Activism With Compassion: ‘I Lead With My Heart’
Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes with Orlando business consultant and former state legislator Dick Batchelor will not be surprised to learn he was a class clown. “I tell young people, ‘Thank God I finished Evans High School pre-FCAT or I’d still be in shop class making birdhouses.’”
After graduation, he joined the Marines and served in the Vietnam War before becoming a powerful figure in business and political circles as well as a champion for children and families.
In his 20s, his fondest wish was to appear as a comedian on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “I love humor. My desire to be in comedy was concurrent with my political ambitions to be in the Legislature,” Batchelor said. “I figured one was intentional comedy, and the other was accidental comedy. I didn’t get on Johnny Carson’s show, but I did do some things politically that people might have thought were funny unintentionally,” he said with a chuckle.
He was only 26 when he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1974 after campaigning for U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, who later became governor, and Florida Gov. Reubin Askew. Batchelor, a lifelong Democrat, served eight years in the state House, five of them in leadership roles, and received more than 50 awards for his elective service. Those years sparked his enduring fascination with politics.
These days Batchelor’s work is centered around business development. As president of Dick Batchelor Management Group, the consulting firm he founded in 1986, he works with large companies to help them find new business and secure contracts. To a lesser extent, he manages issues involving governmental relations and public affairs, an expertise he calls “an arrow in my quiver.”
Batchelor succeeds because of what he calls the “earned credibility” he acquired during decades of community involvement and staying in contact with people. He started networking before networking was cool — in college, filling index cards with contact information about everyone he met to add to his desktop Rolodex.
That Rolodex has been replaced by a cell phone and social media, but he said his business development model remains simple. “I approach potential clients of my clients. I always know somebody at any given company, or I know somebody who knows somebody at the company. Here is a rather elementary approach to what I do: Party A is introduced to Party B, they do business together and they pay Party C, which is me.”
Batchelor, a skilled strategist, said he loves the field because it’s results-oriented, and those results are quantifiable and measurable for him and his clients. “I get to work with people in a very positive way, and I like to satisfy them because I like winning.”
It was also in college where his interest in politics began. He started the Young Democratic Club at Valencia College before finishing his education at the University of Central Florida, then known as Valencia Junior College and Florida Technological University. When Batchelor was 22, he drove to Tallahassee to lobby for the vote for 18-year-olds. “It was my first foray into lobbying in the political process,” he said.
Four short years later, he was serving as a state legislator. After four terms, he joked, “I thought I should do something with my life, so I decided to run for Congress.” But it was not to be. It was 1982, in the Reagan years, and he lost to the Republican incumbent, Bill McCollum.
“I was fortunate to get involved in politics when it was seen as a positive thing,” Batchelor said. “It was congenial and bipartisan. My biggest fear is that our divided nation will drive people, especially young people, away from the political process. The less voter participation we have, the more we put our democracy at risk.”
His congressional campaign was far from a wash, though, because he was interviewed by reporter Andrea Coudriet of WESH-TV, who would later become his wife. The power couple have been married 38 years. They enjoy traveling and are planning a trip to Aspen, Colorado, this summer. His wife once said that with his Southern accent, she doesn’t understand half of what he says. His teasing retort? “To be honest with you, I never asked you to marry me. You just thought I did.”
Coudriet became a news anchor but left her job in 1996 to spend more time with Batchelor and their three boys, Richard, David and Matt. For her going away party, her colleagues prepared a video with a tongue-in-cheek title: “Why Would Someone Who Makes a Lot of Money Working Three Hours a Day — Two of Which Are Spent in a Beauty Shop — Quit Her Job? A Special Report.”
“She never looked back and she never regretted it,” Batchelor said.
Analyst, Not Lobbyist
Today, Batchelor is known as a savvy political analyst who provides commentary on television and radio shows including “Intersection” on WMFE-FM. He became locally famous presenting the Democratic view in “point-counterpoint” TV segments opposite Republican Lou Frey and later Tico Perez. Because of that work, he said, many people think he is a lobbyist rather than a consultant.
“People say business development is kind of like lobbying at the senior corporate level,” he said. “The difference is you’re dealing with the private sector and you can get an answer, and you don’t have to kowtow to people like you do in the lobbying world.”
Also, he said, lobbyists spend time with people who think they have influence but really don’t. “In the business world, you’re working with people with the power to make decisions. One of my favorite sayings that applies well to my work is this: ‘Don’t go around your wrist to get to your elbow.’ You can go from Point A to Point B in the private sector in an expedited fashion. You cannot go from Point A to Point B in the political world without going through Byzantine machinations that are usually fruitless.”
A news junkie who reads The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Orlando Sentinel every day, he took a stab at describing why he loves politics and why it’s so important: “I look at politics as a tool to get things done, not to bludgeon people. I’m fascinated with how politicians use their political power. Some of them are satisfied with being well known for getting things done, but unfortunately, the vast majority of them are satisfied with being well known for being well known. By the way, that’s on the left and the right.”
Batchelor thinks Central Florida, where he conducts about 80% of his work, is welcoming to new businesses. “Our community is also very philanthropic when it comes to responding to community needs and driven to what I would call problem-solving,” he said, naming the opioid epidemic and homelessness as examples.
He has devoted his life to helping those less fortunate, and his perspective is not detached. He has been there. He and his six siblings were born to sharecroppers in North Carolina. “The good news is that since my parents were farmers, we always had plenty to eat. We didn’t know we were poor.”
When he was about 7, his father started working in construction, eventually becoming a carpenter, and the family moved to public housing in Orlando. Later they bought a house in the Orlo Vista community, but his exposure to hard knocks stayed with him.
“I lead with my heart,” he said. He became a crusader for victims of domestic violence and is co-chairman of the Orange County Domestic Violence Commission. For 33 years, he served as honorary chairman of the Dick Batchelor Run for the Children, an annual 5K that raised $1.5 million to help abused children.
A former chairman of the Central Florida Urban League, he has been heavily involved in the African American community. He serves on boards of directors including AdventHealth, the First Amendment Foundation, Florida’s Children First, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida and the Orlando Housing Authority. Ironically, one of the housing authority’s properties, Reeves Terrace, is where Batchelor and his family lived. “From time to time I go by, park near the playground and reflect on Building 49, Apartment A,” he said.
Right now he is focused on the opioid epidemic, which has worsened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He serves on the executive council of Project Opioid, which is tasked with fighting addiction in Central Florida. His sister died of opioid abuse in Maryland after becoming addicted to OxyContin prescribed by a doctor following some injuries. “I lost a sister, so I can put a face on this crisis,” he said. “A lot of my passions come from life experience.”
He has made Orlando magazine’s list of the “50 Most Powerful People in Orlando” at least a dozen times. The Orlando Sentinel named him Central Floridian of the Year in 2002 for his “Change 4 Kids” campaign to raise money to build new schools and renovate older ones in Orange County through a half-penny sales tax referendum. He spearheaded a similar successful campaign in 2014. In June, as part of the City of Orlando’s Civil Rights Awards, he was honored as 2021’s Visionary Community Leader for his commitment to civil rights, education reform and advocacy for children.
A New Legacy
With all his connections, accomplishments and accolades in the business, political and philanthropic arenas, Batchelor’s influence and impact have been widespread in Central Florida. No doubt he has also managed to share his comedic talents with thousands without the benefit of a late-night TV show.
Still, with his son David marrying next year, he has a new audience in mind for his humor. “For the next stage of our lives, Andrea and I are really looking forward to some grandchildren. I told my son, ‘If you and your fiancée want to have a baby, Andrea will pay for your house.’ I was exaggerating a little bit.”