The 25 Most Powerful People in Central Florida: Familiar name at top of list

Collectively, they control tens of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in tax money, a sports franchise — and one very famous mouse.

They are the region's power players. And today we unveil the Top 10 in our rundown of "The 25 Most Powerful People in Central Florida."

With the economy stalled and our community at a crossroads, many of these people will determine what happens next. So you deserve to know who they are. As we mentioned Friday when we unveiled those in 11th to 25th places, this ranking was determined by a plugged-in panel from the nonprofit, government, grassroots and business communities. I didn't vote. The panel's goal was to determine who has the ability to make things happen on a big scale in Central Florida.

10. Bill Nelson, U.S. senator (Last year: 16th). Republicans may have swept the November elections. But Democrats still control the senate — which puts Florida's senior senator in a prime position. Orlando's Nelson, 68, is active on space issues and generally viewed as a respected moderate. But there are plenty of Republicans eager to take him on in 2012.

9. Andy Gardiner, state senator (13th). When it comes to Tallahassee, extremism is practically the new norm. But Gardiner, 41, manages to exude more pragmatism than partisanship. He's still a staunch conservative. But as a health-care executive and former small-business advocate, Gardiner has an agenda that often earns him respect from those on both sides of the aisle.

8. Dan Webster, U.S. House member (Not ranked last year). Webster, 61, is a hero among conservatives simply for taking out vocal liberal Alan Grayson. Now we'll see whether he can build cross-party appeal in a district that actually favors Dems. As a former state senator, Webster had a reputation as a statesman who could do just that … though such behavior isn't always rewarded in Washington.

7. Alex Martins, Orlando Magic president (9th). The Magic made a smart move when they decided to make Martins the team's face man. Team owner Rich DeVos — who loves to rail against government handouts, even when his own hand was out asking for a new arena — wasn't exactly Orlando's most beloved billionaire. Martins, 46, has not only led with class, he got involved in important community issues beyond the hardwood.

6. Meg Crofton, Walt Disney World president (6th). For the first time in many years, Disney has been overshadowed by Universal's banner year. But Crofton, 57, still personifies Central Florida's bread-and-butter industry, controlling the region's largest workforce. She also stepped up Disney's presence outside of Fantasyland, helping lead efforts to diversify the economy and combat homelessness.

5. John Hitt, University of Central Florida president (4th). When Hitt arrived at UCF in 1992, the school wasn't on the radar of many people outside the Sunshine State. Now it is the nation's second-largest school with more than 225 degree options, a medical school and nationally recognized sports programs. The school's growth has slowed. But Hitt, 68, is still the region's higher-ed head honcho.

3. (tie) John Mica, U.S. House member (5th). The Winter Park Republican was already the dean of Central Florida's congressional delegation. But, with the GOP again controlling the House, Mica's clout rises even more. Of particular note, the 65-year-old rail advocate now chairs the transportation committee.

3. (tie) Dean Cannon, Florida House speaker (3rd). Forget checks and balances. Republicans control everything in Tallahassee. As one panelist said of the 42-year-old Cannon: "If he wants it, it's his." He previously tried to sneak through a coastal oil-drilling deal — then retreated after the big spill. So what does he want now? Lower taxes, smaller government and, in general, most of what the state's business interests seem to want as well. With little to block his agenda, Cannon should control his own fate this year.

2. Teresa Jacobs, Orange County mayor (N/R). She delivered a major wake-up call to others on this list when she walloped the establishment's chosen candidate for county mayor, Bill Segal. Jacobs, 53, is smart and detail-oriented. Her biggest struggle may be with her own board. But her position comes with enough leverage to remind dissenters who's in charge. Her first few months will set the tone. Said one panelist: "She could be at the top of the list — but I would like to see her accomplish something big first."

1. Buddy Dyer, Orlando mayor (1st). For the third straight year, Orlando's mayor is No. 1, primarily because of his sheer determination to get things done. From rail to a new arena, Dyer has pushed projects that, while controversial, have altered Orlando's landscape for decades to come. The biggest question is money and whether Dyer, 52, over-extended the city. One panelist noted that the mayor still has dreams … it's just not clear whether he still has the finances to pay for them.


Sporting picks. Two local sports figures received votes from our panelists — though neither made the list. One was NBA superstar Dwight Howard. The other was PGA player Justin Rose for his local charitable activities. Now off the radar completely: Tiger Woods.

Where's the estrogen? Central Florida's power parade continues to be heavy on testosterone. Only four women made the top 25 (though one of them looked down at a whole lotta men from her perch at No. 2). As for diversity, six of those on the list are ethnic minorities.

Spell-check, anyone? Just in case you want to contact some of these power players, you should know there is no h in Teresa [Jacobs], only one m in Demings and that every other letter is a vowel in Haridopolos — and most of them are o's.

Holy Hogwarts. Disney has always had an executive on this list — sometimes two. That's not the case with Universal Studios, whose executives aren't as high-profile. If you had to put one Universal name on this list, one co-worker suggested it was a no-brainer: Harry Potter.

Holy leadership. With Bishop Thomas Wenski departed, Northland pastor Joel Hunter was the only religious leader to catch panelists' attention as a player on the region-wide scene. Still, I can think of many other religious leaders making differences far beyond their sanctuary walls, including Bill Barnes of St. Luke's United Methodist and David Swanson of First Presbyterian, just to name a couple.

The next generation. Panelists were also asked to name a few "Up and Comers" — people who they might expect to see on this list in future years. Among those garnering attention: attorney Greg Lee, who chairs the board overseeing construction of the downtown venues, and newly elected Orange County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson. Panelists also gave props to Dyer's new chief of staff, Frank Billingsley and Orange County administrator Ajit Lalchandani … though, personally, I think of both men more as behind-the-scenes players than pentagenarian "up and comers."

The rest of the list

11. Bill Sublette, Orange County School Board chairman

12. Rasesh Thakkar, Tavistock Group

13. Clarence Otis, Darden Restaurants CEO

14. Ron Blocker, Orange County Public Schools superintendent

15. Jim Pugh, developer/philanthropist

16. Mike Haridopolos, state Senate president

17. Val Demings, Orlando police chief

18. Jerry Demings, Orange County sheriff

19. John Morgan, attorney

20. Lars Houmann, Florida Hospital CEO

21. Harris Rosen, hotelier

22. Fred Leonhardt, Gray-Robinson partner

23. Belvin Perry, chief circuit judge

24. Deborah German, UCF College of Medicine dean

25. (tie) Jacob Stuart, Central Florida Partnership president, and Craig Ustler, developer

Want more?

To learn more about how this list was compiled — including the identities of all the panelists and their rules for voting — visit

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