8:41 PM EST, December 31, 2011
They control some of the largest workforces, biggest budgets and loudest bully pulpits in town.
And they can impact everything from your morning commute to your family's health care and entertainment options.
They are Central Florida's power players. And while some may inspire and others may infuriate, all hold significant sway.
The goal of this list, now in its eighth year, is to give you better insight into who's pulling the strings.
On Friday, we unveiled the bottom 15 spots — as chosen by a panel of 14 leaders from the business, nonprofit, political and educational sectors. Today we have the top 10.
10. Clarence Otis, Darden Restaurants CEO (Last year: 13th). As leader of Olive Garden's parent company — and Orange County's only Fortune 500 workforce — Otis affects a lot of local paychecks … and waistlines. Otis, 55, isn't as publicly active as others on this list. But his company stays involved and supportive of community projects. And, as one panelist said: "He can open any door he wants."
9. John Mica, U.S. House member (Last year: Tie-3rd). He's the dean of Central Florida's congressional delegation. And this year, the Winter Park Republican finally got his train. In general, Congress' popularity has dropped, as did Mica's ranking. Still, Mica, 66, chairs the transportation committee and earns far more respect from panelists than any of his House peers, who often make more news for partisan silliness than actual accomplishments.
8. Bill Sublette, Orange County School Board chairman (Last year: 11th). It didn't take long for Orange County's new elected school leader to shoot to the top 10. Sublette, 48, works well with his new peers. And he's viewed as a straight-shooter — something needed when dealing with legislators who treat public schools more like campaign props than priorities.
7. Andy Gardiner, state Senate majority leader (Last year: 9th). While many Florida legislators waste time grandstanding, Gardiner spends more time working. He's respected for it. The 42-year-old Republican from Orlando has been a key force on everything from transportation to taxation.
6. Meg Crofton, Walt Disney World president (Last year: 6th). Universal may be flying up the power ladder on the back of Harry Potter's broomstick. But the Mouse still rules Orlando. And Crofton, 58, not only runs the largest single-site employer in America, she and her stewards are involved in projects throughout the community. Disney's clout may be tested this year in trying to fight off casinos. I'd bet on Disney.
5. Alex Martins, Orlando Magic president (Last year: 7th). Both the team and its ownership family may be a bit of a mess. But Martins' stock continues to rise. Martins, 47, got a new arena and is involved with a number of nonprofits. But with his superstar trying to leave and the team having made big promises to this town, the Magic need a steady hand. So this year should be a test.
4. Dean Cannon. (Last year: Tie-3rd) The Florida House speaker's crusade to overturn the people's vote for Fair Districts may be unpopular with the masses (for good reason). But panelists say there's no doubt Cannon, 43, has clout in Tallahassee. This year may determine his legacy — as will his next move. Some speakers past have used their tenure to start padding their own nests for post-political employment. Cannon should know better.
3. John Hitt, University of Central Florida president (Last year: 5th). Hitt, 69, has helped turn UCF into America's second-largest school. And he shows no signs of slowing down. If there's a chink in this knight's armor, it's black eyes for the school's sports programs — which need to be cleaned up as UCF steps onto an even bigger stage in the Big East. Overall, though, one panelist summed up Hitt's status this way: "He has no term limit, and he's still on a roll."
2. Teresa Jacobs, Orange County mayor (Last year: 2nd). She almost topped the list. In fact, this was the closest race for the top spot we've ever seen. Jacobs, 54, is viewed as fearless, determined and careful with the public's money. If there's a reason she's not No. 1, it's because her vision remains unclear. We knew Buddy Dyer craved a new skyline. What does Jacobs want? One panelist summed Jacobs up like this: "It seems like she says 'no' more than 'yes.' But she sets the standard for accountability in local government."
1. Buddy Dyer, Orlando mayor. (Last year: 1st) This is the fourth straight year that Dyer has topped the list. Jacobs may be primed to take over. But for now, panelists say Dyer, 53, is the guy who gets most of what he wants through sheer grit. He's gotten everything from SunRail to an arts center. And, so far, he has defied critics who thought the city's finances would fall apart. Said one panelist: "He simply gets things done. No matter what, he ramrods it through and gets it done."
The rest of the list (revealed in Friday's Sentinel).
11. Jerry Demings, Orange County sheriff
12. Belvin Perry Jr., chief judge
13. Jim Pugh, developer/philanthropist
14. Lars Houmann, Florida Hospital CEO
15. Bill Nelson, U.S. Senator
16. John Morgan, Morgan and Morgan
17. Rasesh Thakkar, Tavistock Group
18. Mike Haridopolos, Florida Senate president
19. Tom Williams, Universal Parks and Resorts chairman
20. Craig Ustler, Creative Village developer
21. Jacob Stuart, Central Florida Partnership president
22. Deborah German, UCF College of Medicine dean
23. Harris Rosen, hotelier
24. Rick Walsh, Knob Hill Group president
25. Sandy Shugart, Valencia College president
The next generation. Panelists also were asked to name a few "Up and Comers" — people we might see on this list in future years. Among those garnering attention: new Lynx CEO John Lewis; Orange County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson, Hispanic Chamber exec Ramon Ojeda and Greg Lee, who chairs the board overseeing construction of the downtown venues.
Estrogen deprivation. This year's list had the fewest number of women — only three out of 25 — even though women comprised a majority of the voting panel. If there was a saving grace, it was that one of those three, Mayor Jacobs, was No. 2. As for diversity, five are ethnic minorities. Only one is Hispanic (Martins).
Holy leadership. Two local pastors who almost made the list were Joel Hunter of Northland in Longwood and David Uth of First Baptist Orlando.
Sporting picks. Dwight Howard was the only local athlete to earn any love. And he might've even made the list if he hadn't asked to leave town in the middle of voting. Still, one panelist asked: "How many people can make an entire community hold their breath?"
To learn more about how this list was compiled — including the identities of all the panelists and their rules for voting — visit OrlandoSentinel.com/takingnames.
There, you can also see some of my picks for people who aren't necessarily the most powerful … but who are definitely making a difference.
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