Power may be hard to define, but you can tell when it walks into a room. And that’s true even in Sarasota, where the power structure is looser than in towns where a long-established, good-old-boy network calls the shots. Instead of a few ruling families and a consensus that what’s best for business helps everyone, we have a constant stream of newcomers, who find it easy to win acceptance and influence, and an economy that’s as much about retirement and relaxing as it is about work.
As a result, we have lots of power sectors-the arts, real estate and development, social services, to name just a few-with ever-changing leaders, and an ongoing tension between wealthy retirees who want to preserve everything that drew them here and business interests whose agenda is growth and change.
Nevertheless, when we decided to identify the most powerful people in Sarasota today, we found it surprisingly simple to construct a list. Remember, this isn’t a list of the most important people in town, or the richest, or the most scintillating, or those who have used their influence only in ways we admire.
It’s about power-pure and simple, though perhaps power is never either of those things-and the men and women who wield it today in Sarasota. We defined power as the proven ability to make things happen, and we looked for people who are shaping the character of our community, especially those who exercise their influence in more than one sphere. By and large, power in Sarasota seems to derive more from accomplishments and personal force than from wealth and social standing, though those last two can increase influence, especially if they’re used to benefit the town. And we noticed that though some jobs do confer instant power, many of those with impressive titles or in elected office haven’t used their posts to become real players.
The real powers are those whose phone calls always get accepted and returned, who influence other power brokers, and who know what’s happening, whether it’s in politics, education, business or the arts. These are the people who push the town where they think it should go-the ones who decide, for example, that we really should have a Ritz-Carlton or an independent New College or higher property taxes for public schools. Whether or not you agree with their agendas, they know how to make their vision reality. Some names are less widely known, but here because they play a leading role in an area that makes Sarasota special.
One other thing about power: It passes, and though we compiled a similar list nearly 10 years ago, few of those people made this list-and many of these won’t be here a few years from now.
We began compiling our list months ago, asking insiders and leaders in the arts, politics, business and society for suggestions and adding more names ourselves. We spent weeks researching and discussing every nomination, with some lively debates over who belonged, who was slipping, and who was climbing up. We revised the list right up to press time, finally narrowing it to 90 powerful people and 10 up and comers who seem almost ready to take their seat at the table.
We’ve thought about this long enough and hard enough that we’re willing to assert that these are the most powerful people in town right now. But if you disagree, we’re eager to hear your reasons. (Though if you don’t see a name you think belongs here-including your own-it doesn’t mean we didn’t already give it considerable consideration.)
Now-in alphabetical order, of course-meet the Sarasota 100.
Abbott, Carl. Sarasota’s best-known-and best, say many-architect. His modern structures respond to the landscape and win big awards. A former Fort Myers boy who teaches at Yale and jet-sets with former classmate Pritzker-winner Norman Foster, he brought civility and sense to the mega-home fight.
Bailey, Dan. Civic-minded, good-guy attorney whose work on numerous boards and getting SCOPE off the ground has lately earned him the title of Sarasota’s elder statesman-but, hey, he’s not that old! Just ask his workout partners in the predawn crowd at the downtown Y.
Baldwin, Marj. You’re never too old to cause trouble, which the 77-year-old president of the Tiger Bay Club gleefully did when she barred Katherine Harris from a meeting because she hadn’t reserved. Yes, she’s bossy and has favorites; but she keeps meetings running like clockwork and decides which politicians get face time before movers and shakers.
Band, David. Most powerful lawyer in town. Gruff, formidable-looking deal-maker often partners with others to develop downtown properties like Hollywood 20 and Kane’s Plaza. With his wife Myrna attends every big fundraiser and supports tons of causes-the Asolo, Sarasota Film Festival, Winefest, Sarasota Ballet, you name it.
Boone, Jeff and Steve. Quick-witted Venice brothers who as land-use attorneys for all the big South County property-holders will have a tremendous effect on the region’s future development. Gator fans to the max.
Buchanan, Vern. Brash car dealer (Sarasota Ford, plus dealerships around the state) from Detroit who came in with big bucks and flash. Chamber bigwig, hosts Republicans like Gov. Bush at his Longboat megahome and rumbles about running for office. Supports lots of causes, especially with cocktails at his Ritz penthouse, but you have to go through his flack first.
