Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer runs for a sixth full term
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says he never planned on being mayor.
Once he finished law school, overseeing the city of Orlando was not on his Bingo card. In 2003, however, he was prompted to run by people in high places, as well as people in low places.
Some 20 years later, the incumbent has campaigned for a sixth consecutive full term, as one of Florida’s fastest-growing cities experiences an unprecedented population boom, driving a lack of affordable housing.
Yet Dyer said he thinks he is still the best man for the job.
“I don’t feel like now is the time to be finished,” he said. “There’s a lot to continue to work on.”
Dyer was born in Orlando. Raised in Kissimmee, he had first row seats to the Greater Orlando area’s massive transformation — from Disney and tourism, to low wages and homelessness.
“We have to catch up on the housing side of the equation. So, in our region, there's somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people that are moving into our community, our region, on a weekly basis,” Dyer said.
The numbers have changed
When Dyer began his time in office, the city of Orlando’s population was close to 205,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, Orlando links to its surrounding areas, and what is known as Orlando-Metro is dense with nearly 2.1 million residents.
Dyer’s been at the helm for most of this growth, and he said he’s in the middle of doing more for the city’s priorities, which include housing and infrastructure. He said he still needs to get SunRail to the airport, the Pulse memorial completed, set up a Major League Baseball stadium, get a lot more affordable housing, and tackle homelessness.
But critics have accused Dyer of not having done enough with his time in office, saying he often sides with money interests instead of the most vulnerable people in Orlando, doing more for the tourist and economic sectors than the residents.
When asked about this, Dyer said that understanding the importance of business doesn’t mean he isn’t balancing what benefits the city as a whole. He said both attending social as well as economic prosperities are important and go together.
“Oh, there’s probably a ton of things that I would do differently. Probably at the end of every single day, I can think of something that I would have done differently, but there’s not a whole lot. I feel like the most important thing that we’ve done is build a culture of collaboration, that people truly work together and embrace diversity, so I wouldn’t change that for anything,” he said.
Stabilizing crisis after crisis
To Dyer, who has been mayor through several hurricanes, the tumultuous 2016 and 2020 elections, the Pulse Nightclub shooting, as well as COVID-19 and the current wars overseas, there is more to running a city than appeasing critics, such as preserving Orlando’s economic strength through stabilization and unification.
“There’s a lot going on in our country, in our state, that is extremely divisive. And I feel like I’m the unifier, and the one that protects our community, and reminds everybody that we’re about equality and diversity. So, I think I’m a great stabilizing force in our community,” Dyer said.
But in 20 years to solve the housing crisis, it’s worse now than ever.
Dyer said he considers homelessness to be the biggest challenge of his career. However, he said this is not happening just in Orlando — it’s national. He said he believes his administration has been doing well in bringing affordable housing to Orlando, as well as housing people experiencing homelessness, such as in 2016 when the Housing the First 100 initiative was successful.
According to Rent Café, Orlando zip codes rank among the nation’s top 50 areas for newly built apartments. More than 2,800 new apartments were built in Downtown Orlando alone in the last five years.
Yet homelessness in Central Florida has spiked by 75% since the pandemic.
“Every other city of any major size in the state of Florida and nationally have issues surrounding homelessness and affordable housing, so they’re now coupled and exacerbate each other,” he said. “It’s not a thing that the city of Orlando by itself can solve but we feel we’re leading around that issue.”
Public voices weigh in
Opposing candidate this election and former Commissioner Samuel Ings has been a staunch critic of Dyer and has not changed his position now on this third consecutive run against the mayor.
Ings accused Dyer of being a “career politician” and insists it’s time for change. Dyer disagreed.
“I’ve never really considered myself a politician, as much as a servant of the people. And I think I’ve made a difference,” Dyer said. “There’s a big difference between serving in state government and local government, and in local government I can see every day how I’ve impacted or affected people’s lives.”
This mirrors what a supporter, Korey Willer, said. He agreed and believes Dyer represents him.
“He listened to me as a Black man. Even if he doesn’t entirely agree with you, he’ll still have some type of conversation and come to a conclusion that works for both of us,” Willer said. “I’ve talked to a lot of politicians who want nothing to do with me. They just ignore you.”
On the mayor’s shortcomings and growing issues, such as growing public safety concerns, Willer said he believes Dyer is doing his best for Orlando.
Willer said Orlando has grown in progress that is visible and tangible, and while it can’t happen overnight by “waving a magic wand,” he said this is only the beginning and that the efforts depend on more people than just Dyer. He said housing, homelessness, and transportation are his biggest concerns as a voter, but he trusts Dyer is addressing them, regardless of setbacks.
“Companies have a lot of power in Florida,” he said. “That’s where part of the issue is, but I think the city can start doing something, which (Dyer) already has with the train he built here.”
This kind of support has increased threefold for Dyer since he started his political career in 2003.
Why he keeps winning
According to political expert, UCF Professor Aubrey Jewett, an Orlando resident, Dyer stands to win this election as well.
Jewett said Dyer counts on some of the best advantages in politics, such as name recognition, plenty of funding, and an undeniable connection to the residents.
“It would take a lot to beat Buddy Dyer. He really is an institution of Central Florida politics, and especially Orlando politics,” he said.
Jewett also said Dyer has avoided high-profile scandals and ethical controversies during his time. For him, Dyer keeps getting elected because he resonates with voters of all sides.
“He seems to represent the majority of the city, what they value. He seems to be able to straddle between the business community and the average residents,” Jewett said.
Supporter Anita Thomas also said she vouches for Dyer. The 36-year-old mother of four has experienced homelessness. She lost her car, her job, and she said things were not looking up for her.
When was fighting the system, Thomas said everywhere she turned, Dyer would already be there, fighting with her.
"I lost my job, I lost my car, I lost my house, everything. I was pretty much giving up -- but watching, like who's fighting for what I'm fighting for? It's like, everything I want done, Buddy Dyer was already in place,” Thomas said. “I have been on the street, I have been struggling, pretty much impacted by every crisis possible these past couple of years, and when I heard him speak — everything that I need done, he's fighting to change, has fought to change. Everything that's going on in my life, the role that he's playing, is what I need."
When asked if Dyer could have done better during his time in office, Thomas said she does not think so.
“I'm being a part of everything that he has promised, and I've seen the results,” Thomas said.
Dyer said he agrees he’s done his best but knows there’s more to do. He said if he wins again, his focus will be what it’s been for the last five years — affordable housing.
“There’s not gonna be a sea change. People trust me. They know that what I say is what I mean, and what we are going to do,” he said.
However, Dyer has called this campaign his last run.
A big reason for this came about two months ago when John Hugh Dyer, the Third, was born — his grandson. By the end of the next four-year term, he says he would like to enjoy his golden years.
“I think at that point, I’ll be of an age that I want to have an opportunity to, in good health, still enjoy some of the things that I would like to do and see before the end of everything,” Dyer said.
“I wouldn’t say, (I’m) satisfied,” Dyer said. “I’m proud of the work that we have done, and I’m proud of this community and this city, what we are today. And I look forward to serving another four years.”
The election is slated for November 7. Dyer and his team said they’re confident he’ll win again.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.