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10/9/2003

News > News

Everybody's Buddy

 

He's got charm, smarts and the blessing of a city full of voters.
So what's preventing Buddy Dyer from becoming Orlando's best mayor ever?
Our look at the his first 226 days in office.

Imagine what life must have been like for John Hugh Dyer, Jr., a 45-year-old attorney who, in the last calendar year, has been subjected to nearly every high and low in the American political spectrum. He collected more than 2 million votes for Florida attorney general in the Nov. 5 election, but still lost to Charlie "Chain Gang" Crist, a career politician who doesn't have much going for him other than the fact he was supposedly a tough-on-crime Republican (hence the throwback nickname). Fifty-five days later, Dyer interrupted a family hog-hunting trip to announce his candidacy for mayor of Orlando, slipping on his hunting gear and returning to Yeehaw Junction after the press conference. Fifty-seven frantic days after that, on Feb. 25, 17,000 residents elected him to be the 31st mayor of Orlando -- the largest number in city history to vote for a single candidate.

A day later, Dyer was sworn into office at a ceremony in which one audience member danced and sang "Happy Days are Here Again" on the steps of City Hall. Dyer gave an inauguration speech that day outlining his six keys to a great city -- diversifying the economy, revitalizing the downtrodden Parramore neighborhood, fixing the multimillion-dollar budget deficit left by Mayor Glenda Hood, revitalizing downtown Orlando, passing a law requiring laborers who work on city-related projects to earn at least $8.50 an hour and easing the region's traffic congestion. The next day, he walked three blocks over to the Orange County Administration Building, where he had half-hour-long chat with county Chairman Richard Crotty, a sign, we were to believe, of a newfound cooperation between the city and county. Dyer then set about commissioning two transition teams -- one to find out what, if anything, was wrong with City Hall; and one to find out what could be done to enliven a moribund downtown.

Then Dyer kept going. He told the city council they would be more involved with city business.

He removed the red chair Hood reserved for herself during council meetings and replaced it with a brown leather chair identical to ones the other six commissioners sat in. He permanently propped open the doors to the mayor's office on the third floor of City Hall. He wore a green three-leaf clover on the lapel of his blazer on St. Patrick's Day, which happened to be his very first council meeting. He tried to referee Commissioners Vicki Vargo and Daisy Lynum as they sniped at each other during council meetings. He listened as Lynum sniped at him, first for failing to diversify the city's volunteer boards and then for not notifying commissioners after he'd fired 200 city employees.

Dyer hired a new, full-time city attorney, Wayne Rich, one of eight candidates who ran against Dyer in the February general election, and the person Dyer selected to head the City Hall transition team. Dyer hired a chief of staff, David Dix, who was outed by the daily media for failing to obtain a Florida driver's license and for ethical lapses when Dix was Oregon's speaker of the house 13 years ago. Dyer accepted the resignation of Charlie Walker, the city's first black fire chief. Dyer balanced the city's budget. He was compared in newspaper articles to Bill Clinton. He tied a yellow ribbon around a City Hall tree in honor of helicopter pilot David Williams, who was captured during a battle in Iraq. His photograph was published in the Orlando Sentinel throwing trash in a city garbage truck. Dyer recognized Valerie Lynch, Miss Orlando 2003, at a May council meeting. He announced May as Orlando Bike Month. He greeted County Commissioner Homer Hartage, who talked about water and sewer hookups in the southeast part of the county. He greeted state Sen. Gary Siplin, who complained about students flunking school because they'd failed the FCAT.

Dyer was psychoanalyzed by Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas for banning paintings of two women in their underwear and another of a man with a telephone cord around his neck from City Hall. Another article in the St. Petersburg Times made Dyer look like a hick for taking down the artwork. ("Dyer was born in Orlando and raised in nearby Kissimmee," the article said. "He likes paintings of Florida's landscapes, cows and horses.") He showed an interest in the arts by retaking control of the construction of the Performing Arts Center from the University of Central Florida. He collected $158,000 for his March reelection bid. He gave the kick-off speech to Gay Days, the week-long annual event that brings tens of thousands of homosexuals to Orlando. Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell claimed Dyer wore makeup for public appearances, apparently to prevent television cameras from picking up a gleam on his forehead.