Carlton, Lisa. Ninth-generation Florida rancher and Sarasotan who could have stayed on the farm but instead went to law school and became a state senator. Holds the purse strings in Tallahassee and is close to John McKay. No-nonsense personality. Can bring home the bacon.
Caswell, Patricia. Hard-working head of the Arts Council. It’s been her baby for years, but now she’s under fire from some, including Katherine Harris. Can she-and the council-survive internecine warfare over grant money, Arts Day and that pesky "endowment" fund? Don’t count her out; she’s got years of practice at building support.
Chavez, Alex. Cuban-born insurance agent, board member U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, past president of local Latin Chamber. Hispanic population here has swelled by 140 percent in this decade, and he speaks for 26,000 often overlooked citizens. Now protesting: new state driver’s license law aimed at illegal aliens that could wreak havoc on Hispanics-and biz interests.
Christ-Janer, Arland. Patrician father figure in cultural and educational circles with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Former president of New College and Ringling School of Art and Design, tapped to rejuvenate the North Trail, stabilize the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. No matter where he goes, the money flows in.
Clarke, John. Courtly, far-seeing South African developer overseeing growth of Lakewood Ranch, region’s biggest master-planned community (5,000 acres-plus) involving bi-county issues from transportation to lifestyle and already home to thousands of buyers, many newcomers. Sportsman who loves the land.
Dabney, Tom. Commercial developer with major projects and partners to his credit. A rancher by inheritance, he owns lots of property out east and will help shape the future of the region’s scarcest natural resource with his recent appointment by the governor to the board of Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Dean, Jimmy. Yes, he is publisher and president of our company, Gulfshore Media-which recently doubled in size with the acquisition of several Naples/Fort Myers magazine companies. But he’s also the quintessential Sarasota booster, salesman and master of ceremonies. Proud papa of four kids under five, including new twin girls.
Delaney, Phil. The latest in Northern Trust’s series of handsome, personable Sarasota execs, he leads the bank’s many charitable and cultural initiatives. While consolidation has reduced the role many bankers play locally, Northern Trust continues to stay involved, and Delaney carries on that tradition.
DeRenzi, Victor. In 20 years with the Sarasota Opera, the maestro has answered and set the tastes of the local audience, plus put the little company on the international map. Gregarious, demanding and passionate in his devotion to Verdi (and all things Italian) he’s had detractors-right, Deane?-but has legions of fans.
Dutton, Tim. Former missionary who still wants to make the world better. As director of community-improvement coalition SCOPE, will play a big role in lots of local arenas. Smart, hard-working and knows this community inside and out.
Finlay, G. Duncan. Doctor and respected hands-on CEO of Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Helped to stabilize finances and boost staff morale. Looks like your beloved family doc and acts like one, too. Sends personal notes to staff.
Fishman, C.J. Gregarious kitchen and restaurant businessman and South County leader. A clear thinker who won’t be stampeded, he’s been involved in the Venice Chamber and civic affairs and many behind-the-scenes decisions, too.
Githler, Charles and Kim. Together they built Intershow, which produces financial and health seminars, and now they own hotels-including Sarasota Hyatt-as well. Philanthropists, especially for kids and the YMCA. She’s the passionate idealist and team-builder; he’s more into finance and fun. Nearing 50, one of our youngest power couples.
Gustafson, Karin. Intense, tireless president of the YMCA Foundation, she’s made the Y the cause for major, socially prominent givers. Understands the loneliness of some of the wealthy elderly and gives her supporters hands-on TLC-and not just because she cares about their money.
Gutierrez, Father Celestino. The serious-looking priest at St. Martha’s has been conducting Mass for Sarasota’s Hispanic people for 16 years; Sundays are now standing room only. When he steps down from the altar, he keeps working to better the lives of his flock, organizing food drives and social services.
Haley, Virginia. As director of the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau, she promotes and protects our most important industry. On the job just a few years, she’s unifying often contentious stakeholders who like her smart, straight answers and approach.
