50 Most Powerful People of 2023: Politics & Government

The state of politics and government in Florida is dead red, as in Republican dominated. Republicans own all state-wide elected positions from Gov. Ron DeSantis on down, as well as a super majority in the House and Senate.

Yet Orlando and Orange County is deep blue, with most political posts held by Democrats, from Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to U.S. Rep. Darren Soto to state Sen. Geraldine Thompson and state Rep. Anna Eskamani to Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan.

It’s not unusual for large metro areas in Florida — see Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, even, most recently, Jacksonville — to have Democratic leadership. As is true nationwide, Florida Democrats tend to clump in cities, while Republicans lean toward smaller towns, suburbs and rural areas — see most of North Florida and the massive Villages 55 plus community in Sumter and Lake counties. 

Photos by Roberto Gonzalez

1. JERRY DEMINGS | Orange County Mayor

50mostp23 Politics Jerry

For Demings, that has meant working through the once in every 500 years flooding event that Hurricane Ian brought to the area in September, 2022. Orange County ended up removing 8,000 truckloads of debris the hurricane left behind. 

Now midway through the second of his two-term limited job, Demings oversees more than 8,000 Orange County employees and a $7 billion budget. He is the first African-American to serve in the role, just as he was when he was Orlando’s police chief and Orange County’s sheriff.

An Orlando native, Demings’ wife is Val Demings, who was Orlando’s first black female police chief, is a former Congresswoman and was defeated last year in her bid to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Demings also helped navigate the county through the tribulations of the Covid pandemic, which strained the finances of many in the low-wage tourism-dominated economy of Orange County.

Earlier this year, Demings opened the Office of Tenant Services, which has assisted 1,200 tenants and landlords. The county also distributed $40 million to keep more than 15,000 renters in their homes following the onset of Covid.

Demings has made affordable housing a priority, too. Since 2019, more than 2,000 affordable housing units have been built or are under development in Orange County, thanks in part to an affordable Housing for All Action Plan and a Housing Trust Fund with a $160 million commitment.

2. BUDDY DYER | Orlando Mayor

50mostp23 Politics Buddy

Dyer is the longest serving mayor in Orlando history, having first won the seat all the way back in 2003. He intends to run for a final four-year term next year. 

Although he lost a bid to become Florida’s attorney general before becoming mayor, he previously represented Orlando in the Florida Senate for ten years, including three years when he was the Senate Democratic leader.

Dyer said he has been working hard to make Orlando one of “America’s premier 21st Century cities.”

One way he has been trying to improve Orlando is by openly embracing equality, diversity and inclusion programs that seek to award contracts based on the goals of achieving racial or gender parity.

During the past fiscal year, minority-owned businesses in Orlando received $30 million in contracts from the city, with more than 60 percent of that figure to Black-owned firms, 37 percent to Hispanic-owned firms and 29 percent to women.

“…we choose collaboration and partnership over partisanship and division,” Dyer said in an email to Orlando magazine.

“Because of that we continue to make a difference in lives of our residents and remain focused on providing an exceptional quality of life, further ensure a safe community, offer opportunity for all and invest in solutions to challenges, like affordable housing and homelessness.”

3. DARREN M. SOTO | U.S. Representative, 9th District

50mostp23 Politics Soto

Soto was the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from Florida in 2016, when he won his seat that covers all of Osceola County, plus parts of Orange and Polk counties. A lawyer by trade, Soto previously served in Florida’s House and Senate.

Prior to Republicans taking back the U.S. House this year, Soto was part of a Democratic team that, in his estimation, was the “most productive in over half of century.”

Among the legislation passed by that Congress was the American Rescue Plan, Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS and Science Act, PACT Act, Respect for Marriage Act, and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. 

“As a result,” Soto wrote, “we are bringing billions back to Central Florida to boost jobs, infrastructure, affordable housing, and the environment, as well as lower healthcare costs and combat gun violence.”

 He also was key in passing legislation to help restore the Kissimmee River and the Restoring Resilient Reefs Act to protect reefs from climate change. 

