At 12:01 p.m. on Nov. 16, the deadline for candidates to register for Orlando’s Jan. 29 election will have passed. As of this writing, three people have stepped up to take on Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer: Tim Adams, Nick Egoroff and Ken Mulvaney.
It’s grand that someone has finally decided to challenge Dyer, because as the mayor he has been a disappointment. The likable, progressive Southern Democrat we saw on the campaign trail back in 2003 has morphed into a business-as-usual pol who prefers to conduct city affairs out of the sunshine. He must be held accountable, in public, for his first five years in office, for the shady dealings and government largesse, for the undelivered promises, for the arrogance that his administration too often exemplifies.
So listen up, challengers: Here’s your playbook. Defeating Dyer isn’t going to be easy. But it is going to be fun.
Dear Mayoral Candidate:
Congratulations! You’ve decided to challenge John H. “Buddy” Dyer. We’ve got good news and bad news. Bad news first: You’re going to lose. Dyer’s raised $350,000 and you’ve raised zilch. He’s spent the last five years as mayor, and 10 years before that as a state senator, so he’ll crush you in the name recognition game. He’s got the Democrats’ support locked up, and the Republicans won’t be of much help.
And you need to understand that insurgent campaigns don’t work in Orlando. Since World War II, no incumbent Orlando mayor has lost an election. Billy Beardall, Bob Carr, Carl Langford, Bill Frederick and Glenda Hood reigned for at least a decade each, and their elections were coronations. Dyer’s re-election next year will be no different. Yours is a fool’s errand.
But here’s the good news: You’ll come closer than you think. In 2004, Dyer faced four unremarkable challengers, escaping a runoff by only 234 votes. Forty-nine percent of Orlando voters cast ballots against Buddy Dyer. Since then he’s been arrested, suspended from office and restored to power, only to lead a highly controversial campaign to build a new arena for the Orlando Magic and renovate a football stadium that nobody cares about, all with tax dollars. He’s made enemies.
We predict that about 40 percent of the vote will go to someone besides Buddy Dyer. That’s an ego booster. But more importantly, as a challenger you’ll have a platform, and you’ll have the media at your beck and call. You can force Dyer to defend his record, and win or lose, you’ll have done a service for your city.
Dyer will campaign around the idea that he’s revitalizing downtown – expect the venues to be a big part of his campaign – and that he’s taken a bite out of Orlando’s rising crime rates by putting new cops on the street. He’ll also wind the clock back to 2003, when he took office, fired a bunch of city staffers and balanced the city’s budget.
All these claims can be countered. Understand that this could get ugly. We’re going negative.
Five years ago, Dyer told us to judge his first term on that neighborhood’s progress. So do it. Is Parramore any safer today than five years ago? Has Parramore seen an economic resurgence? Has the city figured out what to do with the homeless shelter and the social service groups that critics say keep Parramore down? Immediately after taking office, Dyer excluded Parramore from the purview of his Downtown Strategic Transition Team, if that tells you anything.
Dyer will counter that revitalization is on the way. He’ll point to the new arena and the proposed Creative Village. He’ll point to the new federal courthouse, the Florida A&M Law School and to a couple of housing and mixed-use developments that have been approved on his watch.
Your response: There’s no proof the new arena will improve the lives of Parramore residents. The Orlando Arena, which opened in 1989, didn’t. The Creative Village is a pipe dream. Dyer had little to do with the courthouse or the law school.
But it’s those redevelopment projects that give you a chance to draw blood. Bring up Otey Place, and the land the city sold to the Black Business Investment Fund of Central Florida in 2004. The BBIF sale was a sweetheart, no-bid deal to a company upon whose board commissioner Daisy Lynum sat.
Otey Place is even juicier. The city sold land it had acquired for more than $1 million for just under $254,000 to PSA Constructors Inc., over the objections of its own Community Redevelopment Agency advisory board. That was the first time the city council had ever overruled the advisory board. It did so at the urging of Lynum, who at the 2006 city council meeting vouched for PSA president Patrick Aliu: “I know Patrick. I know him personally. I knew his wife. I knew his momma. I know all of them.”
In both cases, Dyer knew the score and pushed the deals through. That says something about his fiscal responsibility.
You can frame this issue very simply: Is downtown better off today than it was five years ago? Then you can answer it simply: no.
Dyer promised a vibrant downtown, loaded with herds of yuppies dining at fancy restaurants, living in luxury condos and shopping at ground-floor, high-end retail stores. It wasn’t so long ago that the mayor told us to look to the cranes in the skyline as proof that downtown was in the midst of a renaissance.
