They build empires, in fields from shopping center development to restaurants. They run political campaigns, educational institutions and local government. They preach the gospel of arts and creativity, champion tech entrepreneurs and immigrants, fight to preserve the environment and women’s reproductive rights and sue for civil rights and open government. Some have amassed millions of dollars of their own, and others have given millions of dollars of other people’s money away.
Their backgrounds and achievements vary widely, but each of the 25 power players on our list wields major clout in our community. Their calls get answered, their agendas turn into action and their networks spread far and wide. Most of all, they’re people whose influence is local; some prominent names aren’t on our list, because they work mainly at a state or national level.
It’s been nearly a decade since we compiled a list of Sarasota’s most influential people, and as we worked on this story, we realized that power here is not what it used to be. As a city of newcomers, Sarasota has always been a place where power is fluid rather than fixed into a long-established hierarchy. But in the past, even if the players changed, they tended to come from the same places—for example, banks, churches, nonprofit institutions—and they tended to work closely together. Power seems more diffuse today. Most banks are run from elsewhere, and most of their local chiefs, once so active in civic affairs, are faceless and unknown; few religious leaders act beyond their sphere; and, except for the community foundations, arts and social service executives aren’t assuming communitywide leadership.
But some things are the same. People with brains, passion and ambition rise; women lead nonprofit associations but businesses not so much; Sarasota’s power structure, like Sarasota itself, remains overwhelmingly white; and the old order ages out while new faces take their place.
The town’s most controversial public figure. The self-contained civil rights and open records wizard, 54, used two six-year stints in prison to teach himself the law—although his convictions preclude him from being a lawyer. Now a paralegal and vice president of the Florida ACLU, Barfield works with attorney Andrea Mogensen, defending the rights of Sarasota’s homeless and forcing local governments, often through costly lawsuits, to operate in the “Sunshine.” Respected, feared and even hated, he seems indifferent to the emotions he evokes. A recreational rock climber who clearly relishes uphill battles.
Unlike cities with a “strong mayor,” Sarasota runs on a “council-manager” format, giving true power to the CEO-like city manager, especially when there’s a weak commission (that would be now). Barwin, 62, a tall, long-faced career bureaucrat, is agreeable and smart (some say crafty). Projects he doesn’t favor—such as a homeless shelter—die on the vine. Those he advocates—including the controversial (and short-lived) hiring of a sports executive as the city’s first homelessness director—move forward. Some gripe that Barwin has all the power and none of the accountability, but no one can deny the city he manages is prospering.
Unlike his larger-than-life late father, Nate, Randy Benderson, 61, shuns the spotlight; surprisingly few even recognize the head of Benderson Development, the national powerhouse that as the county’s largest private landowner has transformed the area around University Parkway and I-75. Love them or loathe them, the shopping centers, mall, rowing park and diverging diamond are here to stay, and more’s coming, with up to 500 hotel rooms and 1,750 residential units approved. He and his wife Lori have homes and friends both here and in Buffalo (the company’s birthplace) but the doting dad and granddad’s real passion is for family—and work.
The tough-as-nails founder of Medallion Home, 58, has the money to play elite-level politics. A major Republican donor and Rick Scott appointee, Beruff did away with faculty tenure at State College of Florida and reduced payroll and environmental oversight at SWFMD. He’s running for a U.S. Senate seat as a bottom-line businessman who wants to right the wrongs he says Democrats and Obama (whom he called an “animal”) have inflicted on his country. He wasn’t scared off by Marco Rubio’s late entry into the race (by staying in he may be amassing political capital for a future run for governor); whether or not he wins, he’s likely to stay a player in this red state.
A former mega-fund raiser for social conservative Rick Santorum may seem an unlikely cheerleader for young Sarasota innovators, some of whom work, play video games and inhale coffee at his hip HuB office building. But after making millions developing software for auto dealers, the über-confident Biter, now 40, moved his young family to Sarasota and started acquiring downtown properties —including, with partners, Main Plaza—and raising the local cool factor. He recently announced plans to build “attainable” downtown apartments renting from $1,000 to $2,000 a month. To glimpse him enjoying his jet-set lifestyle, google Bravo’s Below Deck Mediterranean reality show.
Voracious reader, political junkie and insomniac, Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, 42, a Republican, will match wits and knowledge with almost anyone when it comes to city and county issues. Quick to get the first—and last—word in, he’s got a street-level view of how business intersects with politics as part of the Caragiulo restaurant family, which includes four older brothers and has created Owen’s Fish Camp, Shore, Veronica and Caragiulos. A one-term city commissioner, he was elected a pro-business county commissioner in 2014. A good listener, he’s passionate, practical and well connected and is a driver of the commission agenda.
