Today's the big day. Outside the recently closed Village Tavern near the Mall at Millenia on July 1, political yard signs in that signature dark-blue hue that denotes serious campaigning announce "Matthew Falconer: The Leader We've Been Waiting For," while inside a small menagerie is gathering in support of Falconer's big announcement: He's running for Orange County mayor in 2010, and he's going to change everything.
Since May, there have been rumblings that this day would come. Falconer, a developer, has been caustically positioning himself via e-mail blasts and filling the "government watchdog" seat on local news talk shows. In recent months, he's been popping up in all the right places: meetings of the Orange County Commission, League of Women Voters luncheons, the Tiger Bay Club, etc. His goal is to "educate" voters on just where their tax money is going and why they should care. His followers, as of now, are who you might expect.
"Yep, looks like a Ron Paul campaign party to me," jokes a nearby reporter.
He's not far off. Falconer led the July 4 Orlando Tea Party outside the Amway Arena, a shot at speaking to the fringier side of the libertarian movement. At tonight's event, though, while some of those folks are present — like Orlando Ron Paul organizer Nick Egoroff — there are other, more mainstream power suits in attendance as well. Powerful developer Steve Ogier of ContraVest is present, as is Doug Hinson, the mayor of Maitland, who, like Falconer, aligns his political skill set with real estate interests. Falconer also hints at possible support from local stalwarts like Harvey Massey and Harris Rosen. So the riffraff and the upper crust join together over plastic cups of table wine, sharing their common concern about tax increases. A young man with a faux-hawk enters, prompting Falconer to boast, "See, at my parties you get everyone from people with mohawks to people in suits."
The question is, what lies in the middle? It may be too soon to judge the viability of Falconer's campaign against his two known opponents, Orange County commissioners Bill Segal and Linda Stewart. He's a relative unknown, and the election is still more than a year off.
However, identity politics may be the least of Falconer's problems as the political process rolls out. His anti-union message of streamlining government, unquestioning support for business and distaste for governance in general puts him at odds with large sectors of the voting population, not to mention those he'll have to work with should he win. Which he will, to hear him tell it.
"I have no intention of losing," he says. "I pitched back-to-back no-hitters in high school."
But can a repurposed developer down on his dividends really sell himself as the answer to Orange County's economic woes? Maybe, but he'll have to deflect the notion that overdevelopment is what got Florida into this economic mess in the first place, and do so without pissing everybody off in the process.
‘I used to work 85 hours a week, dark to dark," says Falconer. "Now I just sit here and do this stuff."
It's one week before Falconer's July 1 announcement, and the cat's already out of the bag. Sitting in his meager office in the Quorum Center off Conroy Road, Falconer's wheels are turning. There are dry-erase boards on the walls covered with the barely legible scribbling of a man with a vision. "Bill Segal" is printed in brown, with dotted lines dropping down to "Eric Foglesong," Segal's former aide and current campaign advisor. A game plan is in the works.
Falconer's business — Falcon Development Corporation, which primarily constructs strip malls adjacent to Wal-Mart centers — has been down, forcing him into what he calls semi-retirement. The Falcon Development sign that used to be outside was "destroyed by the hurricanes," leaving only one identifying piece of signage, a LowerTaxesNow.org bumper sticker; up until his campaign launch, that nonprofit tax watchdog group has been his focus. He likes crunching numbers.
"The reason I think I'm a credible person is because I get the math," he says. "I see what's happening."
Falconer, 48, graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 1983, taking the skills he learned there back to his native New Jersey to do a "little bit of flight instruction." Eventually, he got into investment properties with a broker, and when the market crashed at the end of the '80s, he realized that most of the development "action" was down here in Central Florida.
"So I came back here, met a bunch a developers in the process of selling, and I said, ‘I'm as smart as that guy,'" he says. "That's how I got into developing."
He incorporated Falcon Development in 1997, and built out stores for Goodyear, Blockbuster Video, Eckerd Drugs and Walgreens, among others. But then he found a sweeter path.
"I got into Wal-Mart because I sold a 7-Eleven and did a tax-free exchange into a Wal-Mart center, and I really didn't like the area," he says. "But then I started getting phone calls from people saying, ‘Hey, I'd like to be in your center.' I'm saying, ‘There's no `for sale` sign, there's no vacancy, why are you calling me?' And I realized that Wal-Mart had something going on. So I kind of backed into the whole Wal-Mart thing … and that's been marvelously successful, knock on wood."