Of course the slumping housing market isn’t Dyer’s fault. But building a revitalization strategy around the idea that an influx of mixed-use developments and overpriced condos would fix everything is all Dyer, and you can call him on it. More buildings have gone up, true, but what has really changed downtown?
The future Dyer envisioned may prove elusive. In theory, the new arena and performing arts center will create the all-important downtown foot traffic urban planners crave. Maybe Cameron Kuhn will be able to do something on Church Street Station. Maybe Kuhn’s Plaza will open its movie theater in December, and maybe people will buy up all the Solaire’s empty condos. Until it happens, though, Dyer is vulnerable on that score.
Speaking of the Plaza, that’s fertile ground for you. Back in 2003, Dyer bet the farm that his buddy Kuhn could save downtown, and gave him $22 million in incentives to do it even though Kuhn would net between $28 million and $40 million off the project with little risk. No one likes corporate welfare, especially when it so drastically underperforms. To date, the Plaza has not been the catalyst we were promised. There are those who will counsel patience in this matter, but they aren’t trying to get elected. You are. Go on the offensive.
Let’s strategize for a second about Kuhn Management’s senior adviser, David Dix. Before Dix was Kuhn’s right-hand man, he was Dyer’s. For most of Dyer’s first year, Dix was his chief of staff. Dix helped orchestrate the Kuhn incentive deal.
But no one at City Hall liked him. Three days after the Kuhn deal went through, he resigned. Then he came back as a special assistant to the mayor, part-time work that paid generously – more than $10,000 a month. The city council still disliked Dix, so when they had an opportunity – when Dyer was suspended from office – they got ready to sack him. Dix resigned before they got the chance, then went to work for Cameron Kuhn. (Convenient how that worked out.) Anyway, get that into a 30-second TV spot and you’ve got a campaign. Suggested opening voice-over: “If you know a man by his friends ….”
Over to Church Street Station, which Kuhn bought out of bankruptcy for $34 million this summer. The previous owner, of course, was Lou Pearlman, who is now bankrupt, in jail and, according to Vanity Fair, a fan of young boys. Under Glenda Hood, the city’s desperation to spruce up this decaying entertainment complex was such that it gave him a lucrative incentive deal, provided he met the conditions of his contract.
By the end of 2003, it was clear that Pearlman wasn’t living up to his end of the deal. Dyer made noise about terminating the city’s deal, but that went down the tubes when Pearlman threatened legal action. Given Pearlman’s current state of affairs, an ad about how Buddy caved to this creepy flim-flammer could have legs. Make sure the ad includes both men’s booking photos. It’s not altogether fair, but neither were the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. This is politics we’re talking about.
You’re going to need a plank that appeals to the kids, and Dyer’s provided you with a doozy.
The Downtown Strategic Transition Team recommended extending drinking hours downtown, something Dyer promised he’d consider back in 2003. But he dropped the issue immediately when he got some pushback from owners of non-downtown bars and old farts who believe nothing good happens after dark except reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. Our bars still close at 2 a.m., and that’s not changing anytime soon. Your strategy is to ask him why Orlando doesn’t treat its citizens like adults.
A word of advice: The performing arts center is popular, so even though it’s an open question whether or not it will become an economic noose around the city’s neck, leave it be.
Here, though, is a phrase you need to memorize and repeat at every opportunity: “fundamentalist Rich DeVos.”
A brief political science lesson: Back in 1964, a professor named Philip Converse argued that most of the electorate don’t have a clue about most of the issues upon which they’re voting. Some are better informed than others, some take cues from political elites and some basically guess. A while later, two other political scientists, Edward Carmines and James Stimson, separated “easy” and “hard” issues. People get easy issues, mostly because they’re emotionally tinged and easy to comprehend. The trick, then, is to take a hard issue like the arena – hard because of the economic complexities of the deal – and make it easily digestible.
Hence your slogan, “Fundamentalist Rich DeVos.” Dyer, a Democrat, essentially shoveled a huge chunk of tax money into subsidies that will benefit a far-right GOP fund-raiser who made a fortune off a (legal) pyramid scheme that was sanctioned for fraud in Canada. DeVos’ family is tied into the war-profiteering Blackwater mercenary company. He’s worth $3.5 billion, while the city’s general fund is only $350 million a year.
So no talk of the tourism taxes, property taxes or the Community Redevelopment Agency. No one understands that stuff. Make DeVos a target, and join him at the hip with Buddy Dyer.
