Thursday, March 22, 2018

Democrat Philip Levine won't attack Trump. Can he be Florida governor?

If he decides to run, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine will be the most enigmatic and unpredictable candidate for Florida governor in 2018.

Many political elites doubt the self-described "radical centrist" entrepreneur will jump into a Democratic primary that already includes Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Winter Park businessman Chris King.

But the fact is Levine, 55, is far more likely to run than not, and he could quickly emerge as the Democratic front-runner. He intends to make his announcement in October.

Unlike the other, better-known multimillionaire considering a run (trial lawyer John Morgan), Levine is traveling the state talking to Democratic groups and raising money, and he has a core group of veteran political advisers on the payroll. (SiriusXM is promoting Levine's tour through Florida for a weekly radio show.)

Still, it's easy to see how people can doubt his level of interest in the Democratic nomination.

He almost never fires off press releases or tweets criticizing President Donald Trump or Gov. Rick Scott.

At a time when many liberals are hungry for a champion fighter, Levine dismisses Bernie Sanders' message.

"Bernie Sanders lost the Florida primary to Hillary Clinton, okay? I love the idea of a revolution, but unfortunately in South Florida the term 'revolution' doesn't sound like such a good idea," he quipped to a group of Democrats in Miami recently.

Last month, he sat down for a radio interview with Fox News' Brian Kilmeade and sounded like he was sympathetic to President Trump's attacks on CNN.

"I want Walter Cronkite to come back. I think we need objective news," Levine said when asked about Trump tweeting out a clip of himself body-slamming someone with a CNN logo over their face.

In May, Levine threw the door wide open to shunning the Democratic label and running as an independent candidate for governor.

"I love the Democratic Party. But you know what's interesting? I actually like the Republican Party, and I like a lot of Republican ideas, and I like a lot of the people in the Republican Party as well," he declared in Tampa, again more or less poking hard-core liberal Democrats in the eye.

Whether he was just winging it or seriously considering the move is unclear, but that door has closed. State law requires a candidate for governor to change parties more than 365 days before qualifying for office, and the deadline passed in June.

What's especially striking about Levine's pattern of inviting liberal partisans to attack or dismiss him is that he may have the most progressive record of any Democrat running.

He bucked state law to try to mandate a higher minimum wage in Miami Beach; he has been among the country's most vocal champions of combating sea level rise; he is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights; and he oversaw police department reforms.

Levine, a close pal of former President Bill Clinton, was all over national TV last year as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton. Some Florida political observers speculate that his media consultant, Adam Goodman of St. Petersburg — an adviser to Republican Pam Bondi and a frequent Trump defender — is largely shaping Levine's emphasis on nonpartisanship and bipartisanship.

Nope. Levine insists that's who he is and he believes it's the winning campaign message.

"It's no longer a party message," said Levine, who plans to attend a Pinellas Democratic Party meeting Thursday. "I really believe it's a message of being pro-business and being pro-people."

You don't win an election just by attacking the other guy, he says, you win by drawing people to you and offering solutions.

The Kumbaya talk belies his short fuse, which has popped up in frequent skirmishes with the Miami Herald on covering his administration, a videotape of him berating a double-parked delivery driver in Miami Beach and Twitter barbs ripping Airbnb.

"But this millionaire Democrat also is making headlines — with words like 'tirade' and 'flies off handle' — because of his off-the-cuff remarks and juvenile posts on social media," the South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorialized in March. "With the gubernatorial field beginning to take shape, Democrats should be asking themselves whether they really want a nominee whose temperament draws comparisons to that of President Donald Trump."

Levine makes no apologies. He's not a career politician, but a businessman interested in results. He is finishing his second two-year term as part-time mayor, his first elective office, and in September will marry for the first time and welcome a baby boy.

The real model for leaders, Levine argues, can be found in the employee handbooks of innovating companies including Apple, Tesla, Amazon and Boeing. These are companies that value their employees — and diversity — and invest in them.

"It's a message of economic opportunity for everybody. It's not dividing, but unifying and bringing America together," Levine said.

Don't expect him to start criticizing the unpopular Republican president, as the other Democrats do.

"I may not respect the occupant of the office, but I respect the office," Levine said. "Right now he's the pilot, and I'm on the plane like everybody else. I don't wish the pilot failure. I want a smooth and safe landing."

A lot of campaign professionals would dismiss this feel-good talk as a nonstarter among rabidly partisan primary voters. They may be right. But the way the other Democratic candidates are struggling to raise money so far, nobody should underestimate the little-known mayor.

He has raised about $4 million for his political committee without hosting a single fundraising event. That includes nearly $2.6 million of his own money, and his campaign has signaled he may put in at least $10 million total.

The national leader he sees as the best model for Democrats?

"I'd have to say Michael Bloomberg, and I don't even know his party registration," Levine said of the billionaire former New York mayor, who is registered to neither major party.

Bloomberg looked at running for president in 2016 and concluded he couldn't win.

So far, Levine seems to think he can win Florida.

Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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