There's a new No. 1 this year. But before we get to him, let's first reveal the others who topped this year's list of "The 25 Most Powerful People in Central Florida." The top 10 includes three business executives, two mayors, two members of Congress, one legislator, a philanthropist and an educator. Collectively, they control the region's largest work force, provide us entertainment and hold key positions in every level of government. They affect the taxes we pay, the quality of our education system and how long it takes us to get to work in the morning. If you like what's happening in Central Florida, these people deserve much of the credit. If you don't, they share in the blame. As mentioned in Wednesday's paper, when we unveiled those in 11th to 25th places, this ranking was determined by a panel of 15 plugged-in panelists from the nonprofit, religious, government and business communities. Their goal was to determine who has the ability to make things happen on a big scale in Central Florida.
1. Buddy Dyer
The mayor of Orlando is here because of one word: vision. There are many people responsible for downtown Orlando's burgeoning skyline and the venues. But panelists credit Dyer, 50, with having the vision and fortitude to make it all happen. Still, it won't come free. And with the economy reeling, Dyer may be in for a gut check as he struggles to find ways to pay for the big buildings and the street-level services that residents need, such as cops and transportation. So far, Dyer has found a way to make things happen. But the coming year could be the ultimate test -- for him and many others on this list.
2. Rich Crotty
This is the first year that the Orange County mayor hasn't held the top spot. And that may be largely because the end of his tenure is in sight. Crotty still has two years left. But the jockeying to replace him has already begun. Plus, whereas Crotty spent much of 2007 championing things, he spent much of this past year playing defense -- on everything from ethics reform and troubles at the expressway authority to general economic woes. Still, Crotty, 60, is determined not to be a lame duck. And he certainly still has the clout. In fact, he barely missed the top spot, which would have been five years straight.
3. John Hitt
The University of Central Florida president has a lot on his plate. He is overseeing the growth of a new medical school -- and pretty much the entire mini-economy sprouting up around it. But he also faces the kind of lean budget that makes future growth tough. Hitt, 66, also found himself and his school in an unflattering national spotlight on the heels of a football player's death. Still, he remains one of the most respected figures in town and held steady in third place this year.
4. John Mica
The U.S. House member from Winter Park may be a Republican in a Democrat-controlled Congress. But he's still this region's go-to guy -- especially on all things transportation. Mica, 64, has been downright dogmatic in his pursuit of commuter rail. And he's widely respected -- enough so that, while two of his fellow House members lost re-election bids this year, Mica didn't even face a serious challenge.
5. Dean Cannon
There's no doubt Cannon has clout. He has been a presence in Tallahassee since he first got there -- and hasn't even begun his 2010 term as speaker of the House. Some panelists, though, wondered what it is that Cannon, 40, wants to do with his influence . . . other than be speaker. He has talked of commuter rail. But is there a grander vision? Florida is in the midst of a financial crisis where tough choices have to be made. Cannon's choices will reveal a lot.
6. Meg Crofton. Crofton is one of the few people in America with the ability to pen an employee memo that can affect an entire community. That's because the president of Walt Disney World not only runs the biggest company in town, but the largest single-site employer in the country. Central Florida's economy is inextricably linked to Disney and its more than 60,000 workers. Thanks to her work on homelessness and a diversified economy, Crofton, 55, has also proved willing to work on the tough issues that affect those outside Fantasyland.
7. Bill Nelson. Five years ago, Florida's Democratic U.S. senator wasn't even on this list. But then he moved to Orlando -- and, more importantly, saw his party take control of Congress. Now Nelson, 66, is a gate-keeper for most anything Florida wants or needs from Washington. And, as a bit of trivia, Nelson first introduced Central Florida to Barack Obama at a fundraiser back in 2005, where Nelson described his new peer as the Senate's "rising star."