Thanks to that success — he now boasts about 130 tenants — Falconer has been able to keep his pilot's license active and fly his wife and children across the country in his own airplane, at least until recently. On one solo flight from the Bahamas, he started having engine trouble. "I turned around at 300 hundred feet and landed and I was like, ‘For sale.'"
Falconer, who is positioning himself as a champion of those in the lower tax brackets and their paycheck-to-paycheck concerns, says that kind of high-flying lifestyle doesn't pit him against the less fortunate. After all, he owns the shopping centers with the Supercuts and the Payless ShoeSources in them. He sees their pain, just as he feels it on his own bottom line as taxes and impact fees go up and businesses close. Asked about his own income, Falconer will only say that he's "losing money" and that his existence is a "net gain" for the tax base.
"It's really weird that a guy with a picture of Ronald Reagan on his wall is talking about the guys who are flipping pizzas and cutting hair," he says, stating a message he'll repeat at least five times in one hour. "Because it used to be that the Democrats were for this and Republicans were for that. And now it's just that most Democrats and Republicans are for government and their special interests."
That's his rallying call: Political parties don't matter anymore; now the issue that matters is taxpayers versus government. (During an interview for this story, Falconer declared himself a registered independent, but at the July 4 Tea Party he said, "I'm the only Republican candidate for Orange County mayor," before citing the records of Barry Goldwater and Reagan.)
In September 2008, Falconer introduced himself to the talk-radio brigade with his first self-published book, The Socialist Republic of Florida: How Florida Went From One of the Best Economies of All Time to a "Government Induced Recession."
"I have written a number of articles that I put together in a book. That's essentially how I wrote my first book: I put together 25 articles about how stupid this was and how stupid that was, and then I said, ‘You know what, there's a pattern here.' And then I started writing articles, and I sent them to 40 or 50 of my friends, then a couple hundred of my friends … and now it goes out to 8,400 people. So I became this little publisher of government gripes," he says.
"I've taken over for Doug Guetzloe," he adds. "I'm the government watchdog."
The book, with its hammer-and-sickle cover art (emblematic of communism, rather than socialism), levies attacks on Florida's "Save Our Homes" program (it shifts taxes, doesn't lower them, he argues), government spending, New Urbanism and Florida Hometown Democracy, and calls in the end for a "Declaration of Taxpayer Independence" as well as trimming the education budget by utilizing online schools. Philosophically, it steers clear of political partisanship, or at least says it does, while laying out a free-market platform that would see garbage services privatized, land use deregulated, more video surveillance — and thereby fewer actual officers — for police departments and malpractice suits outlawed. It uses the word "socialism" a lot.
"I wrote this book to raise our awareness that Florida is becoming an increasingly socialist state," he writes in the closing chapter. "And to show that the effects on our economy are both undesirable and unacceptable. I repeat: History has shown that socialism is a failed economic policy."
But that was the old Matthew Falconer. He's since been advised by a Democratic friend that, while his views may be acceptable, he needs to make them less angry if he wants to get anywhere. On April 15, Falconer — under the auspices of his Orange County Taxpayer Budget Review Board, a group of 30 like-minded volunteers — presented a bound report, C.A.R.E.: Consolidation and Regionalization for Greater Efficiency. Falconer's focus had clearly gone more local and his rhetoric more political.
The report focuses largely on the regionalization — not "consolidation," the current buzzword touted by the Orlando Sentinel for merging county and city services — of Orange County services into four jurisdictions (actually six, because the third jurisdiction is broken into three subsets, one being the city of Orlando), thereby eliminating overlap in police and fire services. The result would mean closing some fire and police stations, which doesn't seem to bother Falconer.
"So if we regionalize this, and we lose — let's say in this whole county we lose 500 union jobs," he says. "We're going to save 10,000; 20,000; 30,000 private-sector jobs, so that's the tradeoff." He offers no explanation of that math.
Besides, says Falconer, firemen probably shouldn't be making more than $70,000 a year (plus benefits) when the average taxpayer in Orlando makes only $32,000. "They're not working any harder than the guys who are putting up sheetrock and the roofers." Same goes for the mayor's staff. Brie Turek, Buddy Dyer's chief of staff, makes $127,000 a year, and that's not fair, he says.
