Someday, in Buddy Dyer’s dreams, in his vision, deep within the core of his very soul, he wants to be mayor of a Big City.
Not just any Big City. Not a New York or Chicago. Too cold. Not a Los Angeles or Houston. Too messy. Not even necessarily big, if you’re into counting heads or skyscrapers.
His Big City, his dream, his vision, is a place with a vibrant urban feel: hip, colorful, active, creative, bustling with youth and diversity, booming with 21st century businesses, plugged into the digital industries of his children’s world, powered by entrepreneurial energy, alive with sports, theater, the arts and what’s next, packed with safe and tidy little neighborhoods full of trendy stores, coffee shops, cafes and bars within walking distance, and yet with planes and trains and bicycles going everywhere. Of course, all of it never more than a short drive from some primo hunting and fishing spots.
And maybe even prosperous for all, if it works out that way.
Enter Buddy Dyer’s current city, Orlando, and you must do so knowing he sees it as the base, the starting point for the Big City of his vision. Buy into his vision, bring something to offer, and you, too, may be a player.
It’s why Dyer focuses so much of his energy on Orlando’s downtown and central city.
“From the day I took office until today, I’ve pitched how important the downtown is to the region,” Dyer said. “I’m a believer in the (urban studies theorist) Richard Florida’s ‘creative class.’ How do you attract the creative class? You’re going to be successful if you have the young, bright entrepreneurs. And they want to live in cities that have SunRail, professional basketball, professional soccer, a world-class performing arts center.”
Tragically, in June, Orlando became the home to world-class horror when a madman entered its popular gay nightclub Pulse and fired his guns until 49 people laid dead, 53 others laid bleeding, and a city laid traumatized. Yet the massacre quickly led Orlando to transform itself into a world-class symbol of unity and recovery. Almost instantly, it pulled together like a family.
Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, his sometimes-partner and sometimes-rival, were the unquestioned leaders of that family.
Jacobs played the traditional mother providing emotional salve, day after day bringing together people of all faiths, all backgrounds and all sexual orientations in one community-wide hug after another.
Dyer played the traditional father, making sure, in what should have been a state of shock for the city, all the hard work got done, with all the quick planning and decision-making, and all the outreach to all the big players in town. In half a week, the city’s huge institutions and small partners all stepped up. Millions of dollars poured into relief funds. A relief center was established at the city’s Camping World Stadium, with 35 agencies and businesses offering help to the grieving and hurting people affected by the massacre. He arranged President Barack Obama’s visit.
None of it may have been possible so swiftly and effectively had Dyer not spent the past 13 years working closely with institutions throughout the Central Florida region, getting them to buy into his vision a long time ago of what became the city’s post-Pulse slogan, Orlando United, said Jacob Stuart, president of the Central Florida Partnership, a coalition of Orlando-area chambers of commerce.
“I think he’s been a remarkable leader over his many years; but I think those many years of leadership have positioned him for this single moment, where everything he’s got is being tested,” Stuart said. “And for me, he has passed with flying colors when it comes to this moment of great pressure and great sympathy for those affected.”
Everyone hears about this vision. They know, up front, what Dyer’s agenda is, and where ideas might fit in. If it doesn’t fit, Dyer has been known to dismiss or ignore them. If it does fit, he’s all in, reaching out to form collaborations, create task forces and push them forward. He built a stable, inner-circle staff of like-thinkers, and lets them and everyone else know that he’s got their backs. You deal with them, you’re dealing with him; no second-guessing. And though he has, through the decades, taught himself to be more and more outgoing as any politician must be to survive, on the Myers-Briggs personality scale Dyer’s true nature probably falls between shy and introverted, many of his longtime associates say. That makes it easier for him to defer or share credit. Someone else wants the limelight for an accomplishment? Fine. You can have it. Just so long as you push the vision forward.
“His strength is, he has a really clear vision of what he wants this place to be,” said Oscar Anderson, an Orlando-based lobbyist with Southern Strategies.
