MIAMI — U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Greene "grew up as a Democrat," but said the conservative climate of Harvard Business School, the oil crisis of the late 1970s and the battered Carter administration drew him to the GOP in 1982.
"For a year of my life, I was a Republican, and then I quickly got back to what I really believed in," he said Tuesday of his long-ago bid for Congress in Southern California. Asked what he learned from the failed race, Greene said, "I learned that I'm a Democrat."
The lesson took another decade to sink in, according to election records that show he remained a Republican until 1992, when he moved from Los Angeles to Malibu and dropped his party affiliation. He didn't become a Democrat until 2008, when he registered to vote from his new home in Palm Beach.
"Whether I was a Republican or Democrat, who cares?" he said at a candidate forum Thursday in Sarasota.
Democratic voters will care, countered Greene's rival, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami. "His Democratic credentials are an inch deep," Meek said Thursday. "I'm the true Democrat in this race."
Greene's shifting political loyalties offer a glimpse of a candidate whom Florida voters know little about outside of his recent spate of 30-second television commercials.
Back in 1982, Greene was a bushy-haired, 27-year-old Massachusetts transplant who got swept up in the Reagan revolution and into a hot congressional race in the Los Angeles area. He spent $51,000 of his own money on the unsuccessful primary bid.
Three decades later, Greene is bankrolling his own campaign again. Only this time, he's a 55-year-old real estate mogul with a receding hairline, running as a Democrat and prepared to spend $40 million to win Florida's open Senate seat.
Polls show him closing in on Meek, the longtime Democratic front-runner, just seven weeks after he got into the primary set for Aug 24.
"Jeff sort came put of nowhere, and that's what he did in California," said Greene's former campaign rival, David Armor, who like Meek had expected to coast through the primary. "It's fascinating for me to see someone like him come out of my past."
Two years after Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House, Republicans had high hopes for knocking off Democratic Rep. Anthony Beilenson, known for helping create a national park in the Santa Monica Mountains. His district was redrawn after the 1980 census to include Republican-leaning areas represented Rep. Barry M. Goldwater Jr., the son of the former presidential nominee.
The 1982 Republican primary drew four candidates, including Greene, an up-and-coming businessman who made his first real estate investment while at Harvard. Greene professed his support for President Reagan and attacked the Democratic incumbent as a "friend of big government."
"Beilenson has added to the woes of the oppressed middle-income taxpayer suffering from excessive and undue government regulation," Greene told the Los Angeles Times.
The man who became a billionaire betting correctly on the collapse of the real estate market now offers a very different vision of government.
"Government has a very important purpose, and that's one of the reasons that I'm a Democrat," he said Tuesday in a meeting with the Miami Herald editorial board. "To me, it's not about a safety net. It's about a trampoline. We need to create a chance for the people at the bottom to bounce back up."
Greene's chief Republican rival in the 1982 campaign was Armor, a 43-year-old social scientist and opponent of mandatory school busing. Now a professor of public policy at George Mason University, Armor recalled just days before the June primary, Greene distributed a flyer calling him an "aging Berkeley radical."
"It was a hit piece claiming I was a deceiving the people," said Armor, a student leader in University of California protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee until campus violence pushed him toward the GOP. "Being in my 40s, I think I was more offended at being called 'aging' than a 'radical.' "
Armor defeated Greene by 103 votes but went on to lose in the general election. Greene said he didn't recall attacking his opponent.
"I can barely remember 1982," he said of his only other bid for public office before vying for Florida's highest post. "This is an election about the future."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.