 “We are already working,” Soto said, “to ensure every Central Floridian, from veterans to union workers and stay-at-home parents to seniors, can benefit from these historic investments in our community.”

Soto’s spouse, Amanda, has worked as a math and science coach in Osceola and Orange County public schools, and is a member of the Osceola County Classroom Teachers Association.

4. ANNA ESKAMANI | State Representative, House District 47

50mostp23 Politics EskamaniSince first being elected to the Florida House in 2018, Eskamani has become one of the most vocal Democrats in the state. Eskamani is an outspoken advocate for virtually everything that Republicans and DeSantis oppose, including abortion rights, increased gun control, banning plastic bags and enhanced funding for public education.

The first Iranian American voted into the Florida Legislature, Eskamani concedes 2023 “has been a very difficult year politically — Florida Democrats are going through a major reset and we walked back into the Florida Legislature with a Supermajority GOP control. That means we have to work even harder to fight for our communities and get things done.”

She is not optimistic about Republican proposals for Florida. She predicts “a ripple effect of bad policy being implemented post-session, and we’ve seen that specifically in the context of LGBTQ+ lives and public education. At the same time, we also face economic challenges, with Floridians facing out-of-control property insurance rates, high utility costs and rising rent.”

Her biggest policy win, she said, was helping pass a permanent tax break on children’s diapers and adult incontinence products. She estimates the plan will save Florida families some $100 million a year. 

Eskamani is also working on a ballot initiative to codify abortion rights called Floridians Protecting Freedom.

After earning two bachelor’s degrees in 2012 and two master’s degrees in 2015 from the University of Central Florida, Eskamani is pursuing a PhD at UCF in public affairs during the fall semester. She intends to complete her PhD within a year. 

5. JOHN MINAOrange County Sheriff

50mostp23 Politics MinaMina has been in law enforcement for more than 32 years, first winning election as sheriff in 2018. He was with the Orlando Police Department for 27 years, his last four as chief.

Commanding more than 2,500 sworn and civilian employees and in charge of a $344 million budget, Mina said that his top priority “continues to be combatting violent crime and ensuring that the relatively small number of dangerous criminals in our community who are committing violence and peddling deadly drugs on our streets are arrested for those crimes and held to account.”  

His department had to adjust recently to a social media craze that promotes stealing Kia and Hyundai automobiles. “We have partnered with those manufacturers to distribute more than 400 steering wheel locks to prevent auto theft. This has been a very successful program,” he said.

Under Mina’s direction, the department also created a Behavioral Response Unit. The program pairs trained mental health clinicians from Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health with deputies to respond to calls for service involving potential mental health issues. 

Expanding from two teams to six since its inception in January 2021, the unit has responded to more than 8,100 calls involving those experiencing a mental health crisis.
No arrests have been made, which Mina considers “a testament to its effectiveness.”

6. ERIC D. SMITH |Orlando Police Chief

50mostp23 Politics SmithThe 40th police chief in Orlando’s history, Smith started with the force in 1994, just one year after graduating from the University of Central Florida with a degree in criminal justice.

One of the highlights of his career, he maintains, is the time he spent as a young officer assigned to Parramore, a largely African American community just west of downtown Orlando.

Smith found himself running a Boy Scout troop there as a way to help youngsters who could be at risk. 

Appointed chief by Mayor Buddy Dyer during the fall of 2022, Smith has focused on violent crime by putting more officers on the street. Some results: shootings are down 30 percent from 2022, violent crime has fallen 10 percent, gun seizures related to crimes are up 36 percent and the homicide clearance rate is 84 percent, with 36 of 43 homicides solved this year, according to OPD statistics. “Everyone has a part in reducing crime,” Smith said.

He credits a new law passed by the Orlando City Council for reducing crime downtown. The ordinance, passed in March, imposed a six-month moratorium on new downtown nightclubs. It likely will be extended another six months this fall.

The law also stipulates any bar downtown with a capacity of more than 125 people selling alcohol after midnight must purchase a $250 permit, plus pay for police to act as security on weekends that include checking patrons for weapons before entry.

