"Frankly, I've been to a lot of rodeos," says Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, suggesting less of a predilection for competitive livestock events than a weathered sense of Southern stoicism; you're not going to surprise this semi-controversial 10-year leader, not when he's already ;seen it all.
Crotty's auspicious rise to power and largely unchallenged tenure there – he was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the then-county chairman post in 2001 when Mel Martinez fled the roost; he only faced nominal competition in his two successive campaigns – aren't quite the stuff of legend or charismatic brilliance one might expect from a man at the helm of one crazy county's crazy decade. He's always cut a shadowy figure, much less likely to showboat a "vision" than his city compatriot Mayor Buddy Dyer, and he claims – again colloquially – that he likes it that way.
"I love the law of low expectations," he says. "What you just said puts a smile on my face. Keep ‘em guessing. And much of it is calculated. If you showboat, you raise expectations. And if you don't meet expectations, it means you haven't succeeded. But if you go into the day – it's a little like playing possum – if you start the day and they say, ‘He can't do that.' Well, oh yeah? Watch this."
So we watched and we waited and we failed to divine much of anything from the performance of the man who regularly tops the Orlando Sentinel's annual lists of the region's most powerful. Asked about his watershed moments, Crotty easily defaults to situations put upon him and not vice-versa. There was the 9/11 attack ("We were tested to the degree of pulling together community security and law-enforcement officials and taking something of a leadership role locally as to what this could mean to our tourist economy."). There were the hurricanes of 2004 ("I think we did admirably."). And then the whole discussion meanders off into impressive budgetary minutiae including state legislative blowback against local spending, efforts to connect various industry corridors within the region (the Burnham Institute, Innovation Way, the University of Central Florida's new medical school) and a sense that Orange County had to be redefined as a self-sustaining municipality and not just a tourist trap.
"The point being that we were blessed with economic opportunity for economic diversification that again has been lauded as the right thing to do and to take us away from being so dependant on our number one industry, tourism," he says. "Growing it, celebrating it, supporting it on the one hand, but making sure that we weren't a one-horse town."
That may all make for a nice resume, but through it all, the devilish details – the things he doesn't like to talk about ("Now you're going to get my blood pressure up," he laughs) – could end up being the very things that define him as a leader. On the serious side, Crotty's been a lightning rod for ethics concerns. He was caught up in an ill-advised Palm Beach land deal in 2002 that led to suspicions of impropriety and a well-publicized investigation (he was later cleared of any wrongdoing). That imbroglio was followed by the now infamous political fundraising scandal in 2006 involving the forever-troubled Expressway Authority (again, he was exonerated). More ridiculously, Crotty's made national headlines twice: once for pushing an apparent ban on dancing in 2001, and then in 2004 when his son Tyler was seen on television yawning at a speech by Crotty-supported President George W. Bush. Still, he says, "I'm pulling out of town with a pretty big grin on my face. Not ;that I'm leaving."
So what will he do? With only six months left in his current position – per Orange County Charter, the mayor can only serve two terms – and a cast of caricatures lining up to take his place, you have to wonder just where this self-proclaimed "conservative pragmatist" possum is going to rear his head next. He's already been a state senator, already kicked back in the county's property appraiser's chair, already flirted with the idea of jumping into Alan Grayson's congressional race (only to pull out and support his old buddy Dan Webster). And at 61, he's not ;getting any younger.
"Quite frankly, I've had quite a few ;job offers," he says.
Oh yeah? Well, we have some ideas, too.
In many ways, this job already belongs to Crotty, minus the sweat equity and forced smiles. As mayor, he already sits on the five-person board of the heaving, self-feeding beast known as the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, so even prior to the political allegations that would later plague him and former Expressway chair Allan Keen, Crotty was (at least) tacitly connected to some of the ridiculous amenities your hard-earned toll quarters were going to: theme-park tickets, $500,000 team-building exercises, millions in self-advertising, Doug Guetzloe. In March 2007, Keen was alleged to have been utilizing his position for electioneering purposes, securing campaign contributions for a list of Republicans that included Crotty. In a memo last year, Crotty distanced himself from the controversy, saying that all that money stuff was handled through his campaign-finance committee, so he had no idea about it – in other words, leave me alone. Crotty replaced Keen as chairman of the agency in February 2007 and established a blue-ribbon committee intended to clean up the agency, though the results of that housecleaning have been marginal at best, according to one county commissioner who spoke on background – "It was a complete farce." In the end, nobody went to jail.
