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Miami Beach mayor enters governor’s race: ‘I call ’em like I see ’em’

Philip Levine's candidacy for the Democratic nomination comes as no surprise.

Philip Levine officially began his Democratic campaign for Florida governor Wednesday with the lack of subtlety that has characterized him over two terms as mayor of Miami Beach.

He pointed to his political heroes, Cesar Chavez, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman. Literally pointed: He had them freshly painted in murals inside his cavernous Wynwood campaign headquarters, a building that last year housed Hillary Clinton's Miami campaign for president.

"Like America's greatest generation, those heroes devoted their lives — even sacrificed their lives — to help all who would follow," Levine said before sketching out a campaign platform around fighting climate change, raising the minimum wage and investing in public transportation and education to attract more employers.

He spoke before several hundred supporters who were greeted Wednesday morning with free paella and a deejay. A string of local backers, including Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert and former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, vouched for Levine as the right man for the job.

"It's long past time to say we've had enough of the political bickering and posturing, enough of the calculated words of hate — enough of those who would tear us down and tear us apart just to score a political point," Levine said. "They've had their turn. Today belongs to us."

Levine's candidacy, nine months after he said he wouldn't seek another mayoral term, comes as no surprise, as he freely admitted Tuesday in an interview with the Miami Herald, his first as a formal candidate.

"My mom was like, 'Nooo! Is that why we're coming tomorrow?'" he said, imitating her sarcasm.

Levine, a 55-year-old multi-millionaire entrepreneur who made his fortune running media companies in the cruise industry, has already put $2.6 million of his own money into his political committee. He said he expects to invest heavily in the campaign. $10 million? "Maybe more," he said. "Maybe 25. Maybe 20."

Clad in a blazer and tie — with jeans and sneakers — Levine gave off the air Tuesday of the sort of Silicon Valley gurus he admires. (One of his murals, about innovation, features Nikola Tesla, the Wright brothers and Steve Jobs.) He sounded a little like a motivational speaker, citing the movie "Field of Dreams" and offering a campaign tag line of, "I'm pro people and pro business."

He said he's achieved everything he set out to do in Miami Beach since his first election in 2013: renovating the convention center, overhauling the troubled police department, pushing for more electric pumps and raised streets to keep flood-prone South Beach streets dry. As governor, he wants to keep graduates of public Florida universities by funding a program to wipe their debt if they don't leave the state after receiving their degrees.

He knows the conventional wisdom against him: that a Jewish Democrat from Miami doesn't stand a chance to win statewide in Florida, where the further north you go, the more South you are.

Needless to say, Levine doesn't believe it. Asked about his biggest challenge as a candidate, he couldn't think of one.

"The majority of the population lives in South Florida," he said wryly. "The majority of Democrats seem to live in South Florida."

"I've been traveling all through northern Florida, and I tell you, my message seems to resonate with people," he added. "I'm a pretty authentic guy. I call 'em like I see 'em."

He certainly has in the past. Earlier this year, he facetiously mentioned a U.S. invasion of Cuba — a sore subject in Miami, which still mourns the Bay of Pigs. Last year, Levine denied the existence of a Zika virus outbreak in Miami Beach, only to be contradicted the next day by the governor.

That brashness, however, is one of the Levine factors (besides his personal wealth) that makes other Democrats in the crowded primary field — Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Orlando businessman Chris King — a little antsy: Have you heard the one about the rich candidate who's also a blunt talker?

In his speech Wednesday, Levine called out President Donald Trump for his administration's slow response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — a criticism that landed Levine on national television after he returned from delivering supplies to San Juan.

"I actually spent 18 months of my life talking about how much of a fraud he is," Levine said Tuesday, a reference to his role as a Clinton surrogate in 2016.

Still, Levine's message about luring companies sounds just a shade bluer than Republican Gov. Rick Scott's famous "jobs, jobs, jobs" motto.

Levine said his Miami Beach track record — investing in making the city more resilient and increasing the minimum wage, in a direct legal challenge to the state's authority — show his progressive bona fides. A lawsuit brought by business groups against the city over the higher wage is pending.

Highlighting the minimum wage hike is also strategic: Orlando trial attorney John Morgan is flirting with a gubernatorial campaign of his own. His top issue? Raising the minimum wage. Levine derided Florida's $8.10 hourly wage at least four times in Tuesday's Herald interview. He and Morgan had a friendly meeting in September, Levine said. Morgan tweeted about it at the time.

"When you live on caviar and champagne, you have no right to come down on those who worry about the price of bread," Levine said.

Levine said his candidacy will offer voters the right mix of private and public experience for Democrats to win the Governor's Mansion for the first time in two decades.

"I've had a pretty successful career, starting from nothing and building companies and then serving as a two-term mayor," Levine said. "Kind of shows that I can get things done."