Dyer announced a deal with JetBlue Airways that will bring 150 high-paying jobs to Orlando. He announced a land swap with CNL that will bring another high-rise to downtown and provide the city with the property it needs to build the long-discussed Performing Arts Center. Dyer toured a wastewater treatment plant. He was spotted running in the rain in a T-shirt and shorts. He accelerated the timeframe of the city's buyout of 70 dilapidated townhomes in south Parramore, driving nearly 100 low-income people from their homes. (The city has promised to subsidize their relocation.) He passed a living-wage ordinance, forcing employers contracting with the city to pay workers at least $8.50 an hour. He hosted a poignant Sept. 11 commemoration at the Lake Eola band shell. He celebrated his wife Karen's 40th birthday. And he joked with Commissioner Ernest Page when Page became self-conscious about his shiny forehead on television. "Commissioner, do you want some makeup?" Dyer asked.

Wild-eyed liberal

In other words, it's been quite a year for Dyer, who came to the city after 10 years as a state senator, breaking a long-standing tradition of Orlando mayors arising from the city's business class. Don't expect Dyer's journey to end any time soon. Like him or hate him, his reelection is almost guaranteed in next spring's election. Consider that at this time last year, there were already four candidates announced to replace Glenda Hood, even though no election had been scheduled. (In a much-anticipated move, Hood resigned last December to take the Florida secretary of state's job, leaving one year of a four-year term uncompleted.) Two of the candidates -- Bill Sublette and Tico Perez -- already had more than $90,000 in their campaign chests.

Today, Dyer stands alone. What's more, nobody seems ready to even float names of anybody ready to challenge him. Political insiders are expecting Orange County Republican Chairman Lew Oliver to recruit somebody. Oliver, though, has been cryptic about who might take on Dyer, saying only that it isn't too late to jump into the race and that an announcement might come "in the next few weeks."

There is speculation that candidates have been reluctant to step forward because of allegations that surfaced during last February's election. District Four Commissioner Patty Sheehan, an ardent Dyer supporter then and now, claimed Dyer's runoff opponent, advertising executive Pete Barr, used the word "nigger" in her presence at a party in the spring of 2002. That set off a flurry of accusations between the Barr and Dyer camps over whether Barr was being set up. The upshot, according to Oliver, is that potential candidates are reconsidering whether they want to enter the political arena. "It's discouraged a lot of people, not just in the mayor's race," says Oliver, a former Orlando assistant city attorney.

At the same time, Oliver says Dyer is susceptible to the same tactics Oliver believes the Dyer camp used against Barr. "Mr. Dyer is just like anyone else," says Oliver, who stressed he doesn't advocate smear campaigns. "He doesn't carry a tape recorder around 24 hours a day."

Any Republican who Oliver entices into the race should think twice about running in a citywide election. There are 42,000 registered Democrats in Orlando, and only 29,000 Republicans. Besides, Dyer has already co-opted Republican issues, namely financial responsibility. He balanced the budget, which Hood left in a $23 million deficit, less than 30 days after taking office. And he did it without raiding the city's $70 million reserve funds or raising property taxes, which would have spelled political demise.

Dyer is banking that by shoring up the budget and trimming the city's workforce, he'll have the political clout to pursue big-ticket items like a new downtown baseball stadium. "In reality," Dyer says, "what we did in the first six months with the budget has laid a solid foundation for everything else we are going to do because the citizens now understand that I'm not some wild-eyed liberal Democrat. I'm somebody who can manage a budget and make the tough calls."

But the reason Dyer won't lose in March has less to do with him than with the way Orlando treats its chief executives. An incumbent mayor hasn't lost an election in Orlando since before World War II. (The length of time is probably longer but the city's voting records are unavailable before 1939.) Billy Beardall, Bob Carr, Carl Langford, Bill Frederick and Glenda Hood each ruled the city for at least a decade. With the exception of Carr, who died in office, each could have stayed in power longer but for their decision to step down.

Where does Dyer fit in? It's still too soon to tell, but it's safe to say he is already the most progressive mayor the city has ever had. Which isn't saying much, given that for most of the city's 128-year history, it was small and rural. "The demographics of the area in general have changed," says Seminole Community College political scientist Michael Hoover, "but nobody is going to run as an out-and-out liberal and expect to win. Dyer is a bit more liberal but not in the way of more government programs. He is somewhat more cosmopolitan than previous mayors. He has a broader worldview."

In seven months, Dyer has formed the city's first affordable housing bureau, started pilot educational programs at three urban elementary schools, put the city's financial statements on the Internet and made good on his promise to increase the minimum wage of businesses contracting with the city to $8.50 an hour.

Mean and hateful

Still, enough has happened in Dyer's first year in office to raise questions about what kind of leader he is -- and by extension, how he will run the city of Orlando.

Dyer's first controversy began several weeks after he took office with the announcement that he would try to pay his chief of staff, David Dix -- who, like Dyer, is of average build, slightly pudgy, gregarious and prematurely gray -- and other administrators from private donations. Dyer was, after all, hamstrung by a tight budget and a city policy that provided its top administrators generous severance packages.