"I was merely singled out by the state attorney," Crotty now says. "Because the former chairman [Keen] had conducted a fundraising operation for a number of political candidates, including myself. I never once personally approached anybody and was not aware of whatever tactics he may or may not have been using. There were 19 political campaigns, or fundraising activities, and when the state attorney decided to single someone out, of course it was me."
That ability to stand out in a crowd could go a long way in securing Crotty a great position at the tollbooth of his choice.
Ah, the life of a bus driver. The hot smell of exhaust fumes and fetid adult diapers; the grumble, grumble, grumble of impatience and personal-space violations. It may not sound like Crotty's best bet – though, rumor has it he doesn't really listen very well, anyway – but he's already attached to this institution of inefficiency as well. Crotty sits on the Lynx board and has been known to make public pronouncements about its future. When he was chair of the Lynx board in 2004, Crotty called for the privatization of the bus line, as Republicans are wont to do. In fact, U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, echoed the very same sentiment in June of this year, hoping that some of the company's $112 million budget – the part not financed by fares – could be taken off the backs of taxpayers.
Crotty's now positioning himself a bit more moderately on the issue.
"We need to keep an open mind that [there are] a lot of potential solutions. I don't know that privatization is the right one, but it's a good time to be having open and honest conversations about it. I think that chairman [Carlton] Henley has indicated we'll do that."
One of those options, at least for Crotty, could be joining in with the other auto-industry billionaires comprising the pie-in-the-sky magnetic-levitation train movement. Crotty recently went public with his maglev affinity when it became apparent to absolutely everyone that the future SunRail and high-speed rail systems will be worthless if they don't connect. The solution – rather than a Lynx bus, tellingly – was to turn our collective ear to Atlanta-based American Maglev Technology, which could offer us our desired monorail future for a reported cost of $223 million that would be funded privately. In addition to connecting the two other train projects, Crotty's been hoping to connect other regional landmarks with the supertrains. He calls transportation "the glue that holds the economy together." Turns out, Crotty's been hot for maglev for some time.
"In the 1987 session of the Florida Legislature, I filed enabling legislation to go forward with maglev," he says. "So, again, it wasn't my first time to that rodeo. I made a speech this morning. … I talked about high-speed rail and commuter rail, and I said the community's next big initiative should be a light-rail connection between the airport and the convention district. … And if it was maglev, that would be great."
And if he got a financial piece of that maglev pie, that would be even better.
PRAYER CIRCLE LEADER
There is no doubting that Rich Crotty is a man of great faith. Why is there no doubting that? Because it was made widely public in the other ethics scandal that rocked Crotty's tenure. In 2002, Crotty invested in a Palm Beach County land deal with prayer circle partner and real estate broker Daryl Carter. A complaint was filed in 2006 when it became apparent that Crotty may have violated the rules of his office by forcing the approval of an Orange County development by Carter based on the fact that Crotty's original investment in Palm Beach earned him a hefty $100,000. Crotty's staff at the time approved special waivers for Carter and allowed the shopping center to be built against the wishes of surrounding residents and then-commissioner Teresa Jacobs. Crotty was eventually let off the hook.
"Here's the absolute facts," he now says. "The fact of the matter is that the investment was not well thought out on my part. And had I been able to detect how it would play out, I wouldn't have done it. It was a mistake. Absolutely nothing unethical or illegal took place. And to quote the governor's chief counsel, when it was all said and done, I was completely vindicated."
He says that of all of his mayoral challenges, this investment is his only regret. A man of great faith, indeed.
Speaking of holy conundrums, Crotty was in for a surprise his first year in office when, in February 2001, his attempts to keep kids off the drugs blew up in his face in a glowsticked public relations nightmare. These were the twilight days of Orlando's heady rave culture, and Crotty inadvertently stepped on some platform shoes with what was portrayed as a "dance hall moratorium." Initially, the initiative proposed a nine-month ban on the construction of any places that even considered installing a dance floor. What followed was an entertaining county meeting attended by hoards of pierced ne'er-do-wells in wide-legged jeans and a first impression that Crotty found hard to shake. In fact, the ordinance was put in place to target the construction of one possible rave-hall that area residents had organized against. The effort succeeded, but Crotty learned a valuable lesson.
