Brace for Impact

Orlando is about to face some dramatic changes.

On Oct. 24, 2017, UCF President John C. Hitt announced his intention to retire as president as of June 30, 2018. Hitt has been the head of UCF, often cited as the largest University in the country, since March 1992. He has effectively raised the profile of UCF from a meager commuter school, mostly utilized to create a steady stream of engineers and scientists for the Space Coast, into a dynamic, thriving university. While UCF still has many imperfections (mostly in my opinion centering on the need to pay its employees more), the school serves as an effective educational model for the rest of the country. In his 26 years, Hitt has elevated the profile of the school so much so that his position would be one of the most coveted in the state of Florida the moment he decided to finally vacate it.

It isn’t often that a university president retiring would be cause for such interest in a community, but under the direction of Hitt, UCF has become an increasingly integral part of the Central Florida region. Of the 263,000 UCF alumni, a little more than 100,000 live in the Orlando area. That’s an exceptional retention rate. UCF’s relationships with local state colleges are increasingly close, many of which acting as satellite campuses for UCF. The school also employs thousands of residents and, with the development of the Downtown Campus and the Lake Nona UCF Medical School, Orlando and UCF are two sides of the same coin. This is not remotely like the relationship Florida’s traditional schools have with their respective cities, as UCF and Orlando are in a symbiotic relationship and the insistence of this from leaders of both sides is indicative of that. While UF and FSU students merely inhabit their respective cities for the duration of their stay, UCF students tend to build their lives next door to their alma mater. This all makes whoever the president is of UCF to be politically important and powerful — not many positions allow you to have access to potentially 100,000 educated voters in the fastest growing large metro in the country.

Orlando seems to have an affinity for its leaders staying on for a long, long time. Mayor Buddy Dyer has made Orlando his personal fiefdom in the nearly 15 years he has been at its head. Similar to Hitt, Dyer has overseen significant transformative efforts in the city over his tenure. Orlando has slowly begun to shed its existence as a landing location for those going to Disney to a diverse city bursting at the seams with new residents. Dyer and Hitt are without a doubt the most powerful players in Central Florida. Their decisions and influence are unmatched. Hitt’s position though, is seen as a superior to mayor. Dyer knows this, and it comes as no surprise that he has pushed for Hitt’s job.

It is one of the worst kept secrets in the Orlando political scene. It is also, regardless, a bombshell. Not the news itself, but the potential impact it will have on the structure of Orlando’s leadership. If what is expected by many involved in Florida politics happens, that Dyer takes over for Hitt, then that opens up the mayor position. Patty Sheehan, longtime District 4 commissioner and the first openly LGBT city commissioner in the history of Orlando, will likely vacate her spot to run for Dyer’s seat. It is unlikely she will run unopposed, her competition likely to be other city commissioners.

With one retirement, a minimum of two long-filled, prominent political offices are going to be left open in a year that already has an election for Orange County mayor. Hitt’s retirement date comes smack dab in the middle of 2018, an election year that already has Orlando’s political players gearing up for a fight. Theresa Jacobs, the termed-out OC mayor who mostly does nothing due to her being a Republican mayor of an increasingly progressive county, leaves open another powerful political position. Jerry Demings, current Orange County sheriff, has already declared his candidacy for OC mayor, meaning there will be an election for a new Sheriff. Mike Miller, two-term Republican representative for State House District 47, has entered the race against Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, leaving another prime seat up for grabs. Already, powerhouse Anna Eskamani has positioned herself to flip 47 with an electric campaign. County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson is also being termed out her seat in District 4, and County Commissioner Bryan Nelson is leaving his seat to run for Mayor of Apopka. With the gubernatorial race among all of this, 2018 is shaping up to be a presidential election type year locally.

With Hitt’s retirement, combined with other electoral happenings, there will likely be at least seven Orlando area political seats up for election without any incumbents in 2018. Orlando Republicans, who mostly hang around in the area due to their opposition’s incompetence and less so their own popularity, are looking at fighting in four elections in districts that they are vulnerable. State and national resources are going to be dumped into the total war the GOP plans to wage against Stephanie Murphy in Congressional District 7, leaving local GOP candidates mostly to fend for themselves. Combined with the greater Orlando metro’s demographics, and the direction they are trending, this stands to make 2018 the year the local GOP mostly become irrelevant.

I get the feeling that the shake up I discuss here may be greater than what most of us imagine here locally. It is a bit hard to think bigger when none of the Orlando locale knows anything different for the past decade or two. For outsiders, the hubbub over a university president retiring may seem an interesting commotion, but for Central Florida residents the issue is exceedingly important. Whoever is the new leader of UCF will have all eyes on them. How it all shakes out will have significant impacts for the region and Florida as a whole.