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Billionaire Democrat Jeff Greene jumps into Florida Senate race

Just when you thought Florida's topsy-turvy election year couldn't get crazier: Billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene of Palm Beach, a Democrat, hurtles into Florida's already chaotic U.S. Senate race.

"I am an outsider, the only candidate who isn't a career politician," said Greene, 55. "I've been a job creator. I've worked in the economy myself. I'm the only one among the four of us who ever signed the front side of a paycheck. Those guys have only signed the backs of paychecks."

His colorful profile — Mike Tyson was best man at his 2008 wedding, ex-Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss lived in his guesthouse after prison, and he made many of his millions betting on the housing collapse that killed Florida's economy — normally would make a candidate like Greene a long shot.

But in a race where Democratic front-runner Kendrick Meek is little known to most voters and Gov. Charlie Crist's nonpartisan candidacy has turned the campaign upside down, Greene's ability to saturate Florida TV with commercials could make him a major contender along with Republican Marco Rubio.

"I'll spend whatever it takes to get my message out and to be competitive with these career politicians," Greene told the Times/Herald in a telephone interview. "I'm not going to take a penny of special interest money."

Considering that Forbes last year estimated Greene's net worth at $1.25 billion, shunning special interest money and limiting donations to $100 is no big sacrifice.

Greene's pitch is similar to another obscure multimillionaire candidate who recently popped up in Florida, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott. Both are touting their outsider status.

"Like a lot of people in Florida, I share their anger and their frustration about what is going on in Washington and the lack of progress," Greene said. "Things aren't getting better, and I look around to see three career politicians running for office and it's more of the same, so I thought it's time to get involved."

Multimillionaire candidates have a mixed record in self-funded campaigns. Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg succeeded, while presidential candidate Steve Forbes and California Senate candidate Michael Huffington went nowhere.

Greene, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California as a Republican, said he's the personification of the American dream and that his wealth allows him to focus on what matters most.

"When I get to Washington, the people of Florida are going to know I'm not going to spend my first year having fundraisers to pay off a campaign debt," he said. "I'm not going to have fundraisers to get re-elected. I'm not going to have meetings and dinners with lobbyists and special interests. I'm going to get to work."

The Florida Democratic Party issued a statement that it stands behind Kendrick Meek.

Greene made hundreds of millions of dollars betting against the subprime real estate market, which devastated Florida.

"This state needs a hard-working leader who puts middle-class families first as we steer our state from recession to recovery, and not our Republican opponents who were both co-conspirators of Florida's economic collapse," Meek spokesman Adam Sharon said. "Kendrick is focused on building up what Gov. Crist, Speaker Rubio, and others like Mr. Greene helped tear down."

Greene said he invested in complex credit default swaps to protect his real estate investments when he saw the real estate bubble looking shaky.

"I was able to use credit default swaps to protect not only my investments but the hundreds of jobs that exist because of my investment," he said. "I understand the dangers of credit default swaps and the benefits of credit default swaps."

Greene said he had lost "almost everything" during the savings and loan crisis in the early 1990s.

"Believe me, I'm sensitive to what a lot of Floridians are going through today having lost their livelihoods," he said. "Did I ever imagine in my wildest dreams that I could make the kind of money I made? That's wasn't my goal, and it could have gone the other way very easily."

Greene moved from California to a Miami condo only two years ago, but he touts his longtime connections to the state.

As a college student, he says, he bused tables at the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, and his mother lives in Century Village, a modest retirement complex not far from the 12,000-square-foot Palm Beach mansion he recently purchased from Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer. Last year, Greene looked at buying the Tampa Bay Lightning but withdrew his bid, saying "the numbers did not work for us."

Greene attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Harvard Business School. He is married with a 7-month-old son.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Billionaire Democrat Jeff Greene jumps into Florida Senate race 04/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 12:13am]

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