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Ten elected officials who made a difference in Central Florida in 2019

Dyer, Demings, Demings, Simmons, Jacobs, Mina, Eskamani, VanderLey, Murphy, La Rosa

The City Beautiful and Central Florida continued to boom economically and culturally in 2019 while Democrats took control of much of Orange County, Republicans continue to dominate much of Seminole, Lake, Volusia, and Brevard counties, and Democrats, much of Osceola County.

Among them, a handful stood out as making critical differences in the region.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer

Sometimes Dyer makes it look too easy.

In 2019, his 17th in the Mayor’s Office, Dyer continued running The Machine that is Orlando City Hall.

He continued to oversee the kind of regional economic growth that led the state so much that it becomes silly while planning reforms toward his goal of making Orlando a “future-ready city.”

Last month, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported October marked 55 consecutive months of the Orlando area having the highest job creation in the state, and the city’s unemployment rate fell to 2.7 percent, down 0.3 percent from the previous year.

The city opened the first phase of the downtown Creative Village community, oversaw expansion of the Lake Nona Medical City, attracted the Electronic Arts state headquarters away from the suburbs, won prestigious recognition the American Cities Climate Challenge for green efforts, broke grown on or opened multiple affordable housing communities, opened parks, created a Packing District community, created rides-hare hubs, banned plastic straws in city government, expanded exclusiveness and equality policies for the LGBTQ community, and expanded mobile food vending.

Then he slipped out of the City Hall’s third floor just long enough to get himself reelected by a 54 point margin over longtime City Commissioner Sam Ings, a good man with a good record and absolutely no chance of toppling the Machine that is Dyer.

Sure, Orlando’s more intractable problems continue to defy quick and clear solutions. The city is central to the lowest-wage metropolitan area in the country, with one of the country’s worst shortages of affordable housing, a large, chronic homeless population and a transportation system light on public transit access and heavy on toll roads and congested surface streets. But if those issues were Dyer’s Achilles’ heel, voters didn’t seem to notice.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings

The two Florida lawmakers who will be most remembered for their roles in the impeachment of President Donald Trump will be Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, for his shouting and antics; and Democratic Demings of Orlando, for her calls for respect for law and moral responsibility.

Demings found herself in the almost unique position in 2019 of having seats on both of the U.S. House of Representatives committees that oversaw all the investigation and debate of impeachment. When the House finally voted to impeach Trump on Dec. 18, Demings was granted a marquee role, delivering a long statement about law and crime, in one of the closing slots of the debate.

“I know the President said that he can get away with anything he wants to. I came to tell you that, no, he cannot,” she concluded.

For that role, Demings impact on national politics in 2019 will be remembered as historic.

But the two-term Congresswoman didn’t sit idly through the rest of the year either.

She pushed through provisions that will provide millions of dollars more for airport security, particularly helping Orlando International Airport; led the House to pass her “Vladimir Putin Transparency Act of 2019“[which has stalled in the Senate;] led a very visible campaign to encourage more diversity in media; and pushed for greater transparency and accountability for HUD’s inspection process for federally assisted housing, among other bills.

And at the end of the year, after the impeachment vote, she also introduced a bill, with a Republican cosponsor, fellow former law enforcement officer U.S. Rep. John Rutherford of Jacksonville, to prevent foreign nationals, like the Saudi pilot who killed three people and wounded eight in a Dec. 6 shooting in Pensacola, from being able to buy guns.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings

Meanwhile, back in Orlando, her husband, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings set forth to transform the mission of county government and rapidly accelerating change.

Demings, who entered office in December 2019, as the first Democratic Orange County mayor in 20 years, also took over an Orange County Commission that flipped to Democratic control for the first time in 20 years. While the offices are nonpartisan and everyone involved insists local politics are nonpartisan, the Democratic nature — read progressive — of Demings’ agenda represented a stark change of priorities in many ways from that of previous mayors.

Demings launched the county’s first major tax and infrastructure proposal in 16 years in May, with his proposal and campaign for an increase in the county’s sales tax to provide hundreds of millions of new dollars per year to pay for roads, trails, LYNX bus service and SunRail commuter train service.

Likewise, he set out to restructure the Orange County government with new emphases on technology innovation and green initiatives and pursued nearly year-long blue-ribbon task force studies on affordable housing and domestic violence.

