Positioning himself as the outsider against three career politicians for the U.S. Senate, Democratic real estate investor Jeff Greene took a shot at an elder statesman in his own party during a visit Wednesday to a politically active Broward retirement community.
In one of his first public appearances since he joined the race last month, Greene criticized U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson for traveling last month to Cape Canaveral with President Barack Obama, who has proposed scaling back the space shuttle program that employs thousands of people.
Nelson — who has served in public office since 1972 and flew on a space shuttle in 1986 — has urged Obama to preserve NASA funding.
"I was kind of disappointed when I saw Sen. Nelson flying down with President Obama to terminate those jobs,'' Greene told about 100 members of the Kings Point Democratic Club in Tamarac. "I would rather see the space program stay here because the space program has spawned lots and lots of high-paying, great jobs in that area.''
Nelson's office did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
In a political climate where incumbents appear headed toward the endangered species list, Greene's jabs at Nelson — and at U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee — didn't seem to offend the crowd.
Polls show the Miami congressman lagging behind Republican Marco Rubio and the newly independent Gov. Charlie Crist in the race for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat.
"Meek is going nowhere and we need someone who is going somewhere,'' said Kings Point President Len Ronik. "If I had Greene's money, I could be a U.S. senator.''
Greene has told some Democrats he will spend $40 million before the Aug. 24 primary. He launched a statewide TV ad campaign this week estimated at $1.3 million so far.
"The career politicians have had their chance. I have a real plan to bring back and create jobs in Florida, jump-start the housing market and revitalize our economy,'' Greene says in one of two TV ads.
Just as polls show that Republican gubernatorial front-runner Bill McCollum has lost more than 20 points amid an avalanche of ads by little-known businessman Rick Scott of Naples, Meek faces a serious threat from Greene. McCollum and Meek each have less than $4 million available to spend against their deep-pocketed rivals.
"When you look at the kind of bounce that Rick Scott has seen against Bill McCollum, Jeff Greene is going to move up very quickly in the polls because neither one of these two men start from the point of being well-known,'' said Democratic pollster Tom Eldon. "But that's not to say he's going to sustain that lead once people look into his background.''
The Wall Street Journal dubbed Greene a "meltdown mogul'' because he became a billionaire betting on the implosion of subprime mortgages, which helped crater the U.S. economy.
A Florida resident for two years, Greene was among the first individuals to invest in complex financial instruments known as credit default swaps, complex financial instruments that were basically insurance against bundles of risky mortgages.
At Kings Point, Greene described his business strategy this way: "I found a way to go up against Wall Street and beat them at their own game.''
He told the heavily Jewish crowd that he once taught Hebrew school and spent seven months as an exchange student in Israel. He invoked a Hebrew phrase when discussing the threat posed to Israel from the "Holocaust-denying country'' of Iran.
"I absolutely support the president, but I have to tell you that if I were in Washington I would be pushing much harder for crippling sanctions,'' Greene said.
He also played to the elderly crowd by repeatedly mentioning his 83-year-old mother who lives in the Century Village retirement community in West Palm Beach.
The Democratic establishment in Tallahassee and Washington is backing Meek.
"He is the hands-on leader who has been fighting to bring good jobs to our state and works every day to get things done for the people of Florida,'' said Eric Jotkoff, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party.
Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@MiamiHerald.com.