Back to the future 

In his last public appearance as mayor, Carl Langford stood on the steps of City Hall on Halloween night, 1980, surrounded by a tombstone and jack-o'-lantern, playing taps on a World War II-era bugle.

It was an appropriate eulogy for a mayor unrivaled in eccentricity or longevity, at least in Orlando. Langford had the good fortune to preside over the city for 13 years and eight months, the longest-tenured mayor in Orlando's 127-year history.

During that time, from 1967 to 1980, Langford was known as much for promoting city events in costume -- Superman or the Red Baron -- as he was for overseeing the final conversion of McCoy Air Force Base into Orlando International Airport, or the city's phenomenal growth spurt, which was hastened by the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971.

Langford was the kind of mayor who road an elephant through city streets when the circus came to town. He once kept a parking meter in his office, charging visitors in 15-minute intervals as if they were paying for parking. The rates were a form of protest: Langford wanted parking meters removed from city streets, but city commissioners wouldn't let him.

Tom Langford isn't as quirky as his dad, though he does have the same folksy sense of humor and a willingness to become a city leader. Several weeks ago, the 55-year-old retired Orlando police lieutenant filed to run for District 4 commissioner, an office currently held by Patty Sheehan.

The election isn't until March 14, 2004, but Langford announced early so he can get his name out. "I came close to running last time but I opted not to," he says. "The fire wasn't in the belly. Now it is."

Based strictly on his 25-year career as a police officer, Tom Langford would be able to cruise to a District 4 victory. He has worked a number of different shifts in a number of different departments, including the criminal-investigation unit, patrol and as second in command of airport security. He has consistently scored superior or excellent on evaluations since 1986, receiving more than 20 acknowledgments of extraordinary service for, among other things, warding off three suicide attempts and saving a choking victim. Those commendations are in addition to the outstanding-employee award he won in 1992, the four citations he helped his unit earn and the Medal of Valor he was presented for defending himself against a deranged mental patient wielding a pitchfork. (Langford shot the man in the hip instead of killing him.)

In fact, Tom Langford was such a distinguished cop that his supervisors began running out of things to say about him. "Tom's performance is so consistently superior that it is difficult to find new words to describe just how good he is," one evaluation read.

Tom Langford says his management skills would fit in nicely at city hall, especially since city employees have seen them before. "I patterned my OPD career after the way my father ran the city," he says. "City employees were truly family when my dad was mayor. If one of the family members were hurting, he was hurting."

As yet, though, it's difficult to see which way Tom Langford will lean on the issues of the day. One of the more important items expected to hit the council this fall will be whether to add sexual orientation to the city's civil-rights ordinance. The measure has been strongly backed by Sheehan, whom Langford endorsed in 2000.

That endorsement, he says, hasn't panned out. "I've had great hopes for her, but she's been a disappointment to me as well as other people in my neighborhood," Langford says.

Yet Langford says he'd prefer to wait until it's closer to election time before discussing what those disappointments have been. "It's too early to give answers to the issues," he says. "What may be hot today, won't be hot tomorrow."

Sheehan, however, says that Langford has opposed her on two issues: He didn't want sidewalks in front of his house and he didn't want the city to build a skateboard park at Festival Park, which is about a half mile east of Langford's home.

Langford's position on those two items, Sheehan says, makes her believe he'll be too conservative for many District 4 voters. "The city's become a lot more progressive than that," she says.

But isn't she worried about the Langford name? "You have to remember," she says, "his father was mayor 20 years ago." She points out that Roger Chapin lost a city election in March even though his mother was county chairman in the 1990s.

Even so, Mayor Langford, who retired to a 200-year-old cabin in the Smoky Mountains, is excited about his only son's prospects. "I think it's great," he says. "I think he'll be a good commissioner. If I had two sons, I'd like the other to be just like the one I have. He doesn't smoke, drink or play around. He's been a wonderful son."

Then why let him go into the nasty, brutal business that politics can often become? Of all people, Carl Langford should realize the scrutiny his son will be under, the constant attacks on character and questions of motive. It was the senior Langford, after all, who wrote in his 1976 autobiography, "Hizzoner: The Mayor," that, "Politics is an ego trip" and "The guy who claims to seek public office" is actually more likely to be "seeking recognition, compensating for some ill-defined feeling of insecurity. He usually never made it big as an athlete, a singer or an actor."

But Carl Langford says that if anyone can handle the attacks, it's his son. "He can take it. He's tough."

Tom Langford, meanwhile, isn't worried about what people might say, including the incumbent.

"I'm not concerned about Patty Sheehan," he says. "I'm concerned about people voting. As great as this country is, it's still difficult to get people to vote."

As for higher office, don't look for the Langford name outside the mayor's office any time soon. "I have no desire to be mayor of Orlando," he says. "It's very difficult to walk in your father's footsteps. There will always be a comparison."


More by William Dean Hinton


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