A list of things $430 million – the amount of the public’s contribution to the arena – could buy would be a nice ad. For instance, it could pay a year’s salary for more than 10,000 police officers. Or we could pay for a big chunk of the $1.3 billion light rail system. (Granted, that figure comes from 2002, so the real number is probably higher, but your point is made.)
And don’t forget the Citrus Bowl. Point out that we’re paying $175 million to rehab a stadium that gets used four times a year, and whose primary client, the University of Central Florida, just built its own stadium. “How else could we spend that $175 million?” you ask rhetorically in front of the assembled TV cameras. “We could put 1,000 new police officers on Orlando’s dangerous streets and pay their salaries for four years, we could build a state-of-the-art homeless shelter, or we could just give that money back to the citizens of Orlando in the form of a tax break and let them decide how to spend it.”
An $18,000 piece of publicly funded art – a frog – helped doom Linda Chapin’s congressional campaign back in 2000, so Dyer’s $893,000 downtown ambassador program ought to cost him a few votes, too. This program will pay a dozen or so (probably old) people in uniforms to ride around on Segways and ... well, we’re not sure what they’re going to do. The campaign ad pretty much writes itself.
While it’s true that Orlando is a very conservative city, it’s also true that it’s queer as hell. You need to appeal to gays, and once again Dyer has given you the opportunity.
When a local progressive publication called Orlando Weekly (never heard of it, we’ll have to do some research) asked Dyer about his track record on gay issues, his office reportedly said, “Mayor Dyer was the first mayor to attend Gay Days and be a part of the festivities.” And that’s it.
So your stance is that Dyer has paid lip service to the gay community, but little else. He hasn’t pushed for domestic partnership benefits, the city hasn’t extended health insurance benefits to the partners of its employees, and it hasn’t encouraged its contractors to do the same.
They might not vote, but they do need to eat and somewhere to sleep. So you’re going to demonstrate compassion for the less fortunate among us, which will play well to churchgoers. Here again, Dyer’s record leaves you plenty of latitude.
You’ll start by wistfully recalling the mayorship of Glenda Hood, who had a reputation of being particularly nasty to the homeless. Then you’ll point out that Dyer has been just as bad, if not worse.
First came an ordinance banning feeding the homeless in downtown parks, or even holding too large a picnic, without a permit. Then came an arrest for violating that law. (The city lost at trial, you’ll need to remind voters.) Then came a new law that bans panhandling at night.
Next you’ll need to contrast Dyer’s record of actually helping the homeless with the lip service he’s paid. Basically, Buddy likes to talk about solving the problem regionally, but when rubber meets road, we’ve haven’t seen much. In almost five years since he took office, we’re hard-pressed to cite anything Dyer’s done to help the homeless. In fact, he hasn’t shown the slightest bit of compassion toward our needy.
Buddy Dyer has a mug shot, and that’s good for you. Don’t press the actual details of his 2005 arrest and subsequent six-week suspension from office. The election-related charges were flimsy and they imploded, and it will look desperate to dredge up those details.
Negative campaigning will only go so far. You need to create your own vision for the City Beautiful. Here’s a basic four-point plan:
- Orlando will never again subsidize rich people with shady backgrounds or people connected to politicians in the hope of revitalizing Parramore or downtown. We will never again let our sense of desperation cloud our judgment.
- Orlando will treat its citizens as adults. That means longer drinking hours, yes. But it also means that if groups want to feed the homeless in public parks, we will let them. Big cities have homeless people; that comes with the territory. Pushing them out of sight solves nothing.
- This also means defunding the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation. People go to strip clubs. Big deal. Grown-up cities know this. Grown-up cities also do everything in their power to relinquish discrimination to history books. So during your tenure, this city will extend benefits to its gay and lesbian residents.
- Orlando will become its own city. Glenda Hood tried to shove a theater district down our throats. Buddy Dyer is trying to shove New Urbanism down our throats. Vibrant cities develop organically, not artificially. You support grass-roots arts movements without confining them to a “Creative Village” ghetto, a huge performing arts center or an established district.
- You also support breaking the hotel industry’s death grip on tourist taxes. Tourism affects us all – our roads, our cops, our tax base. The industry is doing just fine. Our schools, on the other hand, are not. And our regional transportation system isn’t looking so good either. Create the backdrop for the kind of community people actually want to live in, and this city will prosper like never before.
Now get out there and give him hell. Our consulting bill is in the email@example.com