The reaction was immediate and understandable: The media bashed Dyer, saying private donations would likely lead to special favors between the mayor and businesses contributing to the salaries of his upper-level staff. Dyer scrapped the idea.

The next controversy was caused by the firing of 200 city workers, some of whom were shown on TV being escorted from City Hall. The "workforce reduction" (as the city likes to call it) came as a shock given Dyer's blue-collar background; his (now-deceased) father, Butch, hauled cattle for a living and rode bulls in the rodeo. His younger brother Steve is a dump truck driver in New Jersey and a team roper in the rodeo.

Dyer said the terminations were necessary because the city had one of the largest employee-per-capita ratios in Florida. The firings were the result of a management exercise, he said, and were accomplished according to the advice of a consulting company. Positions were eliminated, he stressed, not people -- and especially not employees he didn't like.

Dyer estimated the reduction would save $13 million off the 2004 budget. "As unpalatable as that was on a personal level, that was something that had to be done," Dyer said in a half-hour interview with the Weekly. "People can take away from that that this guy is going to manage our money correctly. In order to sell them on other things, it was important that we establish a strong fiscal foundation for the city."

It was not just unpalatable for the mayor. Commissioners, who heard about the firings from the media, felt blindsided. Two of them, Daisy Lynum and Phil Diamond (both Democrats), tried to save some jobs but were rebuffed, sending Lynum into a rage at the June 23 council meeting. "I do think respect for humanity requires more than what we have done," she said. "The approach has been mean and hateful and I don't agree with it. I'm still mad and I will be for a long time."

"The terminations could have been handled in a less draconian manner," says Hoover, the Seminole College political scientist. "From a public relations standpoint, it was not very good. Moreover, what's left of the local bureaucracy will be less efficient."

On the other hand, Hoover adds, the public's memory is short and many Orlando voters -- Republican or not -- put financial responsibility above every other priority except public safety.

And, contrary to City Hall rumors, Dyer says there won't be any more City Hall purges in the near future. "I can tell you unequivocally we are not looking at another workforce reduction," he says. "Some folks in other governments, while we were going through [the firing process], said, ‘You only get one shot at reducing a workforce in a political career. You need to cut who you need to because you don't get a second shot of doing that.'"

Dyer has also taken a lot of heat for making Orlando government what Jim Clark, in the July issue of Orlando Magazine, called the "home of the politically disgraced." Clark was talking specifically about hiring Dix and Byron Brooks to the mayor's cabinet.

According to Clark's article, which relied heavily on Oregon newspaper reports, Dix was the Oregon House majority leader in the late 1980s when investigators uncovered evidence of sloppy campaign finance record-keeping and misuse of a bulk-mailing permit. Dix took a lie detector test, passed but was still fined $24,000. He resigned but failed to win back his senate seat in November 1990.

From June 2000 to January of this year, Brooks was the head of LYNX, the region's public transit agency, which has had a dubious performance history for at least 20 years. Last fall, a handful of LYNX employees and board members were caught on videotape gambling on a business trip in Las Vegas when they should have been attending seminars. Shortly afterward, LYNX announced it was suffering a $1 million shortfall. Brooks resigned in January and Dyer hired him to be the city's Families, Parks and Recreation bureau chief.

Dix has responded to the media attacks by declining interviews and limiting his public visibility. He still sits in on most of Dyer's meetings, often taking a chair at the rear of the room. He told the Sentinel he was thinking about moving back to Minnesota, where he owns a home, but now that the media attention has died down, it looks like he's staying for the long term.

Brooks responded to Clark's column by writing a rebuttal, which was printed in the magazine's August issue. Brooks said he personally attended all the Vegas seminars he was required to and the $1 million deficit was a result of a new financial reporting scheme Brooks himself had implemented. "I regret that you and your magazine, which is generally held in such high regard, have descended to such tactics as to attack our mayor," Brooks wrote.

How the public responds to attacks on Brooks and Dix remains to be seen. But the dig on Brooks looks especially cruel. Brooks is the son of former Orange County school teacher and NAACP member Rufus Brooks. He worked in relative anonymity as a deputy Orange County administrator for eight years, overseeing the parks department as well as other agencies, before jumping to LYNX. "Byron has been first-rate," Dyer says. "I think he was caught in the political undertow at LYNX. He was a scapegoat for a lot of stuff over there that was not of his making. Both [former] Chairman [Mel] Martinez and Mayor Hood had asked Byron to take over LYNX because he was a deputy administrator at the county. He is a wonderful find for me to be able to have as part of the cabinet in the Family, Parks and Recreation Department."