Hamilton, Wilma. Intelligent, articulate Sarasota Superintendent of Schools and everybody’s candidate for sainthood. Looks like your favorite aunt, works like a Trojan and wins hearts by listening (including answering every single e-mail she gets, which takes hours some nights). Are you listening, David Bennett?
Hansen, Teri. Not many know her yet, but as the new CEO of the $170 million Venice Foundation, she rules over the largest community foundation in Florida, and that’s power. Savvy, poised and thoughtful, she came from the Cleveland Foundation, the country’s oldest, and should win friends and esteem quickly.
Harris, Katherine. Florida’s famous (some say infamous) Secretary of State, launched her political career in the Sarasota arts and ended up putting George Bush in the White House. At every event. Now running for Congress. Love her or hate her, she’s politically ambitious and relentless.
Holley, Rev. Dr. Willie. Assumed power in Sarasota’s African-American community as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Now in his second term, he’s become a unifying force for many communities in the county with a gift for bringing people to the table.
Hopkins, Richard. As long-running artistic director, he’s shepherded Florida Studio Theatre to success. But the sometimes abrasive-some say arrogant-Hopkins has also excited envy from other arts groups for his success at getting grants. Lately he’s been organizing the opposition to the Arts Council.
Hudson, Tramm. Eager beaver, good-old-boy banker whose skill at enlisting wealthy donors helped him work his way up to head Sarasota’s Republican Party. Had his sights set on Congress until Katherine Harris decided to run. (He supports her in public.) Knows everyone; disarming Southern drawl.
Jacobs, Debra. Doesn’t get much more powerful. Ex-banker and now CEO of the Selby Foundation, she decides what worthy causes will get her $4 million of grants every year. Never, ever forgets a name or a face and fires off countless e-mails of praise or thanks. Seriously civic-minded. No-nonsense image balanced by passion for theater.
James, Ed. A fixture in Sarasota’s black community for decades. Once viewed by whites as a rabble-rousing nuisance, he’s mellowed (so have they) and he’s now considered a serious, respected voice. Moderates his own local TV show.
Jennings, Christine. Determined, disciplined Sarasota Bank president who decided to start her own bank when she hit the glass ceiling. Classy, conservative and a supporter of many civic causes, she’s also, in a Republican town and industry, a Democrat and proud of it.
Johnson, Bob. Florida Cracker attorney and former state senator. A behind-the-scenes power broker with connections in Tallahassee. Influence is seen at all cultural institutions from museum to Asolo to New College. Named first chairman of the board of trustees of the "new" New College of Florida.
Kane, Janet and Stanley. Quiet and shrewd, he built a fortune with his brother Daniel (also a Sarasota resident) and now, at over 80, is a major local investor. Helped save the Asolo when he headed the board. She’s a trustee of the YMCA who coaxes her friends into their many good causes. At every big gala, and their annual Academy Awards bash is becoming the party of the year.
Klaubers, The. Energetic entrepreneurs with an enormous impact on local lifestyle, especially when it comes to food and wine. Papa Murf started it all with the Colony on Longboat Key, where even Presidents come to stay. Efficient daughter Katie is big in biz circles and keeps the ritzy resort running, while sons Michael and Tommy expand local tastes, both through special events (started the Stone Crab Festival, Winefest) and fine restaurants.
Ley, Jim. As county administrator, he controls more people, policy and money than anyone else in town. Guarded and low-key (though he still has a bit of a Las Vegas look), he’s stayed out of the limelight while reorganizing departments (he calls them "business centers") and building loyal staff and some interesting new coalitions.
Lobo, Caren and Dick. Hip, youngish owners of Sarasota News & Books, they’ve become players in the downtown arts scene via their store, the Reading Festival, which she started and chairs, and various events they produce. Into liberal causes, but they play with Republicans.
Loevner, Sandy. Bubbly volunteer who became head of Florida Winefest & Auction and helped build it into one of the country’s top five wine events-and a huge contributor to local kids’ causes. Unpretentious, energetic and still unfazed by the horrors of producing a mega-event.
Lowman, Meg. Young, energetic biologist, National Geographic subject and Selby Gardens head with a passion for tree canopy research. Her book about mixing science with single motherhood became a top seller. Putting her knack for self-promotion to work for Selby, where she’s brought new members, donors and visibility.
