It's Crotty by default

Just two months ago, Rich Crotty was waltzing his way through his first election as Orange County chairman. Despite early, well-publicized screwups such as an anti-rave ordinance that read like a crackdown on dancing and his support for public financing to help Orlando Magic build a new $250 million arena, no one had challenged Crotty for the county's top job.

But now that two other candidates have thrown their hats in the ring, Crotty's political future should be in jeopardy, right?

Apparently not. The two challengers -- a politically naïve soccer mom and a man who, judging by his correspondence with Orlando Weekly, is a few bricks shy of a full load -- don't stand a chance. Crotty has name recognition, a $500,000 war chest and support from the downtown power structure, including both the GOP machine and prominent Democrats who've allied themselves with a winner. You'd expect a dogfight to control Central Florida's most powerful office, a bully pulpit with a $2 billion budget, 6,000 employees and 860,000 constituents.

Maybe next time.

Diana Vazquez Cook, 37, was the first to file against Crotty. (Later, she loaned herself the $5,000 fee to get her name on the ballot.) The Maitland mother of two daughters, 10 and 8, and newly converted Democrat, wasted no time blasting Crotty for his role in forcing the school board to tack a property tax rollback on to next month's half-cent sales-tax referendum. Crotty saw it as a way to appease tax-shy homeowners, but the move will cost Orange County schools as much as $400 million in lost revenue over the next 13 years by cutting property taxes for giant landowners like Disney and Universal. The average homeowner saves $50 a year.

With a real campaign manager and a year or two of public service under her belt, Cook could be a candidate. She's smart, she's attractive, and she's vice president of Florida Community Partners Inc., a nonprofit real-estate lender that helps commercial developers build affordable housing. Comparisons to Linda Chapin, who became Orange's first chairman after voters restructured county government in 1988, come to mind. Like Chapin, Cook spent a dozen years as a banker before moving to Florida Community Partners.

But Cook is a rookie, and her candidacy mainly serves to highlight the inability of local Democrats to field someone with a chance. To date she's only raised $700 in campaign funding.

Orange County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Doug Head tried to get a name-brand candidate on the ostensibly nonpartisan ballot, but there were no takers. Head admits that he doesn't have much in the way of a farm team when it comes to putting people in these races.

"We haven't done enough to develop new blood," he says.

So he got Cook. She pushes a progressive agenda, including extending living wages to all county employees and contractors, and consolidating city and county services. (Crotty's against both.) Cook also supports incentives for developers to build affordable, single-family homes on vacant lots in south Orlando and wants the school board to turn empty strip malls into satellite schools.

All of which makes her sound sensible enough. But then she'll fire off one of her infamous e-mail screeds to local pols and reporters, and you start to wonder. Take this one for example, written June 27, after Crotty set aside $1.2 million for a small-business incubator but shied away from a living-wage initiative:

"Politicians seem to not want to do the right thing until they are broadsided (or rear-ended). Go figure! Damn it! I may just have two beers. I can't afford vodka anymore because I'm saving for the $5,000 filing fee `to get her name on the ballot`."

Later she writes: "I'm on my second beer and there is no stopping me. Just because the establishment didn't invite me to the political party doesn't mean I can't crash it like a drunk. I do come from a long line of alcoholics, you know."

Cook pledges not to spend more than $55,000, should she raise that much. Instead of advertising she's relying on personal contacts and e-mail, a strategy better suited to a seat on the Maitland City Council.

Timothy Devine thinks Orlando Weekly is part of a conspiracy to keep him out of office. Never mind that he's a write-in candidate and neither appears at candidate forums nor raises money. He's impossible to find, he dodges interview requests (not just ours) and what little correspondence he does grant comes in the form of cryptic faxes and bizarre campaign literature.

Here's an excerpt from a poem he faxed to the newspaper, titled "The Second Revolution":

Pack your voted with gun powder/ Stuff the ballot box with TNT/ Get ready for an explosion/ Screen all candidates for honesty/ Turn your ballots into bullets/ Keep the criminals out this time/ Vote only for candidates/ Who polygraph for felony crime ... .

Why waste ink on Devine at all? Because his campaign virtually assures that Crotty will win his first election (remember the chairman was appointed in January 2001). By qualifying as a write-in, Devine forced a September primary election, as opposed to a general election in November.

Under county law, a winner needs a majority of voters. With three people in the election, that might not happen, so there's a primary. But with Devine not likely to win even a handful of votes, it's almost certain Crotty will take the 50 percent plus one vote that he needs next month. Devine's presence gives Cook just weeks to get her name and ideas out.

In his fifth floor office, Rich Crotty has a foot-tall James Brown bobblehead that, with the touch of a button, dances and sings "I Feel Good." It's a birthday present that he pulls out when he feels the need to celebrate. Odds are James will perform in Crotty's office Sept. 10.

Crotty's cautious about declaring victory prematurely: The September election coincides with the Democratic gubernatorial primary and the school-tax referendum, both of which will bring Democrats to the polls and perhaps help Cook. Her Puerto Rican surname may appeal to the region's growing Hispanic population, too.

But he's not that worried. Crotty's private polls paint him as the region's most popular politician. Considering how dull and monotonous his speeches are, that's a surprising tidbit. Privately, Crotty can be engaging and animated, but his public persona is that of a follower who takes his cues from the Orlando Sentinel's editorial pages on issues such as the sales-tax-referendum, restricting lobbyists, and securing public money for arts and parks.

A former property appraiser and state lawmaker, Crotty isn't new to county politics. He was appointed in January 2001, by Gov. Jeb Bush to fill in for the Washington, D.C.-bound Mel Martinez -- an appointment Democrats view as payback for Crotty's two decades of Republican loyalty. This is the first time he has had to defend his record.

He got off to a rough start -- Crotty calls it his "baptism by fire" -- with his rave-club moratorium. Crafted just weeks after he took office, the law was aimed at one "rave mall" (Crotty's words), but it was written so broadly that it threatened any entertainment complex with a dance floor. Comparisons to Footloose were inevitable.

County attorneys rewrote the law to remove any reference to dancing, and the county commission passed it in April.

That same spring a more formidable problem developed: Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos threatened to leave town if he didn't get a new arena, and he thought the taxpayers should buy it for him. Crotty didn't say no. Instead, he worked toward a compromise. By fall, he had a tentative deal worked out for a $70 million retrofit, most of which would come from tourist taxes. The deal washed out after Sept. 11, and even Crotty admits that was "politically fortuitous."

After that he avoided stepping on toes and picking fights. That strategy has won him lukewarm praise. "He's a good administrator," says University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett, "`but` he's not what I would call a strong leader. He doesn't get out in front and say, Ã?Here's my agenda.'"

Crotty attributes that to his low-key style, rather than perceived ineffectiveness. He points to behind-the-scenes initiatives like luring high-tech businesses and heading off water-supply conflicts as proof that he's getting things done. "The press wants a squeaky wheel as chairman, I'm not a podium pounder. I'm a workhorse, not a show horse."