As for Dix, Dyer says: "David is a wealth of talent who brings experience from all over the country. His downside is that, in a community like Orlando, if you're viewed as an outsider people are going to pick on you. Even though Orlando is a community you can assimilate into -- there are a lot of people who have only been here two or three years who are [already] movers and shakers in our community -- still, if you're an unknown quantity, it's easy to pick on somebody of that nature. A lot of people don't yet know him in the community."

It's doubtful Dix will hurt the mayor in any meaningful way. The public won't be outraged by a behind-the-scenes player who was loosely connected to a scandal in the northwest more than a decade ago. "I don't know how that registers on the scandal barometer," says Rollins College political scientist Rick Foglesong.

If Dix does become enmeshed in some kind of ethics imbroglio, Dyer can't say he wasn't warned.

Message control

Probably the strangest incident of Dyer's administration was the report in Scott Maxwell's July 27 column saying Dyer had worn makeup at some of his earliest mayoral appearances. The tone of the revelation was giddy; Sheehan said it looked like "stage makeup" and Lynum told Maxwell the mayor "wears as much [makeup] as I do." Dyer, meanwhile, was "thoroughly unamused."

What this says about our mayor is, of course, up for speculation. Is he effeminate? Or is it a sign he is comfortable with his sexual identity? Does it imply he's a risk-taker? Or is he so concerned with the status quo -- namely his own reelection -- that he'll go to any lengths to ensure a victory?

The fear is that Dyer is as image-conscious as Hood, who marketed her name and image at nearly every opportunity, often to the exclusion of the rest of the city council. Her style was to pretend everybody at City Hall was one big family, then speak condescendingly to anyone who didn't agree with her. "She went from saccharine to brittle, with not much in between," says Foglesong. Consequently, her government tended to be "reactionary and issue-driven," according to the transition team report, her office placing "an extraordinary priority on message control."

Hood had been in office so long -- 10 years as a commissioner, another 10 as mayor -- she often ignored suggestions that others thought were obvious. When Sheehan went to the mayor's office shortly after winning election in 2000, Hood asked her what it would take to reinvigorate downtown. Sheehan told her to bring back festivals like Light Up Orlando, in which pop bands played on multiple outdoor stages and thousands partied (and spent money) in the streets. Hood, however, was enamored of making downtown a haven for upscale shopping and dining, similar to Park Avenue in Winter Park.

"I told her the best way to bring back Orlando was to bring back festivals to downtown," Sheehan recalls. "You should have seen the way she looked at me. You would have thought I farted. She had this real awful look on her face, this real disparaging look. There was a real strain on her face, like a schoolteacher might give her students. It told me, ‘Obviously, you don't understand.'"

Of course, comparing Dyer to Hood is unfair in many respects, especially to Dyer. Anyone who has sat through only a single council meeting lately knows that Dyer is no Hood. Her meetings were often highlighted by commissioners talking out of turn, she herself losing track of legislative procedures, and having advisers slipping her notes and whispering in her ear. Dyer, on the other hand, has firm control. When commissioners speak out of turn, he advises them to be recognized so he can maintain control over the meeting, if not their message.

Moreover, he has encouraged commissioners to be active, speaking their minds even if it means they disagree with his positions, something Hood was loath to do. "You all are big boys and girls," Dyer told commissioners at the Sept. 15 meeting. "I expect voters to judge whatever comments you make at the next election."

If that sounds obvious and dumb, consider what Lynum did when Dyer finished his comment: She actually thanked him. "I appreciate you for correcting us," she said. "We are adults. Each of us was elected independently. [Yet] we have this tendency to say, ‘if you give us permission.' I think that becomes a culture. I've heard a few commissioners say that."

Dyer also scores high marks because he doesn't need a team of handlers to explain the nuances of public policy. He did, after all, attend an Ivy League school -- Brown University -- before going to law school. "Glenda Hood wasn't stupid by any means," Sheehan says. "But sometimes I questioned whether she had a truly deep understanding of the issues. When I talk to [Dyer], he gets it. He's a lawyer. He's not some stupid airhead. I don't have to explain for 20 minutes, twist his arm or bullshit him."

Hopefully, Dyer isn't bullshitting us either. Orlando needs a mayor who doesn't constantly look over his shoulder to gauge public opinion, who isn't worried about message control or electability. Orlando needs a mayor who will make it an "international, diverse, progressive city, with some new vitality," the words Dyer himself uses as benchmarks for his administration. It won't take a wild-eyed liberal to get us there. It will take someone who is broadminded, free of bias and bigotry, who won't sugar coat reality from himself or from us.

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