October 26, 2020

Orlando's mayor: Buddy Dyer

Amy Keller | 4/27/2020

Dyer dove into state politics in 1992, when he won an open seat in the Florida Senate. He was working as a lawyer for the Orlando firm Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Goodman, while his wife, Karen, was building her own law career at Carlton Fields. With Karen on the road a lot, Dyer would take their toddler, Trey, with him to Tallahassee when the Legislature was in session. “That kind of kept me grounded,” Dyer says of his Mr. Mom era. “I was the youngest member of the Senate at the time.”

In Tallahassee, Dyer earned a reputation as a pro-business Democrat with friends on both sides of the aisle. He rose through the ranks to become Democratic leader from 1997 to 2000 and points to the Lake Apopka Restoration Act in 1996 as his favorite legislative accomplishment. The legislation allocated $100 million over three years to buy phosphorus-discharging farmland along the northeast corner of the lake that was contributing to pollution.

Over the course of Dyer’s decade in Tallahassee, he built a base of support back home that included police and fire unions and various civic groups. A regular presence in Orlando’s African- American churches, Dyer also developed a constituency among Orlando’s black voters — and earned the trust of gay voters by voicing support for a 2002 anti-discrimination ordinance designed to protect gay and lesbian people from housing and employment discrimination. Business interests like him, too. Associated Industries of Florida, a business lobby, ranked him as the state’s “most business-friendly senator” in 1993, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Over the course of Dyer’s term, however, the Democratic Party lost its grip on power, and in 1994, Republicans won control of the Florida Senate for the first time in a century. Forced out of the Senate by term limits in 2002, Dyer ran for state attorney general against Charlie Crist, then a Republican, who’d also served in the Florida Senate and done a two-year stint as education commissioner under Gov. Jeb Bush.

Dyer garnered more editorial page endorsements than Crist but struggled with statewide name recognition and couldn’t match Crist in fundraising. Stumbles by the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Tampa attorney Bill McBride, also hurt Dyer’s bid. “Our model showed (we would win) as long as McBride didn’t lose by more than 10,” Dyer recalls. In the end, McBride lost by 13 points, and Dyer lost by about seven.

After the loss, Dyer figured he’d return to practicing law full time, until Bush appointed Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood as Florida secretary of state.

“Being mayor of Orlando was nowhere on my radar, hadn’t been in my life plan or anything like that, but a lot of people started asking me about running,” Dyer recalls. Seven candidates had lined up to campaign for the job because Hood had already announced she wasn’t going to run for re-election. But the police and fire unions who’d gotten to know Dyer as a senator wouldn’t endorse a candidate until he decided what he was going to do.

An early morning call from Sam Green — a pastor at the local Saint Mark AME, Orlando’s largest African-American church — cinched his decision. Green told Dyer his prayer group thought Dyer the “only one who can unite the city, who is able to walk on the west side and in the boardrooms in the east side,” according to Dyer, and urged him to run.

After consulting with family and friends, Dyer decided to run. “I didn’t know much about being mayor of Orlando at the time, but with eight people in the race, we had all these debates,” Dyer recalls. “I learned a lot in five weeks.”

Dyer won the February 2003 election following a runoff and hit the ground running. Taking a page from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s playbook, he organized a Cabinet-style government, with his department directors acting as his Cabinet. He held meetings with them twice weekly to get a handle on what everyone was doing. And he borrowed former Florida Gov. Bob Graham’s workday program, shadowing city workers on the job.

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