Pick a big Central Florida public meeting, any meeting — Orlando City Commission, Orange County Board of Commissioners, the University of Central Florida Board of Trustees, the Central Florida Expressway Authority, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. Seminole, Osceola, Lake, Brevard, Volusia or Polk counties.
Look around the room. They’re there.
In a rapidly growing greater-Orlando community where no single government entity controls much more than a small portion of the critical decisions that determine the minutiae and grand sweeps of Orlando’s future; in a region where some of the biggest business interests count their local employees in the tens of thousands and some have global presence, Business Force is increasingly playing the role of broker.
East Orange County development, the downtown Orlando UCF campus, the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in Kissimmee, the Orange County tourism development tax. These are the kinds of issues that in the past had their backers and their lobbyists, and they still do. But now they also have a united front addressing the business community’s desires, and letting elected policymakers know they stand with them — or they might stand against them.
“We’re evolving with the ever-changing times,” said Business Force Executive Director Robert Agrusa. “You had an organization in the past predominantly … weighing more into candidate endorsements and those political races, and what I’ve gotten involved in much more since I came onboard is much more issue-oriented — certainly still involved in those political races, but much more locally focused races.”
Business Force and its Business Force Political Action Committee are the lobbying force for the Central Florida Partnership, which for the past eight years has been an Orlando-led coalition of chambers of commerce throughout Central Florida, including those in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake, Polk, Brevard and Volusia counties. Through Business Force, the public policy messages of huge business interests such as Walt Disney World, Florida Hospital, Publix Supermarkets and Darden unite with those of hundreds of small businesses.
This spring Business Force also reached out beyond the Central Florida Partnership, inviting in participation from both the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando and the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida. There are others, and Agrusa said he will be reaching out to them.
The Business Force Board of Directors reads like a who’s who of Central Florida influence: Sharon Smoley of Walt Disney World, John McReynolds of Universal Orlando, Amanda Conochalla of Darden, Oscar Anderson, Pat Christiansen, Derek Bruce, Shannon Gravitte, Chris Carmody, Dana Loncar, Rusty Roberts and two dozen others. Individually, none of them is someone to be taken lightly. Together they may be a Central Florida influence Dream Team.
“The idea is, we would be the advocacy arm of the chambers; we would have the ability to weigh in,” Agrusa said.
The idea is not new, nor has it always operated smoothly. In 2012 Business Force’s predecessor, the Business Force Committee of Continuous Existence got involved with business efforts to block a citizen petition seeking to get Orange County to adopt a paid family sick time ordinance. The effort turned into a political debacle when it was revealed that lobbyists were sending messages to Mayor Teresa Jacobs and members of the board of commissioners advising them how to vote. The controversy dragged on for more than a year, and it’s still a touchy subject with Jacobs, who fielded much of the political flack. But the ordinance was stopped.
On the other side of that fight, and still on the other side of many disputes involving Business Force, is a grassroots progressive group called Organize Now. She has no illusions about the strength Business Force has developed.
“I think absolutely powerful. They’re the largest chamber in the entire state,” Organize Now President Stephanie Porta said of Business Force. “But I don’t think they’re wonderful. I think they’re big business power, right? If you want big, powerful business to be more powerful, then you go to Business Force. I think they hide behind a couple of small businesses, but they’re clearly fighting for the big corporations.”
The counter, often organized by Organize Now or other grassroots in Orlando such as the East
Of Econ group, together with groups such as the Sierra Club of Central Florida, bring petitions and passionate individuals. Business Force also has pushed — through the Orange County Charter Review Commission — to limit the power of citizen petitions.
“It’s people power. It’s having people paying attention, and holding elected officials accountable to residents, the people, rather than the large special interests in this town,” Porta said. “The majority of people in this town are not big businesses; the majority of people are workers, who are getting paid poverty wages to work for these corporations.”
Agrusa shrugs at such criticism. It’s come before, and much of the previous controversy preceded him. While Business Force is going to be a force against such causes as minimum wage hikes and forced benefits, it has taken neutral or even quietly supportive positions on other social causes.
“Wages, we’ve obviously weighed into that, not raising the minimum wage, but to talking about other alternatives to create economic opportunities that would ultimately lift wages in this community,” he said. “We need to create the most pro-business economic climate that can exist in Central Florida.”
The committee’s endorsements and campaign contributions have gone to candidates of both parties. Sure, as a business-oriented committee, it tends to support Republicans. Its first three endorsements this cycle were of state Reps. Rene Plasencia, Mike Miller and Bob Cortes, all generally moderate Republicans in swing districts, facing tough re-election prospects. But the group also has supported Democrats who generally have pro-business records even if they also support many of the progressives’ causes, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, state Sens. Geraldine Thompson and Darren Soto, and Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington.
One progressive cause Business Force helped champion was addressing homelessness.
“When we vet these candidates we are not looking at anything beyond their positions on business and economic-related issues. Certainly, we have dug into some of the social issues, because there are economic impacts. For example, homelessness. In the past, we heard it as a social issue, but we realized it’s actually cheaper and more effective to provide people with a home first, the housing-first model. We’ve been a model, really for the state of Florida in efforts to stop homelessness, especially chronic homelessness.”
Business Force also is trying to create its own generation of political leaders, through The Central Florida Political Leadership Institute. The decidedly nonpartisan political campaign school with the unabashed pro-business agenda teaching prospective elective candidates, offers seminars in everything from fundraising and polling to using opposition research.
Last year’s institute graduates include Peggy Choudhry, a Democrat and community activist running for Osceola County Commission this year; Roberto Baptiste, a U.S. Border Patrol agent who made an aborted run for Orange County sheriff; and Michelle Ertel, who is not running for anything, yet, but has long been at least as active in Seminole politics as her husband, Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel.
“I hope that by the end of this election cycle there will be somebody like Peggy Choudhry, who will be our success story,” he said.