Dyer’s admirers, and there are many in both parties, say he governs in a nonpartisan way.
“The thing about Buddy is, he doesn’t care what party you’re in or what part of town you’re in, he’s only interested in what’s best for the city,” said Republican strategist Tre’ Evers of Orlando-based Consensus Communications.
Many of his detractors, particularly on the left of his own Democratic Party, also say he governs in a nonpartisan way. Darn it. They say he’s more interested in helping big business than focusing on Democratic economic concerns such as bringing up Orlando’s very low wage base, promoting unions, or openly advocating for the poor, issues the business leaders would rather he not bring up very often. They call him a “Chambercrat.”
“I’m very frustrated,” said Doug Head, a longtime chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, once one of Dyer’s champions and now is one of his sternest critics. “He seems to be geared toward helping the powerful.”
No one denies Dyer has Orlando booming with Big City projects, or that he involves anyone, from any party or business background, who might help.
One of his first, working with Tavistock Development, began the transformation of the Lake Nona community on the city’s far southeast side into a city of its own, complete with a medical treatment and research campus known as Medical City.
SunRail, a Central Florida commuter train system that’s been, in various versions, a dream of mayors for more than 20 years, finally commenced service in 2014.
Dyer figured out how to get a major performing arts center built downtown, another dream of Orlando mayors for 20 years. He figured out how to get the Florida Citrus Bowl stadium (now renamed the Camping World Stadium) transformed from an eyesore to a showcase. He figured out how to get the Orlando Magic what they wanted, a glitzy new arena.
Smaller projects also have emerged, including a third- or fourth-generation revitalization of the downtown entertainment district centered on Church Street and a boom in downtown housing. Major League Soccer came to town, and Dyer helped clear a spot for the team’s self-financed stadium.
But the project that perhaps most illustrates Dyer’s vision, Creative Village, is only now getting started. That is to be an urban community for all those hip, young, 21st century digital industry entrepreneurs to learn, work, live, and play, right in downtown. The cornerstone was laid this year after state officials signed off on money and plans for the University of Central Florida to build a campus there. To get that to happen, Dyer made several trips to Tallahassee to meet with Republican Gov. Rick Scott, and helped negotiate the terms the reluctant governor would support.
Buddy Dyer’s Big-City dream has a small-town problem, though.
Orlando’s metropolitan area has a population the size of a Portland or a Pittsburgh. Orange County is the size of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga or Minneapolis’s Hennepin. But the city of Orlando? The truth is, Dyer is mayor of a place that’s actually only the size of a Toledo, Ohio, or a Stockton, California.
The big employers of a Big City are around. The resident population is around. The education centers are around. The money is around. All the anchors and resources are around. But they’re mostly outside the city limits. How might he tap them? How might he invite them in and convince them to buy into and invest in his vision?
The 2006 “venues” deal, which built Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center and the Orlando Magic’s new Amway Centre arena and rebuilt the Citrus Bowl, may have been Dyer’s defining moment to answer those questions.
The proposed Big City performing arts center and the desperately needed Citrus Bowl renovation had been in talks for decades. A new basketball arena was a fresher and more immediate concern, as the Orlando Magic’s owners were making no promises about staying unless they got a better home.
None had enough money, and certainly Orlando’s city coffers didn’t either. But Orange County had money, with the state’s most robust tourist tax. It had been tapped before for a previous generation’s Citrus Bowl renovations, and for the Magic’s original arena. To do so again, however, would be tricky. Central Florida’s tourism industry and its leaders were very protective about how that tax is spent — to promote tourism, only. And to add in the performing arts center would require all kinds of maneuvering, including the need for a voter-backed increase in the tourist tax to six cents.
Each had its own supporters and strong community opponents. None could appeal to everyone. But together, they might.
Dyer convinced then-Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty to just consider the prospect, and set up a working team of top city and county officials to work out possibilities.