Practical, principled and authentic, Detert, 71, is the kind of politician who isn’t supposed to exist anymore, a moderate Republican who gets good things done and is supported on all sides of the aisle. Tough but fair, she has a sharp sense of humor and can take it as well as dish it out. She’s served on the school board and in both houses of the state legislature, where she often advocated for children, and just won a seat—running unopposed—on the county commission. A longtime Venice resident with kids and grandkids in town, she loves golf and small-town life, including Friday-night high-school football games.
Sarasota’s young (39), amiable GOP chair and VP of the Republican Party of Florida has earned a reputation for fiercely conservative views, risk-taking and ambition. He’s made Sarasota a must-stop for celebrity politicians like Donald Trump (twice honoring him as “Statesman of the Year”), Ben Carson and Rand Paul, bringing in new Republican voters. The party establishment pooh-poohed when he became co-chair of Trump’s Florida presidential campaign, but so far, Gruters is riding high. A CPA by profession, he sits on the high-profile FSU board—he was an early backer of Gov. Rick Scott—and he’s running for the District 73 Florida House seat.
The Rev. Celestino Gutierrez
To parishioners at St. Jude Catholic Church, founding pastor Gutierrez is known simply as “El Padre.” Born in Spain himself, and having served for years in Guatemala, Gutierrez has been the center of the Hispanic community here, serving a flock of thousands, founding the annual Hispanic Festival, building a new rectory for the church’s priests, helping immigrant families apply for amnesty, and preaching in the fields to farmworkers lacking transportation. At 75, he shows no signs of slowing down in his mission to help those making a new home here.
Area philanthropic foundations control $1 billion in assets, and the millions they disperse each year affect the entire region’s quality of life. The Queen Mother of the philanthropic scene, Jacobs, 65, head of The Patterson Foundation, is the connector, collaborator and confidante of just about every philanthropy professional in the region. A theater fan, she showed her own creativity in the innovative way she’s envisioned the foundation, which instead of vetting grant applications launches its own ambitious and imaginative initiatives, in areas from children’s reading and homelessness to reinventing the nation’s military cemeteries. Don’t hug her or shake her hand, though—she fends off germs by hands-free greetings.
In St. John suits and a bouffant blonde hairdo, Jennings, 70, founded, led and sold Sarasota Bank at a time when banking was a man’s world, then surprised her conservative clients by running for Congress as a Democrat, losing to Vern Buchanan by just 368 votes. After another failed try, she helped revive the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, righting the books, recruiting donors and gamely grooving to Motown tunes at fund raisers. Brilliant at dialing for dollars (grown men tremble when her name comes up on caller ID), she’s now building a war chest as chair of the town’s Democratic Party.
Lakewood Ranch celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall. How many people besides Schroeder-Manatee Ranch chief Rex Jensen thought it possible? Greeted with skepticism when announced, the 30,000-acre master-planned community, with 25,000 residents and thousands more homes in the works, has pulled the region’s center of gravity east and generated a boom in development around I-75. Jensen, 61, made the vision a reality, and his influence keeps growing with the ranch. An infomaniac who’s wickedly smart (he has a law degree), he’s passionate about the ranch and relishes attacking opponents, especially no-growthers, once publicly calling environmental advocate Dan Lobeck “a walking pile of manure.”
The co-owner of Michael’s On East Restaurant and Michael’s Wine Cellar, 61, paid his dues at his family’s now shuttered Colony Resort on Longboat Key. He and partner Phil Mancini have created a catering empire in this very social city, and lately Klauber has been channeling his nonstop enthusiasm and energy into serving as auctioneer at fund raisers, too. A driving force in creating the Florida Winefest and Forks & Corks events, he’s now volunteer chairman of Bayfront 20:20, seeking to create a long-term master plan for 42 acres of prime Sarasota bayfront. A global connoisseur—ask him to show you his travel photography.
Now in his second term as Sarasota County Sheriff, the former Highway Patrol trooper and Venice High grad, 53, has a congenial, open manner that’s helped him win friends and respect at all levels of the community and state. He’s reduced crime levels, kept budgets flat and adapted progressive strategies like “intelligent policing” intended to prevent rather than react to crime. He understands what’s unique about Sarasota and wants to protect that, including opposing guns on the beach. Loves his family, loves his job, loves the community—and loves to talk about all that, too.
An attorney who specializes in condo association law, Lobeck, 65, has fought the forces of development for decades, arguing that citizens want and deserve environmental protections and safeguards against rampant growth. No matter how many battles he’s lost, he continues to wage the war, undeterred by the groans when he grabs the microphone. Smart and single-minded, he’s often right, but he can be his own worst enemy, hurling overheated accusations of corruption and greed that can turn people off and get in the way of achieving his often admirable ends.
