Jeff Greene says he’ll spend whatever it takes to win Florida’s governor race

"Everyone asks me for numbers. The reality is whatever it takes," said Greene, who invested $24 million into his failed 2010 U.S. Senate campaign
Jeff Greene, campaigning for U.S. Senate, in 2010 [LARA CERRI, Times]
Jeff Greene, campaigning for U.S. Senate, in 2010 [LARA CERRI, Times]
Published June 13, 2018|Updated June 13, 2018

Jeff Greene says everybody wants to know the same thing now that he's officially running for Florida governor: How much of his own money will the billionaire spend on his campaign?

A more interesting question might ask how much he's willing to spend to get other Democrats elected.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Greene said he'd seek to play kingmaker in state legislative races this summer by dumping cash into competitive state House and Senate races if he wins the Democratic nomination. A real estate tycoon with a net worth estimated at around $4 billion, Greene has the kind of cash to make him a counterbalance to, say, Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas gaming magnate who has dumped at least $10 million into conservative Florida campaigns since 2010 — the last time Greene ran for statewide office.

"Everyone asks me for numbers. The reality is whatever it takes," said Greene, who invested $24 million into his failed 2010 U.S. Senate campaign. "We're not going to just throw money around. We'll spend as little as we have to but as much as we need to."

Greene, who tossed out the number $200 million when talking Tuesday to the Associated Press, has continued to contribute to other Democrats over the past eight years. He gave $4,600 in 2014, for instance, to the congressional campaign of Gwen Graham, whom he's now running against. But, perhaps with the number 200 on his mind Tuesday, he mentioned $200,000 when speaking hypothetically about his ability to influence competitive general election races through political committee donations heading into November were he to be the Democratic nominee.

"When I win the nomination I'll be getting involved in other races. I hope the Republicans read this and understand the days of easy rides to controlling the House and Senate are over for good," said Greene, whose enthusiasm waned when asked if he'd do the same should he lose. "I'll be doing whatever it takes to go toe to toe dollar-wise to get the message out in the general election."

Political strategists and his opponents were skeptical of Greene's chances to win the Democratic nomination when he quietly filed to run this month (without officially announcing his campaign or talking to the press for days). But Greene's money makes him a threat, since the question isn't whether he can dump millions into TV ads but how much he's willing to spend.

"All bets are off if he spends $50 million, and unlike his last attempt spends it in away that compels voters to support him," Democratic consultant Steven Vancore said as news spread that Greene had filed to run.

Greene spoke to the Miami Herald late Tuesday night after a day of interviews, his first since filing paperwork June 1 to seek the Democratic nomination against Andrew Gillum, Graham, Chris King and Philip Levine. Greene said he'd stayed quiet because he needed to get his campaign team set up first.

A few notes from the conversation:

Policy: Greene gets into a race that is already well under way, in which his future opponents have already set the table for important talking points. He says he supports a $15 minimum wage and wants to ban assault weapons and force universal background checks, positions that align him with the field. He supports marijuana decriminalization but says he needs to do more research on legalization before taking a concrete position on recreational weed, and intends to push for two years of free pre-K for young children.

Greene, who founded a small Palm Beach private school several years ago, says education is his passion now. He and his wife have three boys.

Trump: Greene struck a conciliatory tone with Donald Trump early in the president's tenure, calling for Americans to get behind their president immediately after his election in a Forbes article. But the Palm Beach resident on Tuesday stressed that he never supported Trump, and called the president a "national embarrassment." He said he long ago gave up hope that Trump's rhetoric was just a campaign ploy.

"I was always hopeful he'd be able to get under control and prove and address some of the issues. What we've seen is he's only gotten much worse," said Greene, pointing to Trump's controversial remarks after violent race riots in Charlottesville. "I do live in a community where a lot of people support him… But I can see fraud when it's there in front of me. He's a fraud."

Greene says it's possible he's still a member at Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach (he wasn't sure), and the Palm Beach resident attends events on occasion. But he says it's been years since he used any of the amenities afforded club members. "I quit Mar-a-Lago three years ago. We never really used the place."

Polling: Greene polled the race before he decided to run. He said the point wasn't as much to see how he'd fare but to see whether any of his opponents have caught fire. So far, based on a query this month by SEA Polling & Strategic Design, Levine, the former mayor of Miami Beach, is leading with just under a third of the vote.

"The leader is clearly Mr. Undecided. None of these candidates have really been able to inspire the voters," Greene said.

Personal: When Greene ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, his personal life was a dominant theme in media coverage. Stories ran about parties aboard his yacht, Summerwind, and about his friendship with erratic boxer Mike Tyson, for example.

Greene, 63, always pushed back hard on those stories. And he says he's now entirely family-driven. He said Tuesday that he's focused on raising his boys and using his money to improve the state. He and his wife have taken the Giving Pledge, in which billionaires like Warren Buffett have committed to giving their fortunes away to philanthropic causes when they die.