- Carlos Amoedo
"Nobody's ever accused me of being dazzling."
Those are fitting words coming from the mouth of District 1 city Commissioner Phil Diamond, a man of measured reactions and quiet anxiety, likable smiles and the unassuming air of a father figure in a blue oxford shirt and understated tie. He's an accountant and tax attorney by trade who, on this (and probably every other) Thursday morning, is sipping black coffee over a copy of the Wall Street Journal at Einstein Bros. Bagels on South Orange Avenue. A few similarly normal people breeze by and shake his hand - this has been his district for some nine years - but if you didn't know better, Diamond would be the last person in the room you'd expect to be running for the city's highest office.
After years of speculation that he might do so, Diamond discretely took the plunge on April 5, filing the necessary paperwork at City Hall to enter into the 2012 mayoral race against longtime policy sparring partner, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. It was an uncharacteristically bold move for the commissioner, one that was characteristically met with little fanfare. A slow news day meant that Diamond could get a few points in - he'd pursue term limits, meaning the he himself could only serve for eight years (Dyer will be running for a fourth term, or his third full four-year term) - but beyond that, the media was left to speculate on Diamond's timing.
Dyer - freshly wounded by a public attack launched by new Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs on the proposed performing arts center, the startling end to a high-speed rail deal he largely brokered and a questionable future for the commuter train SunRail that was to be his legacy - was weakened and left to defend his failures. (He demurred to the Sentinel following the filing that, "I've never had an unopposed election, and I didn't expect to have one this year. We're just preparing for the election, whoever is on the ballot.")
Though he largely supported many of those big-ticket initiatives, Diamond has spent a good part of his tenure as the lone no vote to Dyer's highly incentivized take on local development. The stage was set: Diamond would be the dark horse candidate, albeit a reliably quiet horse averse to the show-pony circuit. The guy not beholden to what he repeatedly refers to as "special interests"; the responsible accountant in the room.
"Clearly [Dyer's] in there, and he will raise a lot of money," Diamond says. (Dyer's first-quarter fundraising has him already sitting comfortably atop a $125,000 war chest; Diamond filed after the deadline and did not disclose his current donations, which are due to the city on July 11). "I think that there are a lot of special interests that will be willing to support him. But I think at the end of the day, the voters will decide this race."
Those voters, he hopes, will see past the mascot sloganeering of the man named "Buddy," look beyond the skyline dreams of vertical development in the downtown core and soberly return to a "quality of life" perspective centered on the city servicing its full population via roads, schools, parks and garbage collection. But is the man that they will see - should his ambitions materialize - the kind of man that can be a political animal while still remaining the friendly churchgoing guy next door?
"At the end of the day, it's about public policy, it's about issues," he says. "It's not about, and it shouldn't be about, personalities. It shouldn't be about anything other than what's best for the city and where the city ought to go."
Maybe that's how it should be, but in the rough-and-tumble world of local politics - where door knocking and flamboyant flourishes are rewarded more often than not - Diamond might be interested in developing a little more than what even he refers to as "the personality of an accountant." He may be the kind of guy Orlando needs, but, as it is, he's far from the type the city normally elects. A little coaching may be in order.
Phil Diamond is painfully shy. He may be sitting on a leather couch in his second-floor city commission office beneath a blown up photograph of an apparent football victory from his alma mater, the University of Florida, but in talking about his past - who Phil Diamond really is, where he comes from - he betrays an uncommon vulnerability for a man who is about to enter a difficult political battle. In fact, with just one mention of his upbringing as the son of a single mom, he's stifling tears.
"Give me a second," he all but shuts down. "Would you like some coffee?"
Diamond was born in Albany, N.Y., in 1960 to a middle-class family. When he was eight or nine, his parents divorced, leaving his single mother to raise him and his older brother ("We fought when we were younger; we're friends now," he says). It wasn't easy. His mother went to nursing school and made the most of a tough situation. It's clear that her tenacity inspires him.
"When my mother was single, we did not have a lot of money, and that's probably given me - going to your question of how I came to be who I am today - it probably gave me an appreciation for not having a lot of money," he says.