Luzier, Tom. Native son, young attorney and head of the Alliance for Historic Preservation. His enthusiasm and personality inspire many of his peers and friends to get involved in his causes-Sarasota School of Architecture symposium, Ringling Museum and more.
Mahadevan, Kumar. Always smiling scientist and longtime director of Mote Marine Laboratory who gets out of the lab and dives into fund-raisers. Has helped put Sarasota on the map as a place for serious marine research and made Mote-which keeps expanding and improving-one of our top tourist draws.
Mason, Carolyn. Even when you’re not a "strong" mayor, you’re still a mayor, after all, and Mason is Sarasota’s second African-American to sit at the head of the city commission. A Newtown activist, she’s been a bridge builder between communities of color and class. Sometimes timorous behind the gavel, she’s a tremendous speaker at events.
McBean, Roy and Helen. A former New York police officer (he won a medal of honor for shoving a child out of the line of fire in a family dispute) and former educator, the two retired here for the climate and soon got involved in good causes. Handsome, dignified and widely respected.
McFarlin, Diane. Sarasota’s classy, sphinx-like queen of media. Focus and ambition propelled her first to the editorship and then to the publisher’s seat at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Started its cable channel SNN. All poker-faced business in the office; warmer, softer with friends. Just elected president of American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Millman, Howard and Michel, Carolyn. She’s an actress slash director slash tireless benefit organizer. He mastered the artistic rebirth of the Asolo, the town’s long-running Equity theater. They were prominent enough alone before they got married; now they’ve double the impact on the area’s cultural/social scene.
Miller, Jono and Morris, Julie. New College alums with Birkenstock leanings, their dedication and intelligence have earned them a voice in regional and state environmental decisions. After a stint with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, she’s now on federal board for Gulf fisheries. Together, they run New College’s environmental studies program.
Mills, David. The longest-serving of the current County Commissioners, he’s popular with business interests, the Republican elite and movers and shakers who see him at every civic and social event. Works hard, works out and is one of the town’s most eligible bachelors.
Nevins, Bishop John. As head of the 10-county Diocese of Venice, he rules over the largest flock of any religious leader in Sarasota. Though his conservative stands alienate some, his warmth and work for the indigent of all faiths endear him to many. Now he faces a real test: How will he handle the pedophilia crisis?
North, Marjorie. The Herald-Tribune’s bustling social columnist knows who’s who and likes to sound off on what’s what, from good causes to bad theater. Unlike most journalists, an insider, especially since her marriage to retired businessman Bill Hirons. She’s the first person many look for at events because she’s got the power of boldfacing.
Palmer, Roy. He made millions in Indian gaming casinos and now spends millions on what may be the ultimate Sarasota lifestyle. The home he shares with wife Susan on Bayshore Road is a local landmark. Involved in the usual good causes, but his blunt, outspoken style hasn’t endeared him to everyone.
Peters, Mike. Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, he also makes our country laugh through his daily Mother Goose & Grimm comic strip. An all-around nice guy, donates time and artwork to local causes. Rumored to be a Democrat.
Porter, Henry. You know you’ve got the power when the city names a block after you. His Westcoast Center for Human Development is the center for a mission that reaches to Africa and includes a K-12 school. Sunday services-broadcast as "The Love Campaign"- feature a white-clad Porter, joyous crowd and sensational gospel singing.
Reis, Pedro and Jacobs, Dolly. As daughter of legendary clown Lou Jacobs and a dazzler on the Roman rings, she’s circus royalty. With husband Pedro juggling things behind the scenes, their non-profit Circus Sarasota is breathing new life into Sarasota’s homegrown art form.
Resnick, Wendy. Ex-Playboy Bunny who’s as smart as she is glitzy. One of our longest-running and most successful fundraisers, has raised millions for United Cerebral Palsy and made philanthropy fun and sexy for the younger set through high-energy parties and events like the Bachelor Bid. Beneath that cleavage beats a heart of gold.
Richardson, Bob. Upright, fair-minded commercial real estate broker who’s also a birdwatcher who camps out with Audubon folks. Will go where his convictions take him, from leading inner-city kids on wilderness hikes to jump-starting the losing Strong Mayor and winning school tax campaigns in the same year.
