Every decade or so here at the magazine, we’re seized by an irresistible urge. Like so many irresistible urges—remembering there’s Haägen-Dazs in the freezer, serial-googling the latest news about Donald Trump—we know it may lead to giddy pleasure or bitter regret, but something impels us to act on it, anyway. That’s what happened several months ago, when we editors came back from an event that was filled with new faces and started talking about how quickly Sarasota—and its power grid—are changing.
I heard myself saying, “Hasn’t it been almost 10 years since we wrote about the most powerful people in Sarasota? Shouldn’t we be doing that story again?”
Untold hours of research, phone calls, emails and meetings later, we emerged, exhausted but exhilarated, with our list of the 25 most influential men and women in Sarasota today. Any list like this is subjective, but we found surprising agreement among our sources, with most of the 25 names coming up over and over again. And although the group includes some old-timers who appeared on our previous lists, the majority of names are new.
Indeed, the more we worked on this story the more we realized how much Sarasota has changed. Those of us who have been here for decades can remember a quieter, more sedate city, where Midwestern retirees with moderate Republican politics set a genteel tone, and even the richest rarely flaunted their wealth. In those days—and to many of us they don’t seem that long ago—bankers, cultural leaders, public-spirited businessmen and retired socialites ran the town. For all sorts of reasons, from bank consolidations that have diminished the role of local executives to the arrival of younger, über-wealthy entrepreneurs, the players are different today.
Even a decade ago, Sarasota was still something of an enclave, a low-profile retirement and resort destination with a character and flavor all its own. We still have unique attractions and an older demographic, but we look more like the rest of the country now. As our population has grown and we’ve expanded east, we have more young families, more chain restaurants and big-box stores—and more divisive politics, too.
Our power structure looks more like the nation’s as well. Our list includes several multi-millionaires who are using their fortunes to fund ventures into far-right Republican politics. Carlos Beruff—a builder, just like the Republican presidential candidate—is running for the U.S. Senate; Jesse Biter, a software entrepreneur, has been a major donor to conservative candidates, including Rick Santorum. As chairman of Donald Trump’s Florida campaign, Joe Gruters, the head of our county’s Republican party, is also a player in strident presidential politics.
In an era when billionaires and flashy spending dominate entertainment and the media, our self-made moguls don’t mind reveling in their wealth. Beruff explained away his many speeding tickets by saying, “I had a really nice car [a Mercedes-Benz S550]. You can drive 103 and it not be dangerous.” And Biter recently appeared on a TV reality show that featured him and his entourage drinking heavily and trashing the staff on a luxury yacht cruise on the Mediterranean. While our Old Guard bankers and civic leaders might have found that appallingly vulgar, Biter has said it was “a lot of fun” and he would do it again.
Our past lists didn’t include anyone from law enforcement, but in another sign of the times, as relationships between citizens and the police have become a national issue, Sheriff Tom Knight has emerged as a powerful figure and change agent.
As is still true across America, white males wield most of the power here. But while that’s likely to change nationally with the country’s changing demographics, it may be true for years to come in Sarasota, where 90 percent of the population is white. We also have a number of driven, disciplined Baby Boomer women—“Hillary Clintons,” one of our editors called them. But in this town, most of them lead nonprofit social and community causes rather than head big businesses, where the glass ceiling has barely been cracked.
You may see more national similarities—and differences—when you read the list for yourself. We welcome your feedback, including names of people you think deserve a spot in the top 25. You can leave a comment on this story on our website, or email me at [email protected]. We’re eager to hear what you think.