A few years later, Diamond's mother remarried and the couple moved the family south to West Palm Beach. Diamond finished out his high school years at Twin Lakes High School where he became senior class president.
"And they didn't think I could win that one either," he laughs.
After graduating in 1978, Diamond enrolled at UF with a small Pell Grant and some student loans. He worked odd jobs - Burger Chef, Woolworth's, Jefferson's, a Tenneco gas station, a Census numerator in 1980 - to subsidize his studies. All that menial labor made an impact.
"It made accounting look pretty interesting," he says.
Diamond graduated with a degree in accounting, largely because his stepfather thought it a stable profession, one that could come in handy throughout his professional life. It did. He took a job at an accounting firm in Gainesville straight out of college, going on to start his own CPA firm as a means of funding his law degree at the university. He graduated with honors and relocated to a College Park duplex in Orlando in 1986.
Before that, he met his future wife, Linda, at a Bennigan's in Gainesville; he invited himself to her table, invited himself to her nachos and their future began. They married in 1991, eloping to Juno, Alaska, after growing weary of wedding planning. Diamond takes obvious glee in this fact. They both love the outdoors, he says, and this was part of his wild side. He now has two children, ages 13 and four. Like any proud father, he shows off a picture of the happy family at his aide's wedding last year at Leu Gardens. It's a portrait of familial perfection, if somewhat boring.
"Do you ever get really pissed off?" I ask.
"You mean at reporters?" he deflects.
"OK, what's the craziest thing Phil Diamond has ever done?" I try again.
"I know people have this perception of me as being this bookish, quiet, introverted person and I'll mention things about my life, like getting married in Alaska or making the plunge into public life 10 years ago," he says, "or I'll share with you the fact that years ago we went hang-gliding in Tennessee."
Diamond's venture into public life didn't come without friction. In 2002, following some active participation with the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee, Diamond positioned himself as the outsider candidate against outspoken three-term District 1 commissioner, Don Ammerman. At the time, Ammerman was a thorn in Mayor Glenda Hood's side, frequently railing against her growth fetish. Ammerman made the mistake of telling the Orlando Sentinel, however, that he had no idea that the fast-tracking of the former Navy base property that would become Baldwin Park was being transferred on the cheap to Orlando NTC Partners, a group mainly backed by the billionaire, Hyatt-hotel-owning Chicago family, the Pritzkers. It made him look, at the very least, ill-informed. At the same time, Ammerman was at the center of a controversy involving the hiding of blood-test records of city firemen who later became ill; Ammerman, an advocate for the local firefighters, sat on the information he had for five months. The incident became known as a potential city cover up.
Regardless, Ammerman was positioning himself for his own mayoral bid, and Hood was throwing tacks onto his bumpy road. Tellingly, members of Hood's family publicly supported Diamond's commission bid. Ammerman threatened in a Sentinel article that Diamond was "going to get run over by growth." Diamond, it should be noted, told Orlando Weekly in 2002 that Ammerman had "the memory of an Enron executive." The deal was sealed. Diamond took the seat in a runoff in April 2002.
"My predecessor told me before I took office," Diamond remembers, adding that the two are now friendly, "he said ‘Get ready for an exciting ride. It's going to be an e-ticket.' And he was right."
In his first years as a commissioner, Diamond recused himself from a number of city votes. As a partner in the law firm Carlton Fields - a noted practice with numerous high-profile clients dealing in government contracts - he was trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety on issues that might affect his personal bottom line: deals involving Motorola and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority among them. He decided it was time to make a change.
"I changed my status from ‘partner of counsel' in 2003 in order to be on the safe side," he says. "I was trying to be cautious; I wanted to reduce and eliminate the number of voting conflicts I would have. I chose to change my status and take less money to be on the safe side."
But "safe" wouldn't be an issue for Diamond for long. Shortly after he took his seat on the dais, Dyer ascended to the mayor's office in 2003 (Hood took a position in Tallahassee as Secretary of State under Jeb Bush) bringing with him the big development ambitions that would come to define his administration. Among the first to get Dyer's attention was Big Poppa boy-band impresario Lou Pearlman, who, in the wake of his successes with the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, was hoping to convert the declining Church Street Station area downtown into his personal entertainment playground, a deal initially approved by Hood. The city bit, offering Pearlman $1.5 million in loans and incentives with more tax breaks to come. Diamond, still new to the office, thought the deal was reasonable. Until, that is, it became clear that Pearlman, who was eventually caught running a Ponzi scheme and duly jailed, wasn't going to hold up his end of the bargain.