While none of those initiatives were making apparent changes yet by the end of the year, he at least had his structures in place, with a series of scores of public meetings on the prospect of a transportation tax, release of a plan to increase affordable housing, some strong proposals to address domestic violence, and the appointments of a high-level chief emerging technologies officer and of a chief sustainability and resilience officer.

He also oversaw an Orange County Commission that took approved a controversial deal for $125 million in CRA tax money to extend Kirkman Road past where Universal Orlando Resort plans to build its new Epic Universe theme park.

State Sen. David Simmons

The Florida Senate is generally seen as a chamber for grownups, and even within that group, Republican Simmons stood out in 2019 as both a president pro tempore and critical debater to push some of the biggest bills through the Florida Senate in 2019.

The Altamonte Springs lawmaker who is heading into his final term in the Senate and finishing 20 years in the Florida Legislature, Simmons shaped debate on a wide array of issues including the ouster of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, the education package that authorized state tax dollars going directly to private schools, the Amendment Four implementation bill that requires felons to pay all restitution before they can have voting rights restored, and the ban on sanctuary cities.

He also wielded influence as an influential member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and a powerful member of the Senate Education Committee.

Yet he also used his position to express his personal, political beliefs that often extended beyond or even outside Republican Party doctrine. In 2019 the party largely caught up with Simmons’ longstanding commitments to environmental protection. While supporting the sanctuary cities ban and President Donald Trump’s border security plans, he also spoke out passionately for allowing undocumented immigrants in Florida to obtain work permits and driver’s licenses.

Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs

Central Floridians just knew that in her first year as Republican Orange County School Board Chair, Jacobs was going to both push new policies stressing efficiencies and transparency into the system and make enemies.

That’s what Jacobs does. That’s why she’s unbeatable in the ballot box.

In 2019 she took over an all-female school board full of new members, yet with one of the strongest, most respected, most veteran superintendents in the state, Barbara Jenkins, and a long recent record of educational improvements. Yet Jacobs immediately began tinkering, questioning, and pushing. First off, she sought, largely behind the scenes, to overhaul the school district’s fiscal accountability practices, seeking a clearer look at how the district spends its money.

She described the push as her effort to “recalibrate the thinking of what is the role of the governing board that reports directly to the public.”

The effort set her and Jacobs in at least momentary adversarial positions. But Jacobs has the backing of the full school board.

And for Jacobs, a recalibration is the necessary first step toward what she sees as an imperative, but one that will require the public trust: significant pay increases for Orange County’s teachers.

Jacobs also showed she retains much of the gravitas she developed in eight years as the Orange County Mayor and eight as an Orange County Commissioner when she appeared before the Orange County Charter Review Commission in early fall to speak against a proposal to reshape how the school district and the county work together to address housing development and schools overcrowding. She spoke. The proposal immediately died.

A major accomplishment actually was started in her role as Mayor, when she and Demings, then the Orange County Sheriff, and then, as Orange County School Board Chair, she and new Orange County Sheriff John Mina, pieced together all that was necessary to get school resource officers into every school in Orange County. They did so months before the state’s deadline.

Meanwhile, Jacobs reminded Central Florida of her value as a voice for unity, love, and inclusiveness, which she and Dyer championed following the terrible 2016 mass shooting at the popular Orlando gay nightclub, Pulse. At the announcement of final plans for a Pulse Museum and Memorial, ten speakers reflected. But it was Jacobs who brought the audience to tears as she spoke of how the memorial could be a place where families throughout the country might come to terms with LGBTQ children.

Orange County Sheriff John Mina

If there is a 21st-century politics form of law enforcement, Mina personified it in 2019.

His term began, working with Jacobs, to provide bell-to-bell coverage with Orange County deputy sheriffs in 121 schools.

From there Mina began adding significant technology upgrades to the department, first with the acquisition of rapid DNA identification technology, which cuts the time for preliminary reports from weeks to 90 minutes. Another new machine allows the department to retrieve both fingerprints and DNA from items of evidence, an ability that essentially is impossible without it. And, working with the schools, he’s created real-time access to all the security cameras in all the schools, so that if there is a major public safety matter, such as an active shooter, the sheriff’s office can watch inside the corridors immediately.