He then went to Walt Disney World President Al Weiss and Universal Parks & Resorts President Tom Williams. His pitch to them: Never mind their customers. For the sake of their employees, for the sake of themselves, Central Florida needs a world-class urban center. They signed on. With Disney and Universal aboard, it was hard for other big players to say no. Crotty signed. The Magic signed. Florida Citrus Sports signed. The arts people signed. The tourism industry, except for International Drive leader Harris Rosen, signed. The region’s chambers of commerce signed.
“They came to appreciate how important having a great downtown and venues were,” Dyer explained. “It was a calculated deal that if you put the arts, and the sports and arena all together you had something for most people. So there was talk about splitting the package up and I would not let them do it.”
All of it might have seemed improbable in 2002, when Dyer, fresh from losing a bitter statewide race to then-Republican Charlie Crist for state attorney general, pivoted to run for a job he’d never really thought about before.
Gov. Jeb Bush tapped then-Mayor Glenda Hood to be his secretary of state. A special election was called. The campaign season was to be just a couple months long. There were plenty of takers, including some big Orlando names — Pete Barr, Bill Sublette and Tico Perez.
People urged Dyer to run — Head did so while he was with Dyer the night he lost to Crist. But Dyer was content, at first, staying busy coaching his sons Trey’s and Drew’s flag football team. He also was sitting on an offer to join U.S. Sen. Bob Graham’s ultimately-doomed 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.
Then Pastor Sam Green of Orlando’s African Methodist Episcopal Church made an impassioned appeal to Dyer, imploring him to run, as the best hope to unite the city.
Dyer said he had never set foot inside City Hall in his life before he announced his candidacy.
“To be truthful about it, I didn’t know very much about local government,” Dyer said.
But he knew Orlando. And he knew a lot about consensus building, and campaigning.
John Hugh Dyer was born August 7, 1958, in Orlando but grew up in Kissimmee, the son of an agricultural truck driver and a western-wear store proprietress. The man destined to be Orlando’s Big City mayor started out as a country boy, raised in what he described as a “lower-lower-lower-middle-class family,” not unfamiliar with hard work, low wages and getting hands dirty. Hunting and fishing and being outdoors in the country became his lifelong passions. An Old-Florida drawl was scratched forever into his voice.
But Dyer was smart. Really smart. And ambitious. After graduating from Osceola High School he got into Brown University on scholarships. He earned a civil engineering degree and became an engineer. After a few years he went to law school at the University of Florida where he rose to editor-in-chief of the law review. In 1987 he placed first in the state in the Florida Bar Exam scores. He became a litigator, representing engineering companies, with Orlando’s Smith, McKinnon and Matthews. He married well, the former Karen Caudill, another smart attorney who is now a nationally renowned trial partner at Boies Schiller & Flexner. She also is a Fort Lauderdale Pepsi bottling company heiress, with financial resources that were handy when Dyer first entered politics.
In 1990 the political bug bit and he started a run for the Florida House of Representatives. Timing was terrible. His father became terminally ill. Karen became pregnant with Trey. Dyer pulled out.
In 1992 he tried again, only this time the political landscape had shifted, opening up an even better opportunity, a new state Senate seat in Orlando drawn to elect a Democrat. With the help of some veteran Democrats who taught him how to reach out to Orlando’s African-American leaders, the unknown 33-year-old lawyer pulled off a primary upset and went to Tallahassee for what was a very safe seat for Democrats. A few years later, he became minority leader for three years.
And that’s where he learned what might be his most telling skill as Orlando mayor, building across-the-aisle consensuses that weren’t bipartisan, but nonpartisan.
“The Senate experience was very beneficial to this job for a number of reasons. One being that I knew everybody in Tallahassee, so it was very easy for me to get things done, such as SunRail and the downtown UCF campus,” Dyer said. “But secondly, when you’ve been managing 20 senators and having to work with the House and work with the governor, you learn how to compromise and learn how to put deals together … working with other people, compromising, knowing when to compromise.”