"My recollection is I voted for it," he says. "I don't remember the details, but it was good to see jobs created in the Church Street area. When it became apparent that he wasn't going to follow through, I objected to making payments to him."
Diamond learned his lesson.
"I was new," he says. "It was the first time I had to deal with it. I remember walking down Church Street to look at the progress, or, more accurately, the lack of progress, occurring at Pearlman's [TransContinental] office. When I saw that, I said, ‘We need to change this arrangement.'"
That broken deal was swiftly followed by a litany of further unsavory incentive packages now burned into the collective Orlando consciousness. In 2004, the city approved $22.5 million in tax breaks, loans and cash for developer Cameron Kuhn's Plaza project downtown, plus $14 million in loans for a parking garage (Kuhn would later default on Church Street as well). Phil Diamond voted no. Also in 2004, developer Kevin Azzouz intended to erect an opulent $700 million development in MetroWest called Veranda Park for which the city would offer $4 million in incentives. Phil Diamond voted no. In 2008, Steve Walsh of Broad Street Partners LLC attempted to get the city to extend the deadline on incentives offered to a proposed condo (and later hotel) project called Tradition Towers downtown. Diamond, again, voted no. Walsh would suspiciously die soon after. These are just the highest profile cases in which the city was willing to get involved with bad developers with hopes of a quick tax-base turnaround. This is the culture of corruption Diamond says he wants to see end: the gratuitous loans for a downtown movie theater, the Amway Center for billionaire Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos ("an outrageously bad deal for taxpayers," he says).
"You can look at the results and you can see that of the projects that have been subsidized, they've had a pretty poor track record," he says, adding this about his notorious no vote on the 2007, $1.1 billion venues deal (Diamond abstained from votes involving the performing arts center's $30 million deal with First United Methodist Church because his wife is employed there): "I think some people were critical of me because it was important for them to get them all at one time. That's not to say it wouldn't be nice to have all of those facilities. I was the only person in that building that said, ‘We need to open our eyes and be realistic about the practical side of things.'"
Diamond would go on to be re-elected to his seat in 2006 and 2010 unopposed.
On the other side of the coin, Diamond hasn't been the requisite contrarian on all development issues. He supports the medical city cluster currently developing in Lake Nona, which is part of his district. He would like to see more collaboration with the University of Central Florida, saying that the city's handling of the school's involvement with the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts project (the school has effectively dropped out of the deal in favor of building its own facility, though its state grant of $15 million remains on the table) was a mistake. He's championed infrastructural developments in the Narcoossee Road corridor and the rehabilitation of the remaining former Navy property in southeast Orlando. He's proud of the Sodo development south of downtown - a Target supercenter, basically - even though the economy has stifled its retail growth.
"I think you need to be careful about who you're doing business with," Diamond says. "I think you also need to be careful about trying to pick winners and losers, whether it's businesses or any other kind of entity you're going to try to support. I've been very supportive of the larger picture things."
Diamond's actual campaign is still in its infancy, a fact that's well illustrated by his clumsy hand-over-hand monologue delivery and tendency to lose his thoughts mid-sentence. He does, however, already have a growing chorus of support.
"The thing about Phil is he's got a very clear position and a very clear message," says Democratic pollster Jim Kitchens, the man responsible for steering the campaigns of former U.S. House Representative Alan Grayson, former Orange County mayoral candidate Bill Segal and Diamond himself, among others. Kitchens has been encouraging Diamond to get back out in the public and hone his rusty campaigning craft. "When you hear him talk, he's very substantial," Kitchens says.
Former leader of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee, Doug Head, echoes Kitchens' respect, largely because he thinks that under Dyer, Orlando has been experiencing an identity crisis.
"This town needs a modest mayor. Immodesty has been a constant affliction in Orlando because of the fact that, literally, people know where we are and who we are. That fact leads some in this town to think that we are big shots," Head says. "For want of another word, we are not magical. We are a lovely city. Which is very gratifying for the people who do live in it."