"I know I'm not going to have any friends," he says. "People flipping pizzas are going to be my friends. Ultimately, I'm going to help those people keep their jobs, because if we don't do something, then we're just going to start cutting arms off the government. You just can't do it. Eventually, it's going to stop."
One way Falconer hopes to get his message across is by utilizing the angry base of the Tea Party movement, although even he realizes that simply shouting "socialism" at the sky isn't going to change anything.
"They complain and they're anti-government," he says, "and I'm like, ‘Well that doesn't do you any good.' You need to get these people out there and engage them."
But the FairTax fringe probably won't be enough to seal the deal, so for Falconer, it comes back to the pizza-makers and the hair-cutters.
"If we educate them a little bit, and say, ‘You may not think that you're paying for this Magic arena, but you are, it all goes into one big pool and out of one big pool,'" he says. "You're paying for it because the economy gets depressed, the small businesses have to pay for that, a company of 30 years goes out of business, and then your hair salon goes out of business. It's a domino effect. It's all connected."
He continues, "The thing that boggles my mind is that — and I hate to beat up on these guys, because it's not personal — but you take a Rich Crotty and Buddy Dyer, who I find no different, they don't understand. I was begging them not to build all the venues at one time. Just pick one. You're talking about a billion here, two billion there, three billion there, and you've already doubled spending. They just don't get it. They don't get the consequences of those actions."
Nor, says Falconer, does his main opponent, Bill Segal.
"One of the reasons I'm running is because I'm running against Bill Segal and his $761 million football stadium," says Falconer, referring to the retractable-roof stadium on International Drive that Segal comically floated back in March. Falconer doesn't get the joke. "That's just like Rich Crotty on steroids or Buddy Dyer on steroids. These guys just seem to have left orbit. So if you could propose something like that without knowing there's a consequence to it, like unemployment in the private sector and higher taxes and lower standard of living and higher taxes, if you can propose something like that, you just don't get it. And if you get it, then you don't care."
Segal doesn't seem overly concerned about Falconer's challenge. "We are 13 months out," he diplomatically responds. "He entered the race in the heat of the summer when nobody is really paying attention to any race. It's difficult to gauge his impact, probably until we get into the fall."
Falconer, meanwhile, is pulling no punches.
"I get whispers all the time," he says. "One thing is, I'm not scared of what people say about me, because I know I'm coming from the right place. I'm coming from a place of integrity."
Back at the campaign kickoff party, the crowd at the "mashed potato circuit" event is growing as Falconer works the room rehearsing his stump spiel: "Smaller government means more personal responsibility"; "Public office used to be a privilege"; "Principle before politics." He brings over a feisty woman in glasses, Margie Patchett, the co-founder of Volusia Tax Reform and his partner on LowerTaxesNow.org. She, rather excitedly, starts rattling off the same talking points, only somehow with more gusto.
"She's our Sarah Palin," Falconer interrupts her twice. "See, she's just like our own little Sarah Palin!"
He then details a meeting he had earlier with John Stemberger, the anti-gay lawyer who heads the Florida Family Policy Council. Stemberger was with him on the lower-taxes beat, but a little too focused on social issues for Falconer to agree to work with him. Falconer says he wants to avoid the family-values angle of the conservative movement and keep to the math. (Later that evening, he'll send an e-mail asking that the exchange with Stemberger not be mentioned at all. "Save this for another day and another story," he'll write. "I want to avoid polarizing social issues and unite taxpayers to take back their government.")
And then it's time for his speech. A faulty microphone hooked to a tiny amplifier goes in and out as Falconer stands before a giant American flag draped from the ceiling of a closed restaurant. At the tables, some of the people nod along with Falconer's speech, while others just look permanently angry. As he closes, he says, "I want to do something unorthodox. I want to open it up to you guys for a Q-and-A."
One hand goes up. An older man, in a gruff voice, asks a question that doesn't directly deal with Falconer's message at all, but perhaps indirectly encapsulates the problems with courting the Ron Paul base.
"I was wondering about FairTax," he says. "Will you sign on with Mike Huckabee in supporting the FairTax?"[email protected]