Brilliant Wharton B-school grad and developer Pat Neal, 67, of Neal Communities dominates the regional builder landscape and is consistently ranked one of America’s best builders. A Democratic state senator in the ’80s, Neal—now a Republican—is an important Republican donor. (Though he’s gone on record as objecting to how the “vulgar” Trump is “leading our party off a cliff.”) The ultimate operator, he knows Florida’s power players, sits on influential boards and pulls levers on land use policy. Accessible—he’ll email at all hours—Neal is one of the first calls for pols and business types who need a favor.
The smart, serious attorney, 42, is known for doing her research, getting to the point and advancing a pro-business agenda, much to the ire of conservationists, who’ve recently watched Sarasota County environmental protections get dismantled in favor of developers. Charming and likeable, she can be aggressive, and she comes equipped with a statewide power base because of her CPA (and new School Board member) husband Eric Robinson and his deep Republican connections. As head of the business advocacy group The Argus Foundation, she’s likely to increase its visibility and power when she leaves the commission because of term limits this year.
City commissioner and current mayor, Shaw, 68, a retired postal employee whose family history here goes back more than 110 years, may be the most respected leader in Newtown. He’s also played a central role in the city’s agonized debate over homelessness. In 2013, his not-in-my-district stance scuttled plans for a come-as-you-are homeless shelter, inflaming critics. But even those who disagree with Shaw praise the father of nine’s gregarious personality and say that he’s always guided by what he thinks is best for Newtown.
Brainy and dedicated, Thaxton, 58, did exhaustive homework and managed to balance business and quality of life issues during his eight years on the Sarasota County Commission. When term limits forced him out, he was snapped up by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, where as head of community investment he’s been a convener and catalyst for tackling problems such as homelessness and affordable housing. A kayaker and naturalist, he developed his love for the environment growing up in what were then the wilds of South County. He’s passionate and eloquent about civic issues, but not always ultra-serious; he and his wife Dru watch a movie almost every night and are fantastic Cajun dancers.
This onetime CEO of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has rocked Sarasota’s arts world since becoming president of the Ringling College of Art and Design in 1999. A lawyer by training, with a jovial public personality that serves him well in speech making and fund raising, Thompson, 68, contends creativity is the cornerstone of Sarasota’s—and the world’s—changing economy. Quick to see and seize opportunities to expand the college, he’s transformed the campus—a new library, fine arts center, soundstage and the conversion of the old Sarasota High into a museum—and created department majors that have grabbed national attention.
The shrewd founder of billion-dollar Sarasota-based collections agency Vengroff Williams, Harvey Vengroff, 75, has become the face of affordable housing in Sarasota, converting old motels to rental units and now building a new 393-unit apartment complex for the working poor. (When the city commission tried to impose annual inspections on that project, he stormed out and won approval on his own terms.) An avid sailor usually dressed in board shorts and boat shoes, he acts tough, but he cares about his tenants, seeing them as people with problems that can afflict us all. Hates bureaucracy, loves control and won’t be intimidated.
The reserved (but quick-to-laugh) accountant, 49, who’s now CEO of Sarasota Memorial Health Care System isn’t as publicly visible as his charismatic predecessor, Gwen MacKenzie, but with 4,000 employees, he oversees one of the region’s biggest workforces. An LSU alum who keeps a Tigers football helmet in his office, he’s continuing to expand the hugely popular hospital’s facilities and influence. Coming soon: a trauma center, cancer center, and if Verinder and his board win an appeal, a new hospital in South County, too.
She’s retiring in February, but until then, the calm, steady superintendent of Sarasota County schools oversees a $419 million budget and the county’s largest workforce, with every stroke of her pen affecting 5,000 employees and 42,000 kids and their families. A devoted grandmother who sings in her church choir, she’s also a brainy multitasker beloved for her kind heart. But don’t be misled by her mild manner; White, 61, has managed to restore trust and stability to the school system after some fractious predecessors, and she can control the unruliest of meetings.
Reserved, patient and congenial,12th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Charles Williams, 58, is an influential broker in the court system and a trusted voice in community race relations. Elected judge in 1998, he has earned a reputation for hearing all sides. “He’s Switzerland. Never gets stuck in a position, never raises his voice and remains nonaligned,” says one courtroom insider. A creative problem solver, he has been a key player in diversity conversations at the Sarasota Bar, in Newtown and at New College of Florida. Sports a dry sense of humor and a passion for filmmaking, expressed in several documentaries about Newtown.
For 23 years, the dynamic head of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, 64, has lived, breathed and fought for her cause, braving ever-rising political pressure and even death threats to bring affordable, essential health care to the region. Nationally, she’s been named PP CEO of the Year, and she’s won broad local support, including from high-profile Republican stalwarts, as she has aggressively expanded facilities and services. Friends and co-workers say the former nurse, known to decompress through nature and solitary travel, is as compassionate as she is tough.