Rivolta, Piero. Sarasota’s Renaissance man-he develops! He builds! He designs boats and writes poetry! Plus, the larger-than-life bon vivant founded La Musica International Chamber Music Festival, put up a brave fight against the new Ringling Bridge, and if his good spirits don’t win you over, that Italian accent will.
Roberts, The Rev. Don. Can ooze Southern-fried preacher charm but hangs with the bid-ness boys. As head of Goodwill Industries, used those biz skills to turn places to drop off old clothing into successful, well-designed retail centers that raise funds and train the jobless to become productive workers.
Roskamp, Bob. Preacher’s son and former high school physics teacher who made a mint building retirement homes. He and his wife Diane give to causes from Alzheimer’s research at USF to the Van Wezel. Changing the face of the North Trail with his bucks and buildings, especially Sarasota Bay Club. Now branching out into-gasp!-Indian casinos.
Saunders, Michael. Local girl who started out as social worker and switched (good move) to luxury real estate. Now her namesake company has 16 offices and hundreds of associates. Lots of presence, charm and designer scarves. Big civic booster who’d rather be at home cooking for friends (excellent mango chutney).
Sheffield, Horras and Willie Mae. An ex-Marine with the work ethic to match, he’s making his Kay’s Barbecue on the rapidly redeveloping edge of Newtown a catering power, too, including feeding thousands at the Super Bowl. Her volunteer tutoring program provides an after-school home as well as homework help to many disadvantaged youngsters.
Smith, Anne and Frank Folsom. Virginia gentleman architect with a New Urbanism bent and a passion for preservation, he redeveloped Burns Court and has won awards for projects from Plymouth Harbour to Conrad Beach. She’s a leading designer, putting her stamp on expensive condos and homes all over Longboat and the mainland.
Starr, Iris. High-energy manager of Saks of Fifth Avenue, she’s responsible for the look of many of Sarasota’s most stylish ladies and supports many events concerned with fashion, women’s issues and local charities.
Stearns, Stewart. Dedicated, deliberate head of the Community Foundation. An excellent convener of diverse personalities and agendas, he’s grown his cause from a fledgling to a major player by building relationships and trust over 20 years.
Taylor, Tommy and Berry. The brothers who hold the key to the future of the 16,000-acre Taylor Ranch (soon to be annexed by North Port), whose pastures and pinelands will hold a huge new Florida city 20 years from now. Berry’s wife Gina is finishing her final term on the Sarasota County School Board.
Terry, Sandra Sims. Exec director of the Laurel Civic Association and maybe the only person alive with a county building named for her-the Sandra Sims Terry Community Center. Modest and quiet but a tiger for Laurel, where she’s driven out drugs, had streets fixed and housing built and started kids’ programs.
Thaxton, Jon. Realtor/county commissioner, he developed love for environment growing up in what was the wilderness around what’s now Sarasota Square Mall. Gets respect even from developers for doing his homework and working with others to do what’s best for Sarasota’s future.
Thompson, Larry. The outgoing, anything-but-ivory-tower president of the Ringling School of Art and Design, he knows how to schmooze. Growth on campus, both in enrollment and buildings, continues under his tenure, and he’s also on big community boards. Major Motown fan.
Tryon, Tom. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not New York Times bigwigs who decide what runs on our paper’s editorial pages, but homegrown Palmetto boy and former football star Tyron. Shy and good-humored, he’s the top editor for the H-T’s stands, endorsements and letters.
Turner, Jim. Brainy attorney and scion of the Hi-Hat ranching family, he can hold his own on a turkey shoot or in a tenancy dispute. A leading voice in discussions about developing east of I-75. Don’t ask him how his Duke Blue Devils finished the basketball season, though.
Vedder, Bob. Publisher of the Venice Gondolier Sun, has supported every major fundraising campaign in South County-arts center, library, Loveland and much more. Bright, with a dry, self-deprecating wit.
Vitale, Dick. The TV voice of basketball, he’s also a vocal booster of the charms of his adopted hometown and has become a prime time player for Sarasota good causes, especially the Boys and Girls Club, where his Dick Vitale Night has raised more than $600,000 in just four years.