Of course, to create a Big City, you’ve got to break a few things.
It began shortly after Dyer took office and approved the razing of a city block of old buildings and stores that old-timers had considered historic, a strip that had helped define Orlando’s downtown retail district for generations. A big office building, The Plaza, went up there. But that’s because it included part of Dyer’s vision, a big, downtown cinema multiplex.
There was an old church that went down near Lake Eola. And then another in the historically black neighborhood of Parramore on downtown’s west side. And then there was 100-year-old Tinker Field, revered home to Orlando’s minor-league baseball teams and Major League Baseball spring training camps, and site of a 1964 speech by Martin Luther King Jr., all in the way of the vision.
As they fell, so did some of Dyer’s longtime Democratic supporters. On the other hand, Dyer hasn’t shied away from progressives’ social agenda, officiating Orlando’s first gay weddings, pushing solar and green initiatives and decriminalizing marijuana. When it came to standing arm-and-arm with Orlando’s LGBT community after the Pulse massacre, Dyer was there naturally.
“The grumbling from the left is real, but his legacy is very good on progressive issues,” said Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, a former Orange County Democratic chair, former state representative and a leader in the party’s progressive wing. “He’s quietly pushed a lot of that.”
The only other thing Buddy Dyer ever talks about as a dream ambition beyond being mayor of a Big City called Orlando, would be the presidency of the University of Central Florida, if longtime University of Central Florida President John Hitt ever retires.
“The reason UCF would interest me is I think it is the biggest asset we have in our community,” Dyer said. “And Dr. Hitt has done an unbelievable job of making it a true metro research university that influences everything we’re doing… If we’re going to be great, the university has to be great. And I think it’s certainly on that trajectory. It would be an interesting challenge to me.”
Otherwise, Dyer could be Orlando’s Mayor for Life. The vast majority of Democrats still like him. Republicans think they could do worse in a city that’s heavily Democratic.
“I think he really bloomed where he was planted,” said longtime City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who openly talks about running for mayor herself if Dyer leaves office, but says she’s she’s content to play supporting actress. “He loves his job.”
And Dyer’s and Jacobs’ nationally visible leadership in the days and weeks following the Pulse crisis made them the faces of Orlando, like few mayors anywhere ever become.
Already, with 13 years, Dyer is by far the longest-tenured big-city mayor in Florida. Before this year is out he also will become the longest-serving mayor in Orlando’s history. He still has three years left in this term.
Sure, there are other temptations. There is always talk that some American president wants him in D.C. And every time Florida holds a race for governor or the U.S. Senate, someone gives Dyer a call: Please run. He turns them all down.
“I love this job,” Dyer said. “I don’t think I really want to spend two years of my job pursuing that. I feel I’ve made a huge difference being mayor. And I get good affirmations when I’m in public.”
It is not, he insists, out of fear of The Mug Shot.
In the spring of 2005 the man whom Dyer had just defeated in that year’s election, Ken Mulvaney, filed criminal charges against him and his campaign manager, alleging they had illegally paid people to gather absentee ballots in poor, black neighborhoods. Dyer was indicted, arrested and booked. Gov. Jeb Bush suspended him from office pending the case outcome. His nightmare lasted 40 days before a judge ruled that it was, in fact, legal for campaigns to hire people to collect absentee ballots. Charges were dropped. Dyer and his campaign were exonerated. He returned to office.
He went on to win three mayoral re-election landslides, crushing opponents.
Yet mug shots live forever. Imagine his appearing in campaign TV commercials in Florida cities where people do not know Dyer, or what happened in 2005.
“In a governor’s race where everybody knows everything about you by the end of it, or same thing in a Senate race, that wouldn’t be a fatal bullet,” he said.
For now, the Big City Beautiful is still very much a work in progress. It had been the City Sad. It came out of crisis as the City Strong, and the City United. And for the foreseeable future, Orlando is Buddy Dyer’s city, big yet or not.