They affect the taxes you pay, the schools your children attend and the roads on which you drive. They can determine which jobs come to town, the concerts and sporting events you can watch and even the places you can ride your bike on the weekend.They are The 25 Most Powerful People in Central Florida. And each year, this column seeks to pull back the curtains and give you a closer look at who's really running the community in which you live.
This annual ranking -- now in its fourth year -- isn't based on my opinions. It never has been. Instead, I assembled a panel of 16 plugged-in players and observers. They are a diverse collection of elected officials, nonprofit executives, educational leaders, lobbyists and business execs. A few of them actually ended up on the list, though all of them were prohibited from voting for themselves.Each started with a blank slate and then submitted their own list of 25 people -- those whom they believe have the most clout to get things done in Central Florida.
The list isn't scientific. Nothing like this ever is. But it does offer you a closer look at the people who shape the community in which we live. So let's get started.
25. Harvey Massey. This 65-year-old who runs a pest-control empire has run in power circles for years. But it wasn't until this year that he debuted on this list. That's largely for two reasons. 1) He was a driving force behind the push to build the downtown venues, even coining the "Do them all! Do them now! Do them right!" battle cry that rallied supporters and drove critics up a wall. 2) He was Gov. Charlie Crist's appointment to the beleaguered Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority board. And his needed criticism and reform efforts made everyone take notice.
24. Teresa Jacobs. This two-term Orange County commissioner holds the distinction of being the only rank-and-file politician to make this list. No other county commissioner or city council member has come close. That's largely because Jacobs, 50, speaks her mind -- often saying exactly what the public wants to hear when it comes to things like ethics reform and development concerns. In a world full of cookie-cutter politicians where so many are afraid of rocking the boat, for fear that it might hurt their next election chances, Jacobs stands out. Wrote one panelist: "She keeps making trouble -- and mostly in a good way." That reputation may serve her well with the county mayor's seat opening up in a couple of years.
23. John Morgan. Everyone who's ever turned on a TV or radio in this town knows Mr. For the People's face and voice -- even if only because it sends them running for the mute button. What you may not know -- and yet what our panelists do -- is that this 51-year-old lawyer is a major player on the political scene. He's one of the country's biggest Democratic fundraisers and has hosted everyone from John Edwards to Barack Obama at his home. And yet he scored even more influence when he crossed party lines to endorse Republican Charlie Crist. And did we mention the lieutenant governor was one of his law partners?
22. Kathy Waltz. The Orlando Sentinel's publisher stepped up her communitywide role this past year when she agreed to lead the United Way campaign. But even before that, panelists have always included Waltz, 53, on this list because she controls the region's biggest media outlet. Her influence comes not from dictating coverage, but rather from freeing up her writers to ask tough questions and take shots. Waltz also has final approval on the editorials -- and is quite comfortable telling other people on this very list to buzz off when they start complaining.
21. Jane Healy. Speaking of the editorials, Healy is often the one who actually pens them -- which is why she too has made this list every year. (Though this is, oddly enough, the first time she and Waltz have been ranked side-by-side.) Whether it's a mayor, senator or governor, top politicians of all stripes frequently visit Healy and her staff of opinion writers, hoping to get the ed board's approval. And, as one panelist wrote: "There's a reason they all come by." Healy, 58, didn't win 'em all, including a push for a countywide elected school chairman, which may help explain her drop from her spot at No. 9 last year. But she got many of the big ones, including the downtown venues and several key environmental issues.
20. Andy Gardiner. This former leader in the state House actually dropped off the list last year when his tenure was winding down. But now that the 38-year-old Republican from Orlando appears to be the heir apparent to state Sen. Dan Webster's seat, our panelists crowned him powerful again. One panelist predicted that a senate leadership position is within "easy reach."
19. Dan Webster. Speak of the devil (and Daniel Webster), this guy is another constant on the power list. He's a dean of the state Senate and one of Tallahassee's all-around power brokers. He's a rock-solid conservative who has steered free of scandal. And even though he's far enough to the right to make even some centrists uncomfortable, most observers trust that his beliefs are genuine and not guided by special interests. Webster, 58, is about to leave office and, as one panelist wrote: "We don't know what he will do next, but enough politicos are very concerned that he may be eyeing their seat."
18. Fred Leonhardt. This partner at GrayRobinson has an uncanny ability to back the right horse -- one way or the other. He jumped onto Charlie Crist's campaign at a crucial time. And while the 58-year-old was widely viewed as a Republican rain-maker for years, he and the firm have beefed up their Democratic rain-making, now that liberals run Congress. He also ran the statewide chamber of commerce and was recently chosen to be chairman of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission.
17. Jim Seneff. The CEO of CNL Financial Group tumbled 10 spots this year, probably because some of his strongest political connections were Republican in an increasingly Democratic climate. But the 61-year-old still earns high marks for being a major player on the downtown development scene, a champion of the arts center, friend and confidant of both major mayors and, of course, the leader of one of Central Florida's largest homegrown businesses.
16. Dick Batchelor. Sometimes it's hard to figure out precisely why this former Democratic lawmaker who hasn't been in office for more than two decades makes this list. And that may be because there's nothing precise about it. It's a cornucopia of reasons, including his connections in both Tallahassee and Washington; his role as a pundit on both TV and radio and his involvement with a myriad of nonprofits. One panelist described the 59-year-old as "a Democrat even Republicans can like."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun