If you give any credence to "buzz," the Orlando mayor's race has evolved into a three-way contest: You've got presumed front-runner Buddy Dyer, the likeable ex-state senator for whom the Red Chair would be a consolation prize after losing the state attorney general's race in November; you've got presumed runner-up Bill Sublette, the also likeable ex-state representative who has bided his time since losing a GOP congressional primary in 2000; and you've got Hector A. Tico Perez, who has quietly been prepping for a shot at the mayor's chair mayor for nearly two decades.
Perez, 40, announced his campaign only last year, but his posturing has been going on for a long time. As a partner in charge of marketing at powerhouse law firm Baker & Hostetler, and as an ubiquitous volunteer on the Orlando Utilities Commission; the Central Florida Council, Boy Scouts of America; United Arts of Central Florida; Orange County's Arts & Cultural Affairs Task Force and other prominent boards, Perez has spent the years lining up powerful supporters. He knows everyone in the city's power elite. Consider him the ultimate insider.
Nonetheless, Perez stands out as a policy wonk in a field crowded with candidates whose grasp on issues seems a bit tenuous.
An example: At a Coytown community candidate forum last week, Perez turned a generic question on capital improvement into a lecture on "Area C," a 45-acre piece of former Naval Training Center property that the city is negotiating to buy from the U.S. Navy to build a park and storage space. Area C isn't top-secret information, but neither is it widely discussed at City Hall. As senior city planner Bruce Hossfield puts it, "It's just not newsworthy, [but] it's newsworthy in Coytown."
Not only did Perez know about the negotiations with the Navy -- of the eight candidates, Dyer was the only other one who did -- he also knew minutia of the deal, like how much space city officials plan to allot for police to store their gear. "I'll get that park you need," Perez promised Coytown residents.
That kind of knowledge is paying off. Perez has emerged as a dark horse. His ability to get specific gives his campaign an enthusiasm lacking in those of Sublette and Dyer. He took an early, decisive lead in the sign war, with red, white and blue "Tico for Mayor" messages sprouting up downtown only hours after Hood resigned. He claims 600 volunteers (which is impossible to verify), 50 of whom were outside City Hall waving banners for the cameras the day the city council established the election schedule.
Still, Perez has his own obstacles to overcome. For starters, he doesn't have high name recognition. Then there's the fact that he isn't a made-for-TV politician. He's overweight, balding, sweats profusely and, as Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas pointed out, has a lush crop of ear hair. Dyer and Sublette, in contrast, show up at campaign events perfectly coiffed, all pressed suits and toothy smiles.
Significantly, Perez aligns himself with Glenda Hood, raising the question of how much he'd rock the boat, if elected. He had previously promised not to run if Hood sought a fourth term next year. (Hood helped kick-start Perez's political ambitions by appointing him to the OUC board in 1997.) Hood's chief of staff, Fred Kittenger, is a close friend of Perez and gave $200 to his campaign.
Perez's donor lists -- he's raised $132,000 as of Dec. 31, not counting the $50,000 he loaned himself -- reflect the usual array of lawyers, builders, business owners and engineers. He does have more Hispanic and arts-community supporters than his counterparts. Given his background, that's not surprising.
Hood won three campaigns, so it's not politically safe for candidates to bash her. Indeed, none have publicly. Then again, many voters have tired of the status quo, and if Perez emerges as Hood Lite, that's not good news for his campaign.
"I'm a fan of the current mayor," he says, declining to say anything even remotely critical of her administration. "In all the things we failed [during Hood's term], it wasn't for a lack of effort," he says.
When pressed to differentiate a Perez administration from a Hood administration, he says: "I would have liked to see more civility in City Hall." On many issues, he stands with Hood. He is against any living-wage ordinance to make city contractors pay their employees above federal poverty guidelines, saying it will hurt small businesses. Perez also says he doesn't see the need for longer drinking hours downtown.
Like Hood, he backs the controversial Community Redevelopment Agency, a city-run, quasigovernmental agency that uses to city and county tax dollars to combat blight. Recently, the county has criticized the fact that the city uses its CRA money to subsidize high-end apartments and restaurants east of downtown while the more blighted west side remains unsightly.
Subtly, though, Perez hints at a more progressive administration than Hood's. He suggests doling out city contracts to Central Florida companies that donate time or money to local schools. He wants to build overpasses over the CSX railroad tracks, which would not only ease congestion downtown at rush hour, but also make it easier for a commuter rail to run along CSX's tracks.
And he's more informed and compassionate on homeless issues than Hood ever was. At every campaign event, Perez recites statistics on how many people spent the night at the homeless shelter and how many of those were women and children. He wants the city to set up phone banks and post-office boxes so the homeless can more easily apply for jobs and contact their families. He also advocates for more affordable housing, which he thinks can happen downtown by offering incentives to builders, to get those families out of the shelters.
Perez is a contender because of his willingness to get deep into issues when his opponents mouth vagaries about "vision." From there, voters get to decide if they like him or not.