7. GERALDINE THOMPSON State Senator, District 15

50mostp23 Politics GeraldineThompson is serving her first term in the Florida Senate, after two separate stints in the House.

She lists one of her primary accomplishments as pushing for the passage of the Tyre Sampson Act, which increased regulation and safety standards for amusement rides, along with creating 18 new jobs to inspect those rides in Florida. The act is named after a 14-year-old boy who died in March 2022 when he fell from a drop tower at ICON Park in Orlando.

“I also filed legislation to expand the Florida Children’s Initiative to support underserved youth in low-income communities which received additional funding,” said Thompson.

Another priority, she said, is pushing back against state Department of Education lesson plans about African American history. Like many Florida Democrats and African Americans, she is appalled by new education standards telling teachers that they should discuss how “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

She takes exception as well to lesson plans that say, “violence (was) perpetrated against and by African Americans” in years past. 

She hosted an August workshop in metro Orlando to discuss the new rules with constituents and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D), who represents parts of Orlando, Winter Park and Maitland.

“When we see standards that suggest that there was an upside to slavery – ‘because enslaved people developed skills that could be used for their benefit’ – we missed the mark,” Thompson said in an Orlando Sentinel article.

8. PATTY SHEEHANOrlando City Commissioner, District 4

50mostp23 Politics PattyThe longest serving member in the history of the Orlando City Council, Sheehan first took office 23 years ago, in 2000. The previous record was held by the late Wally Sanderlin, who was on the council for 20 years.

Sheehan left a state job to work full-time at the part-time city post, representing District 4, which encompasses neighborhoods such as Colonialtown, Delaney Park and Lake Davis. Her district also holds the shuttered Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed and 53 more were wounded in June 2016. 

Sheehan, the first openly gay person elected to the council, was deeply involved in the community’s efforts to recover from what was then the largest mass shooting in the country.

In the last year, Sheehan has been working with Orlando Land Trust to add the pocket park to the corner of Central and Rosalind avenues and securing funding to save the Roberts Senior affordable housing. She also worked with small businesses and theaters fighting for their First Amendment rights to combat the Florida anti-drag laws.

An avid daily walker of four miles, Sheehan said, “It’s good exercise and helps me clear my thoughts.But is also shows me the importance of implementing safety measures like the enhanced swan crosswalks we’ve installed in Thornton Park. People are distracted while driving. They run red lights and put pedestrians in danger.”

9. MAYANNE DOWNSOrlando City Attorney 

50mostp23 Politics DownsDowns is one of Dyer’s closest friends and advisors, their friendship stretching back into the 1980s, when they met while attending law school at the University of Florida.

Appointed Orlando city attorney at Dyer’s behest in 2007, she also is general counsel for GrayRobinson, one of the city’s most prominent law firms. She has been a shareholder there since 2012 and served as the firm’s president and managing director from 2016-2019, the first woman to hold that position.

An Orlando native who graduated from Trinity Preparatory School in 1974, Downs has held numerous leadership posts in the legal world. Among them: president of the Orange County Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society, the Central Florida Association of Women Lawyers, and the 100,000-member Florida Bar.

She is now on the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates and rules on allegations of judicial misconduct.

10. KELLY COHEN |Managing Partner, Southern Strategy Group

50mostp23 Politics CohenKelly Cohen is the managing partner of the Orlando office of the Southern Strategy Group, one of the top lobbying firms not only in Florida, but in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina as well.

Given Orlando’s blue tint, Cohen mostly works with Democrats and was the statewide finance director for Dyer’s unsuccessful Attorney General bid, but also his successful races for Orlando mayor. She was the finance chair for Demings’ most recent campaign to become Orange County mayor.

As for the Democrats dismal showing statewide, she said, “(the) number one thing (we) need to do is register voters all day, every day. R’s have over 300,000 advantage. You will remember when D’s were up 900,000. We clearly need money, better candidates, but we can’t compete until we make a dent in those numbers, in my humble opinion.”

Beyond politics, she has provided strategy and counsel on Tavistock’s Medical City at Lake Nona, the SunRail 68-mile commuter rail system and Brightline, the high-speed rail that connects Miami to Orlando.

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