"That was the first test. And it served me well to learn how the portrayal of a decision can be distorted," he says, adding that he thinks the whole dust-up was an attack on his personal faith. "It had nothing to do with dancing. And it morphed into a national story that the mayor was nothing more than the Footloose preacher trying to ban dancing. Which was ludicrous and ridiculous. And the young people who came to the hearing figured it out and knew it because they were heard to say in the halls, ‘Well, this doesn't have anything to do with dancing. Why did we get duped into even being here?' And then, it was later polled and some 88 percent of the people agreed with me. There's nothing wrong with putting a moratorium on a potential rave club. Nobody ever proposed not dancing in the city or the county or anywhere else."
Maybe, but Crotty sure knew how to draw the club kid crowd.
DISGRUNTLED FRONT PORCH ROCKING CHAIR RETIREE
Despite surface appearances, Rich Crotty has a temper. He doesn't typically let it out in vocal tantrums, but rather in long screeds he disguises as memos. Last October, when the heat was on the county to come up with funding for the diminishing Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, Crotty became embroiled in a war of words with performing arts project chairman Jim Pugh that played out in a nasty and public way. Pugh told the Sentinel that he thought the county should be on the hook for the missing $130 million required to complete the project, the money the county intended to supply via tourist development taxes. Crotty fired back with a memo that included the terms "ill-reasoned and inflammatory comments" and "ill-advised musings."
It wasn't Crotty's first attack on the arts community. At an August 2008 commission meeting, Crotty blew up when he heard about a funding conundrum involving United Arts of Central Florida and WMFE. At some point he suggested that the county should consider canceling all of its funding of United Arts. That issue was eventually resolved. Of the Pugh incident, Crotty now sounds a little more reasonable.
"Jim Pugh's a great friend of mine, but there has to be an acknowledgement that the economic environment that we operate under today is a totally different one than when the deal was made," he says. "And the deal that was made always, always, always had the ‘if available' provision, and I'm saddened that the economy has gone south and that we have had to do things like tighten our belts at the county level to prevent raising taxes at a county level, and we will live up to our agreement to provide what moneys are available. But beyond that, I don't even know how this amounts to a brouhaha; it just is what it is."
Maybe the front-porch cat-calls of "get off my land" aren't suited to Crotty yet; after all, he says, he's still got a little life in him yet.
"I'm too young and energetic to want to just fade into retirement, and I'm not going to do that," he says.
PRESIDENT OF THE ;UNITED STATES
It may be a stretch, but never doubt the ego of a career politician. When Crotty came into office by appointment in 2001, the office itself was not that of "mayor." Mel Martinez vacated the position of county chairman; only in 2004 did the title change to its current glamorous mayoral stature by way of a county charter amendment.
"Guess what: had nothing to do with it," says Crotty. "The charter commission had talked about it in a previous cycle, and somebody had the idea – I don't even know who – to bring this back up.
"I'll never forget it. I was driving to a campaign election night victory party somewhere and I was parking my car and they announced on the radio that the new title for county chairman was county mayor and I almost wrecked the car. I had no idea that it would pass, nor did I have any involvement in it. And frankly, I could argue the merit of either title. That's one you can't pin on me."
But such humility doesn't shield the nature of Crotty's political ambitions. He's been a big player in the Republican machine for years, helping to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars for candidates he supports, most notably former President George W. Bush (and the yawn heard round the world). Last year Crotty was hotly tipped to take on liberal whipping boy Alan Grayson in the congressional fight for District 8. Surely the oval office can't be out of the ;question, right?
"That could be a problem because I might win! Which is the exact reason I didn't run for Congress," he says. "Everybody asks why I didn't run for Congress. I was afraid I was going to win. I like local office – state and local. Other than an overnight visit, the U.S. Capitol doesn't interest me much, but ;you never know."
"This isn't just some BS answer," he adds. "There's a lot of opportunity out there and my options are really quite open and I'll start focusing on them in the next couple ;months or so."
Or, playing possum.;; email@example.com