For the second straight year, murder, its grip on the public, and its ramifications dominated Central Florida politics.
In 2016 the horrific slaughter of 49 people at Orlando’s popular gay nightclub Pulse set the tone for the community in many ways, and profoundly changed the politics of Central Florida toward open acceptance, across the spectrum. In 2017, murders and calls for justice opened new divides in the community.
Here are the 15 events in Central Florida politics that most changed the political landscape of greater Orlando.
1. Newly-installed State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s decision in March to not pursue capital punishment prosecutions was unavoidably tied to the horrible slaying in January of Orlando Police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton because there could be few cases that so resoundingly resonated with the public as Clayton’s death.
Ayala’s stand lasted four months while the Florida Supreme Court played out as venue for robust, nationally-fueled discussion and debate of the authority of state attorneys, the authority of governors, and the practicality of death penalty laws that typically require years, sometimes decades, of litigation before justice is determined. She argued that Florida’s death penalty is unjust, and others heard her as saying she was refusing her duty to seek ultimate justice of Clayton’s accused killer, Markeith Lloyd. Gov. Rick Scott reassigned that and other cases to another state attorney, and Ayala and her supporters saw him as usurping the authority of a duly-elected officer of the court.
In August, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Scott’s favor, Ayala backed off. But the bitter divide that opened between her and opponents of the death penalty on one side, and Scott and supporters of the death penalty on the other, will continue for at least as long as both are in office. More importantly, the court’s decision confirmed great powers of governors and limited powers of state attorneys in cases when they do not agree on avenues of justice.
2. As if murder wasn’t tragedy enough, the storms of September brought widespread suffering and longer-term political ramifications. Hurricane Irma battered all of Florida and tested the state, county and municipal emergency responses and infrastructures, not entirely to everyone’s satisfaction. That left power companies like Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light and leaders such as Scott, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and others pleading the public for patience, while many residents grew weary and frustrated.
But that storm’s long-term ramifications may pale compared with the one that missed Florida altogether less than two weeks later. Hurricane Maria shut down Puerto Rico and much of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Florida – primarily Central Florida – became refuge to tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of islanders whose homes were reduced to inhabitable.
The newcomers are enrolling their children in schools, seeking housing, seeking employment, and may be seeking political leadership. Both Democrats and Republicans reached out in any number of ways to offer assistance and comfort to the evacuees.
3. There may be no one in Central Florida whose tenure, legacy and vision of the region’s future has been more important to Orlando in the past 25 years than University of Central Florida President John Hitt. So when he announced his retirement for next June, more was called to stake than just the future of a university with 65,000 students.
You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t follow a legend into office. Which may help explain why Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who had always said he’d love to be UCF’s president, quickly announced, “Not this time.” So the search is on for a respected academician or, in keeping with recent Sunshine State history, a politician who knows how to keep UCF in the minds of Tallahassee leaders, to usher in the new downtown campus, the new Lake Nona medical center, the half-billion dollar endowment campaign and the university’s aspirations toward not just bigger but better, yearning for the kind of national academic respect enjoyed by other giant state universities such as Texas, Arizona State and Ohio State.
4. On June 12, 2017, Orlando came together to remember the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, and it became clear that the tragedy forever will both scar and define the people of Central Florida. And that definition, as embodied by the union of Jacobs, Dyer, City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, Pulse owner Barbara Poma, and others from political, law enforcement, business, faith, LGBTQ, Latino, and health care communities, which came arm-in-arm the morning of the massacre, showed Orlando United continues to be, at least within Central Florida, a common ground. The anniversary commemorations were not so much about the community healing as changing.
5. With a swiftness that left little time for any opposition to build momentum, Dyer and the Orlando City Council responded to criticisms of the prominent public location of the Confederate memorial Johnny Reb statue and ordered its relocation to the Civil War section of the city’s Greenwood Cemetery. The action briefly drew shouting protests and a contentious public hearing before the City Council, but avoided the deep-wound angst that so many other cities endured when contemplating what to do with their Confederate heritage monuments. And it happened months before the showdown in Charlottesville, N.C., made such quandaries national symbols of divisiveness.
6. For six months of 2017, no one was stepping forward to run to succeed Jacobs in the most powerful local political leadership position in Central Florida. And then a bunch came, starting with Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, and then businessman Rob Panepinto, Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette, and Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke. They’re all in the relatively-quiet fundraising and grassroots-organizing stages of their campaigns, yet that will change shortly. The stakes for the non-partisan position are very partisan and very high, as Demings emerged as the early favorite, with the potential of riding an increasingly-Democratic voter base to become the first Democrat to hold the office in more than 20 years.
7. When Orlando lost the congressional representation of U.S. Reps. John Mica, Corrine Brown, Alan Grayson and Daniel Webster, it lost several decades of seniority and powerful hands in both the Republican and Democratic parties. In return, Orlando got three freshmen Democrats, Val Demings, Stephanie Murphy and Darren Soto, and a limited interest of Webster, who moved to Florida’s Congressional District 11. The trio of new lawmakers has been splashy, and they’ve raised to prominence issues that previously were lower key for Central Florida lawmakers: criminal justice, international diplomacy, Florida’s environment and Puerto Rico. And so far Central Florida hasn’t seen much change in the federal dollars it had come to expect through Mica, Brown, and Grayson; but, so far, much of what the new representatives delivered already had been ordered by their predecessors.
8. If there had been any expectations that Orlando voters were ready for change, or ready for a more progressive agenda for an increasingly-young and -Democratic electorate, they were dispelled on Election Day in November when the largely-moderate incumbents Regina Hill, Robert Stuart and Jim Gray were easily re-elected.
9. On a statewide and national basis, few if any political voices have been better-known, louder, or more influential than that of longtime Democratic rainmaker, medical marijuana champion, and liability lawyer John Morgan. So when Morgan announced in November he was both quitting the Democratic Party and not running for governor, tremors were felt pretty far and wide. He’ll be back, because he’s committed to a statewide campaign on the minimum wage issue, and because he can’t help himself. The question is whether he’ll have a constituency.
10. Once state Sen. Geraldine Thompson stepped down from office in January, there really weren’t any Central Florida political voices expressing much interest in the shameful case of the Groveland Four, the young black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in Lake County in 1949, and then destroyed through Jim Crow-era justice. Yet 2017 nonetheless was the year they finally got their hearing in the Florida Legislature, resulting in a powerful state apology to their families and a [still unheeded] call for their posthumous pardons.
11. When state Rep. Mike Miller of Winter Park announced he was running for Congress the decision set off domino decisions up and down the ballot.
12. UCF broke ground on its downtown campus, promising major impacts on the future of the university, the downtown community, and Parramore.
13. SpaceX finished its overhaul and reopened legendary Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center.
14. Bobby Olszewski won the special election to represent Florida House District 44.
15. Medical marijuana came to Central Florida with the opening of a Knox Medical store in Orlando, and Orange County’s, Orlando’s and Apopka’s willingness to allow additional dispensaries.