Orlando Mayor Back After 40 Days in Political Wilderness

Times Staff Writer

The ruddy-faced man in a T-shirt and sweat pants, a kerosene-fueled torch in his hand, chugged down Orange Avenue, past the construction cranes and hard-hat workers he'd been key in bringing to the city's center.

"How come I'm the only one sweating?" Buddy Dyer jokingly asked the other participants in a morning run to raise money for the state's Special Olympics.

A month and a half after being indicted, arrested and suspended as Orlando's mayor, Dyer was back at work. A special prosecutor's charges that he and three co-defendants had paid someone to collect absentee ballots had been dropped -- and Gov. Jeb Bush had reinstated him in time for him to participate as mayor in the Florida Law Enforcement Torch Run for the Special Olympics.

"It really is a fresh start for our administration," the 46-year-old Dyer said after showering and changing into a blue pinstripe shirt and red silk tie. In his first full week back at work, the mayor replaced his chief administrative officer, flew to Tallahassee to lobby the governor's staff and legislators, and scheduled one-on-one sessions with department heads to catch up on projects intended to revitalize Orlando's once moribund downtown.

Criticized for being secretive and strong-armed since becoming mayor in a 2003 special election, Dyer was vowing to work to change people's perceptions.

Anderson C. Hill II, president of a local construction company, thought the 40 days Dyer had spent out of office would be good for the reinstated mayor and the city.

"This event has softened up the administration," Hill said. "The mayor has learned to be more open and more accessible to the public."

With Dyer's return, Florida's sixth-largest city has regained its chief executive, and the state's Democratic Party has gotten back a candidate who some say has statewide appeal.

"He is going to achieve great things," predicted state Sen. Ron Klein of Delray Beach, who roomed with Dyer for six years during legislative sessions in Tallahassee. The two Democratic state senators used to enjoy smoking cigars together, and Klein observed with interest as his roommate, in an effort to shed weight, embraced fad diets. "He would eat bacon-wrapped shrimp all the time," Klein said.

The March 10 indictment "hit him hard," said Klein, who remembered that Dyer sounded depressed when they spoke by phone.

"He had always carried himself as honest and straightforward," said Klein. "Imagine, you're riding high on a career and reputation, and then all of a sudden, a calamity of colossal proportions hits you."

Dyer was accused of breaking a state law (which he had voted for while a member of the Florida Legislature) that made it a felony to pay someone to collect absentee ballots. Dyer and his campaign manager had paid $10,000 to Ezzie Thomas, a longtime political activist in the black neighborhoods of west Orlando, to work on Dyer's 2004 reelection campaign. Thomas said, however, that he had been paid tens of thousands of dollars to help other central Florida politicians as well, including U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and Dyer's predecessor as Orlando mayor, Glenda E. Hood, both Republicans.

Dyer maintained that he had been unfairly singled out and that the law was being improperly applied. To exonerate himself, the University of Florida law school graduate drafted a memorandum asking for dismissal of the indictments.

The resulting document pointed out that in the nearly seven years the statute had been on the books, no other elected official, Republican or Democrat, had been indicted under it. Dyer contended that the grand jury and prosecutor had misinterpreted the statute, which he said was only intended to apply in cases where fraudulent ballots had been cast.

Dyer and his defense team also made it clear that if there was a trial, others who had employed Thomas, including prominent Republicans, would be called to the witness stand. Brad King, the Republican state attorney assigned by Bush to the case, said he decided to drop the charges because investigators uncovered "no actual fraud" in the use of the absentee ballots. In an April 19 report to Bush, King even complimented Thomas for increasing electoral participation among minority and elderly voters.

Dyer likened his weeks out of office, with a potential five-year prison term hanging over his head, to weathering another hurricane. The hardest thing, he said, was sitting down his two sons, 12 and 7, and telling them he was about to be arrested. His wife, Karen Dyer, who is also an attorney, helped him prepare the challenge to the indictment.

"We had more family harmony during that 40 days than any time probably ever," the mayor said with a wistful smile.

A native of Orlando, Dyer grew up to the south in Kissimmee, son of a rodeo bull rider. The first member of his immediate family to go to college, he went north to Brown University in Providence, R.I., on a scholarship to study civil engineering.

"I like to think of myself as a lower-middle-class redneck kid that grew up in cow country that was able to go to an Ivy League school and have his eyes opened to what was out there in the world," Dyer said.

Though Orlando is famous as a vacation destination, millions of visitors never stop in the center of the city, speeding through to Disneyworld or other nearby theme parks.

"The way our community has been put together, our major research university is way out on the east side of our county, the airport is in the southeast, the tourist area is in the southwest," Dyer said. "So you could come to our community and do a lot of stuff without ever seeing downtown Orlando."

As mayor, Dyer wants to change that, so more people live, work and play in the city's center.

Since he took office, an unprecedented $1.5 billion worth of downtown development has been planned or begun. Dyer's reinstatement led some of those investors to express relief that things were back to normal. In his absence, City Commissioner Ernest Page was named interim mayor, and a special election had been scheduled for May 3 to elect a replacement for Dyer.

"We've really pushed the revitalization. You can really see cranes pretty much everywhere," Dyer said from his office balcony, scanning the skyline.

His short-term priorities, he said, were three: to refurbish an existing arena or build a new one to keep the Orlando Magic, an NBA franchise, from leaving town; to construct a performing arts center across from City Hall; and to renovate the Citrus Bowl sports stadium.

His birthplace, Dyer said, is "poised for greatness," and being its mayor -- even with the interruption -- is "the greatest job" he ever had.

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