8. Jim Pugh. Understated is a good way to describe this developer and philanthropist best known for championing the arts and Democratic causes and putting his money where his heart is. Without fanfare, Pugh, 70, spent much of the last year continuing to develop Orlando's performing-arts center. His challenge will be seeing that dream to fruition. The Kumbaya-like choruses of "Do them all!" with regards to the three venues seem a distant memory, now that the Magic arena is under construction and the arts center has yet to break ground. And money's only getting tighter.
9. Jacob Stuart. The former head of Orlando's chamber of commerce didn't wait for anyone else to help him increase his influence. He did it himself by creating a mega-chamber of sorts called the Central Florida Partnership, which now oversees the chamber and several other entities. Even if people don't completely understand it -- one panelist called it a "bewildering multi-hydra" -- they know that Stuart, 60, represents the business interests in town and is usually involved in pushes for big community projects like the venues and commuter rail.
10. Alex Martins. In past years, panelists haven't been sure who really called the shots at the Orlando Magic. Owner Rich DeVos? President Bob VanderWeide? Well, the DeVos family may still be the buck-stoppers, but as chief operating officer, Martins has emerged as the face of Orlando's only major-league sports team. He helped get a new arena. But perhaps more significantly, the 44-year-old sports exec has stepped into community roles beyond the hardwood, serving, for instance, on the regional homeless commission.
Rankings 11th to 25th
11.Clarence Otis, Darden Restaurants CEO
12. John Morgan, attorney
13. Al Weiss, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts president
14. Fred Leonhardt, GrayRobinson partner
15. Andy Gardiner, state senator
16. Jim Seneff, CNL Financial Group chairman
17. Harris Rosen, hotelier
18. Charles Gray, GrayRobinson founding partner
19. Mel Martinez, U.S. senator
20. Corrine Brown, U.S. House member
21. Dick Batchelor, consultant
22. Bob Mandell, Greater Homes, retired CEO
23.Val Demings, Orlando police chief
24. Jeff Fuqua, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority chairman
25. Ron Blocker, Orange County schools superintendent
*MOSTLY MEN. Two high-profile women leaving the Orlando Sentinel (Publisher Kathy Waltz and Editorial Page Editor Jane Healy), as well as Orange County Commissioner Teresa Jacobs leaving office, hurt the estrogen team in the battle of the sexes. Only three women made this year's list.
*STANDING OUT. Speaking of Jacobs, no rank-and-file politicians made the cut this year -- though Seminole County Commissioner Carlton Henley, a political patriarch in Seminole who proved willing to throw some elbows across county lines this year, was darn close. In Orange, Commissioner Linda Stewart received the most love from the panel. No one on Orlando's council got much attention, as Dyer is pretty adept at tending his flock.
*FROM THE PULPIT. On the religion front, Bishop Thomas Wenski and Longwood Rev. Joel Hunter continue to receive attention. Neither man is shy about wading into controversial issues. And don't forget that Hunter actually prayed with the president-elect on Election Day.
*ALL DISNEY. Walt Disney World is obviously the biggest mouse in town. Universal's presence is conspicuously absent. SeaWorld's, too.
Some of those who received attention from our panelists in the "Up-and-comers" category include downtown developers Steve Kodsi and Craig Ustler; UCF med-school dean Deb German, lawyer and GOP fundraiser Marcos Marchena, Orlando Chief of Staff Brie Turek, consultant and former Dyer campaign aide Kelly Cohen, Central Florida Sports Commission President Sam Stark, Walt Disney vice president Shannon McAleavey, public-relations exec Laura Guitar and Mears Transportation exec Roger Chapin.
How the list was prepared
To compile this list, Taking Names columnist Scott Maxwell assembled a panel of 15 plugged-in observers who are in a good position to judge influence in Central Florida. They come from the political, business, religious, nonprofit, grass-roots, judicial and educational communities -- and are diverse in age, gender and ethnicity. Panelists voted anonymously and were prohibited from voting for themselves.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun