are those who wonder how Martinez's clout in Washington will fare once President Bush leaves office. But for now, there is no doubt that Martinez is influential as a senator and as a fundraiser, rainmaker and faceman for Republicans throughout America.
3. Buddy Dyer. The Democratic mayor of Orlando had his best year ever in 2006. His talk about a revitalized downtown finally began to become a reality. The skyline grew, thanks largely to taxpayer perks that Dyer handed out. Preliminary deals were struck to keep the Orlando Magic in town and build a new performing arts center. And he was in the thick of the successful efforts to help UCF land a medical school and bring the Burnham Institute to town. You can actually make the case that all of the top three people on this list are nearly equals. In fact, Dyer and the other two were the only ones to receive votes from every panelist surveyed. Dyer, 48, may have placed third simply because one of these three men had to.
2. John Hitt. The president of the University of Central Florida keeps impressing our panel. He came in fourth place in 2004, third place last year and is now the runner-up. After overseeing growth that made his school one of the largest in the nation, Hitt this year topped himself by landing a new medical school for his university. That could do as much as anything else to diversify and improve the region's low-wage economy. Also, unlike the others at the top of this list, Hitt has steered clear of major controversy. His biggest challenge may be staying healthy. The 66-year-old suffered a heart attack in June and was hospitalized twice, prompting compassion for him and his family and concern among the community.
1. Rich Crotty. To be honest, this one is kind of amazing. Earlier this year, the Orange County mayor was investigated for getting into a land deal that even he conceded was a mistake, since his partner had business that had come before Crotty's board. It was one of the biggest stories of the year, and, at times, things looked awfully dim for Crotty, 58. But after he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, Crotty seemed to emerge as powerful and focused as ever. He was in the thick of everything from the deal-cutting to get the arena and arts center to landing the med school and Burnham. Sure, Crotty worked arm in arm with Dyer and Hitt at times. But, as the man with the biggest budget in town (more than $2 billion annually) Crotty is the man with the money. And people know it. He also faced no serious competition in his bid to keep his seat this past year -- which speaks volumes.
TRENDS, OBSERVATIONS AND TIDBITS
This list continues to lack diversity. The average power player is a 58-year-old white guy who's been around for quite a while (See: Rich Crotty.) There were only three women, one Hispanic and one black leader to make the list.
Two men dropped off the list. One was Andy Gardiner, primarily because his stint as House majority leader is winding down. But the other, Allan Keen, was booted off in much less ceremonious fashion. The developer and chairman of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority has made one unflattering headline after another with allegations of wasted money at the authority. So, after coming in 20th place last year, he wasn't even on the radar this go-round.
As a reminder: These choices were the panel's -- not mine. And I think they overlooked a couple of people. Most notable would be John Morgan. Mr. "For the People" has always been one of the nation's big Democratic fundraisers -- and finally has some clout to show for it, now that Dems are running Congress. Plus, he crossed party lines to be one of Charlie Crist's bigger backers as well (and Crist's lieutenant, Jeff Kottkamp, is even one of Morgan's law partners), meaning this Lake Mary Democrat is better connected to Crist than many local Republicans. Still, Morgan hasn't been involved in as many local issues. Someone who has, though, is Andy Gardiner -- who I also would have put on the list. Both men narrowly missed.
There continues to be a dearth when it comes to leadership from the religious community. No pastor, imam, rabbi or other cleric garnered widespread support. However, Northland's Joel Hunter, who walked away from a job running the Christian Coalition after deciding the group was too strident, caught a few panelists' eyes. Wrote one: "Does giving up power constitute power in itself? If so, he deserves to be on the list of 25. To walk away from a national appointment in order to stay true to one's own perspective on an issue as divisive as religion, well, that's more than power, that's strength."
Power doesn't always mean popularity. Some of the very actions that made these people powerful were unpopular with the general populace (and maybe a few newspaper columnists). Subsidizing billionaire Rich DeVos' sports team comes to mind. But the fact that these people got their goals accomplished, despite objections, speaks to their clout.
Orange County Commissioner Teresa Jacobs may have been on the losing end of some votes. But she's making a difference, forcing discussions on everything from rampant development to campaign ethics. Consequently, she almost made the list -- and was the only rank-and-file politician to even come close. That's something the other sit-and-nod pols in town might want to notice.
THE REST OF THE LIST
6. Jim Pugh, developer
7. Jim Seneff, CNL Financial Group CEO