New tactical units were created to provide localized expertise to tactical operations.

He also brought his views on outreach and assistance for the LGBTQ community to the sheriff’s department, developing policies for deputies to deal with transgender people, quadrupling the number of LGBTQ community outreach liaisons, and extending the Safe Place program he created in Orlando as Orlando Police Chief for businesses throughout the county, who want to post Safe Place stickers in windows to assure people they have a safe place to go to if they feel endangered on the streets.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani

Much of what Democrat Eskamani did in 2019 could also be co-attributed to her colleagues — Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Democratic state Sen. Linda Stewart.

The trio secured $500,000 in state funding for the Pulse Memorial and Museum. Eskamani and Smith pushed through an eight-fold increase in state funding for arts and cultural organizations. They led progressive lawmakers’ pressures for gun law reforms, environmental initiatives such as bans on plastic straws, and for equal rights initiatives, notably

Yet Eskamani, who seemingly never stops, never stopped there. The Orlando freshman lawmaker also became among the most consistently-present voice on other issues from Peruvian debt default impacts on Florida to affordable housing, from abortion rights to climate change; and from the rise of white nationalism to the protection of groundwater.

She somehow managed to do so without antagonizing many colleagues across the aisle, who generally accept Eskamani as a respectable and likable political opponent.

Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey

In an Orange County Commission that had a majority of seats held by rookies and a supermajority by Democrats, Republican VanderLey set a veterans’ pace toward improvements to her district and reforms for the county.

Her District 1 in southwestern Orange County is exploding with growth. VanderLey’s policies toward public-private deals for road improvements, parks development, and school placement have set new standards for getting the infrastructure in place far faster to deal with the blooming new neighborhoods.

The big part of that effort may be the planned 220-acre Horizons West Regional Park, which VanderLey said she envisions as a “Central Park” for western Orange County. Private money already is secured to help develop the new park with ball fields, a community center, dog park areas, nature trails and other items.

“It’s the first time we’ve done a park this size and it’s the first time we’ve done it with public-private partnerships,” VanderLey said.

She’s taken the same approach to accelerate road improvements. The immediate past president of Orlando MetroPlan, the region’s transportation planning agency, VanderLey worked out the political support for three critical new roads to be extended connecting State Road 429 in her district with U.S. Highway 27, just across the Lake County line.

On a commission that officially is nonpartisan, VanderLey also has found herself in a mentor’s role for the three new commissioners who took office in late 2018.

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy

In a partisan polarized Washington D.C., Murphy has managed to retain her Democratic Party credentials while bucking the progressive wing of the party and reaching several bipartisan deals on legislation.

That extended from her views on capitalism over socialized capitalism, to helping veterans to her late decision on impeachment.

Not all of what she does becomes law — the partisan deadlock prevents much of it — but Murphy remains as active as anyone in behind-the-scenes mechanizations. She was instrumental in modifying U.S. House of Representatives rules for debate and considerations of bills, as she used her leadership of the Blue Dog Coalition to force House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into key compromises. She did the same for the House initiatives for minimum wage increase proposals, and for elections reform proposals.

In the latter matter, Murphy has become a policy leader, both through her Blue Dog Coalition initiatives and with bipartisan bills, such as the one she introduced with Republican U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz to push for more transparency in investigations of elections hacking.

She did have a few victories. She led efforts to bring $1 million in federal money to the University of Central Florida for its UCF RESTORES  program, assisting veterans and first responders with PTSD, and $20 million to Lake Nona for its transportation network. She also brought her moderate views to hammer out a House compromise on the border security bill that Congress approved last winter.

State Rep. Mike La Rosa

If Republican La Rosa had done little in the Florida House of Representatives, he still would have had a dramatic impact on Central Florida with his leadership of the opposition to the Osceola County penny sales tax increase for transportation proposal.

La Rosa actually joined his former Democratic election foe Barbara Cady and others to run a boot strings campaign against a well-funded Osceola County campaign. His political committee contributed $25,000 to theOne Penny Too Many” campaign, up against a business-community-backed campaign with ten times that money, and the tax went down by a 2-1 margin.

Meanwhile, La Rosa remained busy in Tallahassee as chair of the House Commerce Committee and as a powerful advocate for tourism and economic development for all of Central Florida.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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