Walsh, Matt. Publisher/editor of the Longboat Observer and Gulf Coast Business Review. Good journalist who infuriates many with his out-there Libertarian stands-for example, government shouldn’t fund public schools. With his the newspaper on the affluent isle, he’s got a bully pulpit.
Weinrich, Carl. Can-do CEO who’s turned the YMCA into a fitness empire and national trailblazer in social services, especially in community-based foster care. Follows the Y mission into uncharted territory and builds systems and staff to succeed. Big reason the school tax campaign succeeded and could become a political force himself.
Wetherington, Lee. His well-designed and well-marketed homes have set the standard in many of Sarasota’s fast-rising new neighborhoods. And when he’s not building homes, he’s building the community, establishing scholarships and donating profits to local Boys & Girls Clubs.
Wilkes, John. The quiet Canadian came back to head up the Van Wezel and plunged into a morass of post-renovation problems. But if that’s taken some shine off his star, he’s still Sarasota’s main game in booking big-name entertainment. He’ll need all his biz skills to turn the red ink black, but fans say he can.
Wise, Margaret. Steel-willed Southern girl from Hot Coffee, Miss., she’s an arts leader, matchmaker and most recently, Republican fund-raiser. On the Florida Arts Council, she attaches herself to A-list causes and events and is expert at the power of persuasion
Zdravecky, Barbara. Strong, outspoken CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Florida who’s expanded clinics and services-including abortion-for thousands of teens and adults. Named to Florida’s commission on the status of women and a leader among Planned Parenthoods nationwide.
Up and Comers
Ten rising talents to watch.
Luis Baron. Former soap opera TV producer from Colombia, the affable and hard-working Baron arrived in Sarasota three years ago with his wife and kids to start a new life. He quickly learned English and graphic design at Sarasota Vo-Tech, then started a glossy Spanish-language magazine, La Guia del Golfo, with 12,000 circulation on the Gulf Coast, and a weekly newspaper in Sarasota and Manatee counties called Siete Dias or "Seven Days."
Veronica Brady. Young, ambitious private banker at SunTrust’s Longboat Key branch with a reputation for getting things done. Former Junior League president, she gets involved in many civic efforts and puts her clients in touch with good causes, too.
Rob Coseo. Despite a recession and the aftermath of Sept. 11, the enthusiastic young promoter kept supporters on board and brought world-class tennis to town with this year’s inaugural Sarasota Open. A good field, a good crowd, and a good thing for Sarasota.
Carter Donovan. The Ritz-Carlton may have been the most talked-about opening in Sarasota history, and its poised, gracious general manager spent much of the year in the spotlight. Her job and can-do spirit qualify her to become the town’s leading hostess.
Richard Hayes. The articulate semi-retired Tulane business prof traded Longboat Key leisure for volunteer around-the-clock research and stumping for the school tax. Now that everyone’s seen him in action, they’ll be drafting him for everything.
Bill Hirons. In this town, you can be an up and comer at 80. When tennis and retirement weren’t enough for this bright, genial businessman, he started getting active with Sarasota Memorial’s Healthcare Foundation, and now he’s running for Hospital Board.
Michael McNees. Analytical, reserved new city manager, he’s fresh from the same job in Naples, a city with similar demographics and challenges.
Kept a low profile during the strong-mayor ruckus, but now he’s coming into the spotlight.
Mary Anne Servian. Newest Sarasota City Commissioner, elected when Al Hogle resigned to become police chief in Bradenton. Brings a crispness and professionalism to board meetings and is already a major player . Brokered the megahome ordinance, bringing together previously warring factions.
Laurey Stryker. Busy, no-nonsense USF-Sarasota/Manatee campus CEO who attends every meeting and ribbon-cutting event in town to strengthen the school’s community connections. Has started an MBA program and will begin a hospitality management program this fall.
John Wetenhall. Bright, pleasant and with a great sense of humor, he kept a low profile during his first year as Ringling Museum director. But he’s now starting to speak up on community arts issues, and he’ll be the one orchestrating the museum’s growth and proposed $44 million expansion.