| Fort Myers News-Press
Fort Myers Mayor, Randy Henderson, is happy with how he is leaving the city
Fort Myers Mayor, Randy Henderson, is happy with how he is leaving the city
The walls are bare, and most of Randy Henderson’s office — including an NYPD hat and coffee mugs — is packed in cardboard boxes.
After 20 years, Henderson, the mayor of Fort Myers, has spent the past few weeks packing up the corner office on the fourth floor of City Hall. His last day is Nov. 16. His last city council meeting was Nov. 2, when he gave a 45-minute goodbye speech.
Kevin Anderson will be sworn in as mayor Monday, along with Johnny Streets, who will remain as Ward 2 representative and Liston “Lin” Bochette III for Ward 4 and Darla Betzer Bonk in Ward 6.
Henderson said he is preparing for a post-political life, for now, where he said he plans to focus on his family and the real estate company he co-owns with his wife Ginny Henderson.
“I have a great life,” Henderson, 64, said recently. “I am blessed, and I say a prayer every night.”
Henderson first joined city council in 2000 representing Ward 5 and helped move along the redevelopment of downtown Fort Myers from a blighted area to a tourist destination known for many bars and restaurants.
He became the mayor in 2009 and helped lead the city during a crushing recession that hit Southwest Florida hard, including layoffs across city departments. He ran successfully for three terms.
In his second term as mayor, issues within the police department led to a lot of disquietude in Dunbar, a majority Black neighborhood, and led to corruption allegations and many shooting sprees in Fort Myers.
He is leaving office two years into his third term, a sacrifice he had to make to qualify to run in Florida’s congressional District 19 race.
His loss, garnering about 7% of the vote in the Republican primary in August, was “heartbreaking,” Henderson said.
“I was sad,” he said. “I enjoy this work, and I really believe I’ve been successful in building consensus in the public work I’ve done.”
Forrest Banks agrees. Banks was elected councilman for Ward 6 in 2009 when Henderson became mayor.
“He tried his best to be everybody’s mayor,” Banks said. “Sometimes you have to do some things that just aren’t all that popular.”
Henderson did a great job of promoting the city, Banks said.
“He cannot be downbeat on much of anything,” Banks said. “He has to keep a positive attitude and an optimistic attitude, and he is definitely good at that.”
Banks called Oscar Corbin “the great mayor of the city of Fort Myers.” Corbin, who died in 2012, is also Henderson’s father-in-law.
“Lately, I’ve begun to think Randy has surpassed him in all of the great things he did,” Banks said.
One example, Banks said, is the water feature in downtown Fort Myers that today abuts the Luminary Hotel. Henderson championed using leftover money from a streetscapes project to pay for the feature, but Banks disagreed since it was during the recession.
“It was at the time of the economic downturn and I just didn’t think we had the money,” Banks said. “He won. It was a good thing. I fought him on that. I was wrong. I later apologized to him.”
Banks said he hates that Henderson cut his time short to run for Congress, but “he’s always wanted to do that.”
While Henderson said he plans to focus on family and his real estate company, he said he isn’t done trying to win higher office. He said he would consider running for a countywide office, but if the timing is right, he wouldn’t turn down another congressional run, he said.
Henderson said he thinks he can be really effective in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t love the way my campaign unfolded,” he said. “It was the first time, and I think I can do better. Part of the benefit of running is to learn from your mistakes, and hyper-partisan status is not serving our country well. I believe I would do things differently if I ran again. Some of the criticism I heard, which I think was legitimate was, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like you.”’
Henderson launched his campaign on a highly partisan point, demanding that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar return a key to the city he had given her in 2017, prior to Omar’s ascent to national politics.
Henderson said he doesn’t regret asking for the key’s return, but he regrets people mistaking it for racism.
“Ilhan Omar betrayed my city and my trust,” Henderson said, “I gave her a key to our city for her willingness to come here and help us celebrate diversity. She has done the opposite in her life and in Washington. That’s what is offensive to me. Why did people miss that point?”
He should have explained his ad better, he said.
Leaving office has been an “emotional time,” Henderson said.
“I never dreamed I’d be in City Hall for 20 years,” he said. “I really believed I would try to run for office to see if I can make positive contributions.”
For his part, Henderson said, he has.
Among them, he said, was having the police department audited by the Freeh Group International Solutions in 2016 and later on, helping pave the way for Chief Derrick Diggs to reorganize the police department.
“We have a world-class police agency that wants to be great and we will, in perpetuity, continue to refine it,” Henderson said.
The city has made progress in the past 20 years, Henderson said.
“When people see progress in the city, I think it inspires a lot of comfort and a lot of good feelings,” he said. “That has created a generally happy political environment in my opinion.”
Much of the criticism toward the city lately has been about the homeless issue in downtown Fort Myers. Henderson said he doesn’t believe the city is perfect, but thinks much of the criticism leveled at the city administration is unfair.
“I would criticize the region for being behind on (homelessness), but it’s universal,” Henderson said. “It’s everywhere, and the constructive criticism would center around if we could get six cities in the county to put forward a comprehensive plan and not just pile the burden on one bureaucracy or another but collectively approach it to me seems the most fair way to go about it.”
It’s not right to say “the council is not compassionate or caring or loving or cold,” he added.
“I think we’ve had extraordinary political leadership and administrative leadership in 20 years that I’ve been here,” Henderson said. “I don’t believe we are a perfect city by any stretch, but I think this council works hard and in good faith.”
During his last city council meeting, Henderson was celebrated with gifts, and the city paused the meeting for a celebratory cake.
His legislative administrator, Kim Harris, presented him with an Apple Watch from the city. Harris has worked at the city sine 1989. She calls Henderson the “best boss ever.”
“He is wonderful,” Harris said. “He’s kind and very humble and just patient.”
Ward 1 Councilwoman Teresa Watkins Brown has served with Henderson since 2009. She said it’s been a pleasure to work with him.
“We never held grudges against one another on where we stood,” Watkins Brown said. “I regret he ended his career before he finished his four years, but Mayor Henderson has really strived hard in uniting our city and making sure our city moved forward economically not only for downtown but for all of the city of Fort Myers.”
Ward 5 Councilman Fred Burson, who’s known Henderson long before joining the council, had fun at Henderson’s expense to celebrate his departure.
He presented Henderson with a photo of a sign at the pedestrian bridge on Winkler canal. It’s where Henderson got hurt after a bike accident late last year.
Burson joked that the city and the Florida Department of Transportation got together to rename the bridge in Henderson’s honor.
The sign reads the “Mayor Randy Henderson Scenic Bridge.”
“I’ve got to tell you between being councilperson and being mayor, he and I didn’t always see everything eye to eye,” Burson said.
For example, Burson has often told City Manager Saeed Kazemi that the city needs to be better at communicating with the public and improving transparency.
For Henderson’s part, he said he believes the city does the best it can in communicating with residents.
“He got in there and fought for what he believed him. He was never ugly to anyone or anything,” Burson said. “Overall I think he’s done a good job for the city of Fort Myers.”