TAMPA — Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine touted his credentials as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and environmental advocate in a gathering at the home of a South Tampa environmental activist Thursday.
He also gave what he said is the answer to a question Democrats often ask themselves, but rarely speak out loud, as he did: "How can this Miami Beach Jewish Democrat win statewide?"
The answer, Levine said: As a successful businessman who's both "pro-business and pro-people," he can appeal to members of both parties.
"I'm not left, I'm not right, I'm forward," he said.
Levine's appearance before a crowd of about two dozen at the home of Sierra Club member Ed Golly was part of a statewide bus tour he began Tuesday in response to Gov. Rick Scott's State of the State speech.
But it's largely an effort to boost his name recognition among Democrats in a primary in which he trails in polls behind former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham.
Most Democrats in the polls — like several at Levine's appearance Thursday — say they're undecided in the primary and chiefly want to pick the candidate who can end the party's 20-year string of gubernatorial losses.
"It's still early," said Golly. "I'd definitely pick him over any Republican, but I mainly want to hear what he has to say."
That string of losses, Levine noted in an interview, included four by moderate, Tampa Bay-area candidates, the kind some Democrats say are more electable than a South Floridian.
Levine noted that most of the state's population lives south of Interstate 4 and a major chunk of the state's Democrats are in South Florida.
"I'd wonder how you can win if you aren't from South Florida," he said.
Levine's tour includes 10 cities, with events focused on a constituency or issue — students in Gainesville, Puerto Ricans at an Orlando event where Levine showed off his Spanish.
Invitees Thursday included Sierra Club Chair Kent Bailey, Democratic Environmental Caucus Chairman Michael Newett and University of South Florida emeritus pediatrics Prof. Lynn Ringenberg of Physicians for Social Responsibility, along with other Democrats.
Levine has a built-in issue on which to appeal to the environmental community — the work done during his tenure in Miami Beach to combat sea level rise due to global warming.
But he also emphasized his administration's enactment of an ordinance to raise the local minimum wage to $13.31 by 2021, which led to a lawsuit by the state and business groups.
"We're being sued by more entities than I thought possible, but it was the right thing to do," he said.
"You can't live on $8.25 an hour." Levine said. "We've become a state of WalMarts and McDonalds."
Besides the bus tour, Levine is also the first candidate in the race to do significant television advertising.
He's spent $1.5 million on TV since November, and said in the interview that he intends to keep ads running through election day in a campaign he estimates will cost $100 million.
But with a nine-digit fortune from the sale of his cruise ship entertainment business, and access to the entertainment industry and Clinton fundraising networks, he has also raised more — about $4 million — than any other Democrat and contributed more of his own money, another $4 million.
Levine once considered running for governor as a no-party candidate. Asked why he didn't by Tampa Young Democrats officer Tristan Pike, he recounted his efforts as a surrogate spokesman for the Hillary Clinton campaign and work on minimum wage and other Democratic causes.
Pike said she was satisfied with Levine's Democratic credentials.
But NAACP Chairman Yvette Lewis was less happy with Levine's answer to what he plans to do "for the African-American community."
Levine responded by recounting his reforms of the Miami Beach police department after accusations of a racially motivated police shooting, and his hope to create "opportunity … the opportunity to go to college (and) to earn a living" with "an economic program that's focused on the African-American community as well as every community."
Lewis said she wanted a more specific answer concerning race issues — "He didn't really answer."