And though Diamond might not be the most dynamic of candidates, maybe that absence of dynamism for dynamism's sake is just the antidote that Orlando needs.
"Phil is what he is," Head says. "That doesn't mean it's unappealing. It means that maybe some of that noise doesn't carry sincerity."
The mayor's race is, by law, non-partisan, but Diamond challenging Dyer does raise the spectre of a Democratic schism. Dyer's donor rolls read like a who's who of Chamber of Commerce concerns and the condominium-dwelling elite: lipstick Democrats, if you will. Amy Mercado, the current chair of OCDEC is currently playing the middle on the coming mayoral stakes.
"We've known about it," she says, comparing the race to that of former Orange County commissioners, Democrats Linda Stewart and Bill Segal, last year. They both lost to Jacobs. "Before Phil decided to run, we had an in-passing conversation. On a personal note and a leadership note, I think competition is good. I'm sure many of our members agree … . It's going to be an interesting battle, an interesting process to keep it as diplomatic as possible."
Segal, who has removed himself from politics since his defeat last November, has little to offer on Diamond's chances, though he is known to be a friend of Dyer. Stewart, whose district overlapped with Diamond's, meaning they shared a lot of time at public events, is a little more forthcoming.
"Your deeds are much more important," she says, noting that Diamond has a tendency to cower in corners at events. "There are a lot of people that don't think much of Buddy's projects. Diamond has been the one that has been the most opposition to a rubber-stamp agenda. That is refreshing. But those are votes that most people don't realize. They don't know who he is. They haven't been influenced by any of his personal votes. If you're one out of six, that's great. But they're not seeing any change."
In real terms, the Democrats may not even matter when next year's vote comes up. The Orlando mayor's race will be part of the presidential preference primary - the date of that election remains in question (sometime between January and March 2012) as Tallahassee Republicans hammer it out - where Democrats aren't expected to have much of a choice beyond President Barack Obama. They may not even show up. That leaves Diamond's fiscally conservative stance to be analyzed by the political right, a constituency that in the early days of the campaign has shown signs of interest.
Nick Egoroff, one of Orlando's original Tea Party personalities from the heady days of the 2008 Ron Paul presidential campaign, is already onboard with Diamond. In fact, he's considering running to replace Diamond in the District 1 seat that Diamond will have to vacate whether he wins or loses. (Orange County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Lew Oliver did not return calls for this story).
"Buddy Dyer is going to bankrupt this city," Egoroff says. "Any homeowner should be really concerned about this. I mean, my gosh, if they're left unchecked, it's unsustainable. I like Phil because he's an accountant."
Diamond's peers in City Hall are far less likely to gush about his chances and, perhaps out of necessity, more interested in siding with their current boss. Commissioner Robert Stuart refused to comment on record, but it's safe to say his vote is with Dyer. Commissioner Patty Sheehan, once rumored to be running for the same mayoral seat, is even less enthused.
"My rule usually is, if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all," she says in an email. "So I guess I am mute on the subject."
Back at Einstein's, Diamond isn't nearly so quiet. He's not satisfied with the one-note perception that his only role is that of an overcautious party crasher. He just thinks important decisions should be made with due gravity. He's well aware of the in-house rumors that he's been setting this mayoral run up all along and finds that disheartening. He insists he's not doing this just because the upcoming city redistricting process might squeeze him out of District 1, anyway. He's not against everything.
"I don't think you ought to go into the office with the idea that you're going to oppose or you're going to support any particular group of people," he says. "I think you look at what's best for the community. I think on some issues we'll agree; I think on some issues we'll disagree. I certainly disagreed with them on the new basketball arena. Depending on what the issue is, I'll do what's right. That's what I've done, and that's what I'll do."
An Einstein's employee starts repeating the name "Phil? Phil?" causing Diamond to look over his shoulder anxiously. He might be getting a free coffee, he jokes. Though he won't reveal his personal income, he's certainly a man who is open to a good deal.
"I think you need to look at what works, where you ought to be, what's going to give you the kind of results that you want," he says, soberly. "And I don't know that we can afford dazzle right now."